Stone was used to construct monuments over large parts of Neolithic Scotland, and in the Northern Isles, where wood was scarce, it was used extensively in the construction of houses and their internal fittings – which is why Skara Brae has survived as northern Europe’s best preserved settlement. (In the Western Isles, where wood was equally scarce, stone does not feature in domestic architecture as prominently, but this is probably because greater use was made of turf there, and also the stone may not have been as easy to work as the tabular Orkney flagstone.)
The skill of the Neolithic stoneworkers is obvious from the Ness of Brodgar, which has produced some of the most accomplished examples of drystone wall construction in the whole of prehistoric Europe. The aesthetic and ideological significance of stone is clear from examples such as the arrangement of flags to form a design similar to that seen on Unstan bowl collars at Unstan chamber tomb (and elsewhere in Orkney): verily the tomb was used as a ‘vessel for the ancestors’ (cf. Sharples & Sheridan 1992).
Until recently, however, relatively little attention was paid in Scotland to the sourcing of structural stone, to its working, or to the reasons behind the use of specific types of stone. However, Colin Richards’ work on seeking the source of the stone used to create the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, and the Calanais monuments on Lewis, has directed attention to questions of stone quarrying and movement, while work by Alexandra Shepherd (2000) on the decoration of structural stone and internal fittings at Skara Brae has led the way in exploring how stone could be used to express identity.
This work continues in the current research by Antonia Thomas, who is reviewing all decorated stone in Neolithic Orkney and in particular the adornment of stone – not just by incising designs but also by painting, at Ness of Brodgar. Other adornment of stone takes the form of the designs – some relatively simple, others complex – found on Maes Howe-type passage tombs in Orkney.
Furthermore, John Barber’s experimental reconstruction and collapsing of a chamber tomb has explored issues of the architectural and engineering aspects of building in stone (following his earlier work on the construction of the Point of Cott (Barber 1997) and on the construction of chamber tombs in general (Barber 1992), and it has also shown what happens when a structure collapses. This has provided invaluable insights into the movement of chamber tomb deposits as a result of structural collapse.
Other aspects of stone use have, however, received relatively little attention, and in the light of recent research by others such as Richard Bradley, David Trevarthen, and Emmanuel Mens on monuments in Scotland and elsewhere, the following research questions could usefully be addressed
- To what extent was colour, texture or other properties of stone a factor in the selection of particular stones for use, and their specific positioning, in monument construction? The use of quartz, for example, may well have had particular significance, especially given its later use in some recumbent stone circles, and given the practice of ritually smashing quartz. The importance of colour selection has been highlighted by Richard Bradley’s work on the Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age Clava cairns (Bradley 2000).
- Can the châine opératoire of monument construction be reconstructed, using the principles of ‘virtual refitting’ as used to such striking effect by Emmanuel Mens in his examination of the construction of Carnac in Brittany? If so, how were outcrops exploited, and was there any significance in the choice of which face of the rock (i.e. quarried, vs weathered) was used in a particular position in a monument?
- Continuing the research of Colin Richards, how far was stone moved in order to create specific monuments? Is there any patterning in its use by monument type? Was the stone brought from various locations as ‘tribute’ from differing social groups?
- Can particular traditions in the architectural use of stone be identified (other than the fine use of Orkney flagstone in Orkney)?