This region encompasses part of the northern Highlands, the coastal lowlands of the north-east mainland and the archipelago of Orkney. As in the Hebrides, north-west and western Scotland, developer-funded archaeology has played a relatively minor role in producing evidence of the Neolithic, whereas research-based archaeology has a long tradition, extending back to Alexander Rhind’s excavations of chambered tombs in Caithness in 1853 and Petrie’s (and others’) investigations of various tombs in Orkney during the second half of the 19th century (Henshall 1963, 45). More recently, the concentration of resources on studying Orkney’s spectacular archaeology from the 1970s onwards has led to calls for a redressing of the balance (eg Barclay 2000) and this has largely been achieved, although further resources are required to continue initiatives such as the excavations at Ness of Brodgar. Orkney also has an unfortunate record of non-resourced and wholly unscientific excavation by landowners, with some finds never having made it into the public domain, despite the existence of Scotland’s strict law of bona vacantia.
The recent radiocarbon dating and analysis of human remains from several Orcadian chamber tombs (Schulting et al. 2010 and forthcoming; Lawrence 2008) has greatly enhanced our understanding of the Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney, and the chronology of their monuments. Fascinating details of human palaeopathology have been obtained from an in-depth study of human remains from Isbister (where a high incidence of illness, and some cranial trauma, have been observed) and Quanterness, and the isotopic analysis of the bones has revealed that the diet was overwhelmingly terrestrial, despite clear evidence for fish bones and other marine resources at sites such as Skara Brae.
Parts of this region had been touched by the Carinated Bowl Neolithic during the early fourth millennium, since pottery of this tradition has been found as far north as Caithness, and there is even a small Alpine axehead known from Caithness. Expansion to Orkney did not, however, occur until the expansion, from the west of Scotland, of groups using passage tombs, probably around the 37th (or late 38th) century BC. This brought the practice of building passage tombs to the north-east mainland as well, and a subsequent interaction between this tradition and the CB-origin tradition can be seen in the superimposition, possibly around 3500 BC, of massive long horned cairns over pre-existing passage tombs, as at Camster Long.
Settlement evidence for the earliest Neolithic presence in this region is sparse; best known are the stone buildings at Knap of Howar (A. Ritchie 1983), but remains of timber houses recently found as part of the Glasgow/Manchester University Cuween-Wideford project reminds us that timber houses were indeed used as far north as this.
The funerary monuments include the aforementioned ‘Orkney-Cromarty-Hebrides’ passage tombs; a peculiarity of this region, both in Orkney and on the mainland, is the stalled chamber format, which seems to echo the structure of houses. Details of the development of funerary monuments need to be clarified, but a clear process of competitive conspicuous consumption can be discerned from at least as early as 3500 BC, with the construction of massive horned cairns and the building of ever-larger and more elaborate stalled cairns and passage tombs (and indeed hybrid forms, as seen at Isbister. The emergence of Maes Howe type passage tombs at some point between 3400 BC and 3100 BC – the dating being hampered by the radiocarbon calibration plateau (Schulting et al. 2010) – indicates a step change in the process of competitive conspicuous consumption.
The material culture of the early Neolithic in Orkney relates closely to that of the north-eastern mainland, especially regarding pottery. The use of Unstan Bowls (and of associated undecorated and decorated pottery) seems to have spread from the mainland to Orkney, probably as part of the archipelago’s initial colonisation by farming communities.
The best-known period is the Late Neolithic, when an apparently highly stratified society had emerged, probably basing its power on the claimed ability to interact with (and influence) supernatural forces. The particular expression of this had been informed by travel to the Boyne Valley, where a flourishing, hierarchical society had been building massive passage tombs. Elements of this theocratic society in Orkney include:
- The construction of Maes Howe-type passage tombs (although other types of chamber tomb may have continued to be built at the same time)
- The construction of the Stones of Stenness (including its henge) during the 29th century BC (and, several centuries later, the construction of the Ring of Brodgar
- The emergence of the area around the Lochs of Stenness and Brodgar as a major centre for ceremonies, in which Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness, standing stones, Barnhouse and the ‘temple complex’ at Ness of Brodgar featured prominently. The associated rituals included the observation of the midsetting sun entering the chamber at Maes Howe during midwinter solstice, and the smashing of maceheads
- A variety of symbols of power, including various forms of macehead, carved stone balls and other unusual carved stone artefacts
- Grooved Ware.
The fame of this part of Orkney must have spread rapidly so that, as with the Boyne Valley, it appears that people came from far and wide to witness (and participate in) the celebrations and the monuments. This accounts for the rapid southward spread of the use of Grooved Ware and of timber and stone circles, as far as southern England (and with Grooved Ware now known from as far away as south-west Ireland).
Key research questions include:
- The need to refine the chronology so that the chronological relationship between the use of Maes Howe-type passage tombs and other tomb types, and of Grooved Ware and non-Grooved Ware, can be understood
- The need to enhance our understanding of early Neolithic settlement and subsistence practices
- There clearly was some long-distance contact between Orkney and southern England around 3000/2900 BC – indeed, the first phase monument at Stonehenge might perhaps even have been inspired by the Stones of Stenness – and again around 2600 BC (when houses at Durrington Walls resemble Skara Brae houses, and when Grooved Ware once more shows similarities from one end of Britain to the other). But were there uninterrupted contacts throughout the first half of the third millennium?