By Kenneth Brophy
The screen fills with dark brooding standing stones raked by orange sunlight. A sonorous voiceover kicks in: “Stonehenge. On the plains of southern England”. Is this the introduction to yet another documentary about the most famous megalithic monument in the world? You would be forgiven for thinking so. In fact, it is the preamble to each of the three episodes of the TV show Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney, broadcast on the BBC across the UK in January 2017. This juxtaposition of Stone Age Stonehenge and Orkney may have seemed curious to most viewers, but to many archaeologists this was all too familiar. It was also a sign for me that this documentary was likely to disappear down a dead end of its own making, missing the chance to celebrate the distinctiveness of one of the greatest archaeological regions in Europe, the Orcadian Neolithic.
It all seemed so innocent – a BBC TV show celebrating the amazing prehistoric archaeology of the Orkney Islands, an archipelago off the northern coast of Scotland. Presented by Neil Oliver and his team of a naturalist, an engineer and an ‘adventurer’, this was a rare opportunity for big Neolithic discoveries and fresh research on small rodents to reach a peak time TV audience. It was also a chance to celebrate Nick Card’s dig at the remarkable Ness of Brodgar, one of the most exciting excavations in Europe today. While some of the experimental work shown was fascinating, the series also provoked unrest in surprising ways. Some Scottish nationalists took to social media to query the frequent use of the word Britain, but rarely Scotland, while the presence of Neil Oliver, a prominent voice against Scottish independence, led others to suggest the show was little more than a BBC Scotland No-vote propaganda piece. As a prehistorian, I am fascinated by how accounts of events that happened 5,000 years ago can tap into issues of national identity, but the programme caused me unease in another way, which goes right to the heart of how we study Neolithic, Stone Age, Britain.
It goes back to the start. Stonehenge and Orkney, as Neil Oliver helpfully notes, are “500 miles” apart. However, in the show they are continually connected culturally. The conceit of the documentary is essentially that the stone circle idea and other associated cultural traits emerged in Orkney in the middle of the fourth millennium BC, at the beginning of a rather sinister sounding 1000-year-long “golden era”. These cultural traits – monuments, material culture, house layouts, maybe other things not specified in the show – were then disseminated across the rest of Britain. This resulted in the emergence of "Britain’s first common culture”, in the form of a “cult that swept Britain and culminated in Stonehenge”. This amazing revelation was all the more remarkable because Orkney is so remote and on the “edge of the world”. All of this is summed up in the nonsensical title for the show Britain’s Ancient Capital, which makes no sense in a Neolithic context, a time when there was no Britain, no Scotland, no England; the concept ‘cultural capital’ misunderstands the nature of social organisation in the fourth millennium BC, how society worked back then and how people perceived their world. Perhaps most disappointing of all in this narrative is that, not only does it simply rehash one of the more tired old clichés of British prehistory, it casts Orkney not as a spectacular place in its own right, but merely the appetiser in the run up to the emergence of the main course, the “supremacy of Stonehenge”. This should be all about Orkney – but it was not. Why?
Stonehenge, situated in the heart of the old English county of Wessex, and Orkney in the far north of Scotland, have long been regarded as core regions within Britain in the Neolithic period. As high watermarks of cultural life, monumentality and innovation, their positions are maintained not just by the quality of the surviving evidence, but also by the disproportionate labour, intellect and investment put into these places by the archaeological establishment that goes back to the nineteenth century. Sites and monuments in Wessex and Orkney have therefore been studied more intensively, and had more time and money spent on them, than any other place or region within mainland Britain. This has inevitably been to the detriment of the diverse Neolithics we have across the rest of the country, from Cornwall to eastern lowland Scotland, and from Yorkshire to Shetland. Jan Harding has termed this phenomenon ‘using the unique as typical’ and Britain’s Ancient Capital falls into this long tradition, setting up Orkney (and by default Stonehenge) as both norms and high water marks in Neolithic culture. It is telling that Stonehenge was mentioned countless times in the programme, and yet not once was any other region, or Neolithic site, anywhere else in Britain mentioned. To have done so would have exposed the ‘common culture / stone circle cult’ myth to the harsh reality of the archaeological record, which shows wide cultural variation across Britain throughout the period.
There is an interestingly Scottish dimension to this argument. In 2001, archaeologist Gordon Barclay wrote a paper for the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society that laid bare, with laser sharp precision, a series of assumptions, decisions and theories that dominated British Neolithic studies for generations. He argued that the Neolithic of Scotland has been ill served by the British archaeological establishment, dogged by perception of Scotland being entirely Highland. (Gordon Childe wrote in the 1930s, that in the Neolithic “Scotland cannot have been an inviting country for agricultural settlement”.) The ‘English Neolithic’ has been repeatedly conflated with the ‘British Neolithic’ causing evidence from Scotland to be at best misunderstood, at worst ignored, in grand British narratives, a phenomenon evident even when Barclay wrote his critique. This was not about national identities in the Stone Age past (there was no such thing) but rather about the ways that modern political boundaries and preconceptions could imbalance the study of prehistory. Intriguingly, the key exception to the Anglicisation of the Neolithic of the place we now call Scotland has been, of course, Orkney. Barclay noted, almost as if he had foreseen Neil Oliver’s commentary, that the “Orcadian evidence is still used to cast light on or fill in the gap in the settlement record to the south, in the creation of largely southern English narratives of the Neolithic”. This is because there has been a general unwillingness to see Orkney as “recipients rather than originators of change”.
In many respects, therefore, the underlying premise of Britain’s Ancient Capital was not an innovative and exciting new development, but rather an argument that could have been written in the 1950s, repeating tropes and traps that I had hoped were consigned to the history of prehistory writing. Interestingly, the Orkney-Stonehenge axis of the programme was something pushed by the commentary on the show but by almost none of the archaeologists interviewed, other than Mike Parker Pearson, an eminent British prehistorian based in London and best known to the public for his extensive research into and writing about... Stonehenge. Ness of Brodgar dig director Nick Card said in a tweet responding to some of my thoughts on the title of the programme that he had no say on the marketing or editing of the show. This is fair enough, and my limited exposure to the world of television has taught me well enough it is a very different game from archaeology and academia. It is all the more frustrating, then, that the programme chose as its hook the Orkney-as-capital narrative, rather than the more compelling – and I would say more realistic – Orkney-is-amazing narrative.
There is no doubt in the Neolithic period that Orkney was an amazing place, a centre of innovation that did impact on the rest of Britain, although via mechanisms we do not yet understand. Radiocarbon dating suggests that earthwork enclosures we call henges and the first flat-based pottery (Grooved Ware) emerged in Orkney, and examples of both are found widely (but not everywhere) across Britain. House shapes and furnishings of similar type can be found on Orkney and Durrington Walls, next to Stonehenge, as the show mentioned (but as of yet, have been found nowhere else). So, some ideas from Orkney did spread across Britain. But other wonderful things did not – the Ness of Brodgar extravagances for instance, including spectacular buildings and walls, roofing flagstones and painted stonework, but also human figurines. Furthermore, amazing passage tombs such as Maes Howe were being built centuries after such megalith building traditions died out elsewhere in Britain. Exciting ideas and new ways of doing things that are compelling to visitors and evangelised by travellers emerged on Orkney precisely because Orkney was atypical, weird, strange and wonderful in the Neolithic, an island place where such things just might be possible.
Almost nowhere else in Britain did communities replicate the great excesses of Orkney because Orkney was not a cultural capital, it was a strange cult centre where they were building retro tombs, making the same style of pots for 1000 years, obsessively building bigger and better, and replicating the same architectural motifs across a wide range of structures with different functions. If I was looking for a modern ‘parallel’ for Orkney (rather than falling back on Easter Island clichés) I would suggest Summerisle, the fictional island in the 1973 movie The Wicker Man. Here, an island community has through a combination of necessity and innovation merged various religious traditions to come up with distinctive rituals, practices, material culture and monumental structures, which have become something of an obsession, a society where more or less every act feeds into belief and the maintenance of that community and its power structures, while still offering a version of wider social norms (school, post office, pub). If only Sergeant Howie had made it back from the island, and taken some of the locals with him, perhaps this stone circle cult would have spread, and enormous combustible wicker men and giant baby-shaped cakes become compelling lifestyle choices for those on the mainland. Orkney was like an exploded version of Summerisle in the Neolithic, but without the human sacrifice; it was not an ancient version of Rome, sending missionaries out to all corners of the land, and it was not Britain’s ancient capital. Orkney would have been regarded by most inhabitants of Britain 5000 years ago (if indeed they knew of such a place) as a mythical island of legend where things were done differently and on an epic scale.
There was much to interest and admire in Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney and it is a shame that the makers of the programme chose to cast Orkney as warm up act for Stonehenge, rather than celebrate the strange and wonderful uniqueness of the archipelago. Viewers were left with the impression of a uniform Neolithic culture across Britain, radiating out from Orkney and reaching its apex in Stonehenge. This is a real shame as the spaces in between – everything else in the British Neolithic in other words – were never considered. The atypical was celebrated as the norm, when it could and should have been celebrated as, well, atypical. Because Orkney’s exceptional qualities are what make it different, not the same, as everywhere else, today and in the Neolithic.
* Source: Gordon Barclay 2001 ‘Metropolitan’ and ‘Parochial’ / ‘Core’ and ‘Periphery’: a historiography of the Neolithic of Scotland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society volume 67, pages 1-18.
Kenneth Brophy is Senior Lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow, with 20 years of experience of directing excavations of Neolithic monuments and settlement sites across Scotland, and has published widely on issues related to the British Neolithic. He blogs as the Urban Prehistorian.
Header photograph: The Ring of Brodgar, Orkney by Jenny Laird CC 2.0
All three episodes of Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney are available on BBC iPlayer until early February 2017.