Whilst the Neolithic in Orkney could possibly be considered a bit of a “Golden Age” (lower sea levels, bountiful coastlines for natural resources, higher average temperatures for crop yield) and potentially the instigator for the agricultural package elsewhere in the UK, the Bronze Age is generally considered to be a bit of a “Dark Age”.
More than one archaeologist refers to the Bronze Age in Orkney as a time “when it rained a lot and not a lot happened”.
About 1100 BCE, Orkney goes into a bit of decline in several aspects. Like elsewhere in the UK, the magnificent monumental architecture of the Neolithic ends and there appears to be widespread environmental deterioration caused by global climate change – the evidence is in the dendrochronology records which show poor growth in tree rings for about a decade – the average temperature drops and precipitation rises. Quite possibly as a social response to these disasters, it is possible to see the rise of an elite: communal tombs go out of use and individual barrow mounds replace them, and increasingly there are personal items of adornment found in the archaeological record, gold, amber and jet being especially popular.
In some of the old Neolithic power bases such as Wessex in southern England, burial mounds proliferate in barrow cemeteries, often making spatial reference to earlier Neolithic monuments. Barrow mounds occur in Orkney too, but not in the same numbers or tremendous variety; in Orkney they appear in similar locations, several are around the Ring of Brodgar, for example, others occur on marginal land, at what would have been the edge of fertile farming land. The mounds in Wessex are particularly “rich” in terms of “grave-goods” recovered from them, to the extent that rich barrows are often classified as belonging to the “Wessex culture”. The barrows in Orkney tend to occur singly and don’t tend to be particularly “rich” – although differential antiquarian explorations (i.e. grave-robbing) make account for this – and they all tend to bowl barrow type.
It could be argued that this is evidence that, whilst Orkney was some sort of epicentre for agriculture and the agricultural package – including Neolithic ritual beliefs and practices – spreading out to the British Isles, by the time of the Bronze Age, Orkney had slipped into being a bit of a back-water. Certainly very little bronze is recovered from this period in Orkney.
One barrow cemetery has been identified in West Mainland at a site known as the Knowes of Trotty (HY 342172). This is a linear barrow cemetery of 16 barrows formed into two lines, but on the OS map it is shown as one line of 3 barrows and the other of 4 barrows. This site was excavated in 1858 and more recently re-excavated in 2005. These barrows have been tentatively identified as being of Wessex type because gold in the form of flattened sun discs have been recovered from one of them, plus amber beads. By Orkney standards, these are extremely wealthy barrows! But they pale into insignificance when compared with sites such as Bush Barrow near Stonehenge, for example.
It is possible to visit the Knowes of Trotty today and there are even recent signs providing some guidance to the motorist, but it is best to be equipped with a 1:25,000 OS map. The signs direct the visitor to a farm, and when the instructions say “go through the farm”, they mean it! Park up (considerately) (at HY 334164) and walk (considerately) between the farm buildings to the style and cross to the barrows, some of the largest of which are quite obvious. The barrows are currently covered in heather, making them a little difficult to make out, and this is where a large scale map is particularly useful, or even better download the topographical survey that is available on-line (refer: http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/knowestrotty/index.html). The barrows nearest to the farm are the largest.
This is a delightful site that is quite isolated and where you won’t be disturbed if you plan to meditate or contemplate. Because it is on heathland, some of the wildlife is quite magnificent, including bird species and don’t be surprised to see hen harriers and kestrals. This is a lovely spot and well worth a visit for the atmosphere of a forgotten and temporal grasp at power and status and wealth.
Various items in the past have been considered to be “high status”. In the Neolithic they seemed fond of stone mace heads. Often beautifully shaped and polished, these items were probably never “used” in any sense rather than as something to carry around to denote status. In the Bronze Age they liked shiny things, like gold and things that looked like gold such as amber. Gold is a fairly useless metal unless you want to conduct electricity. It is useful if you wish to make food look stunning because you can eat gold without doing any damage to yourself, your body won’t absorb it and you’ll just excrete it naturally (I have never knowingly tried this and I presume this is small amounts of gold used in gilding for example!). Gold is soft enough to work without heating and it can be flattened and shaped relatively easily just by hammering. Gold keeps its shine – probably the main reason why it is chosen for wedding rings – unlike other metals such as copper and silver. Gold and amber are serious prehistoric “bling”.
The gold and amber found at the Knowes of Trotty displays links with both the Baltic and Wessex, in both raw material and style. These are what archaeologists call “exotic” items – they are not indigenous, they have been brought in. These people were showing off not only the wealth they had, but also their contacts ... this is name-dropping and fashion-following on a grand scale!
In the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, gold abounds in the Bronze Age displays. It is quite easy to see why the legend of the leprechaun arose ... a convenient story for the Victorian peat-cutter who fortuitously stumbles across a buried hoard perhaps? It is clear from some Wessex burials that a lucky few were accumulating vast quantities of wealth and developing with it the need to retain that wealth through the acquisition of weapons. The Bronze Age has been identified as an “arms race”, a minority gaining power and struggling to hold it. And whenever a minority gain power and struggle to hold it, a majority must, by definition, be diminished. This is the problem with capitalism. The sell is the dream, the reality is that someone has to fail, to lose, not everyone can win. And if that is the case, then no matter what you get, you will always be scared of being delegated to loser status, to having it taken away from you – so everyone, in effect, loses.
As an archaeologist, I have seen many things which different people and cultures have considered to be valuable in the past. From shells to particular metals, ridiculous and dangerous fashions, fancy and even poisonous food and drink. People have used envy as a tool to gain status for millennia. And most of the stuff, in my opinion, is no more than tat. It is useless and often ugly, but no one wants to be the one to tell the emperor about his new clothes.
Power and inequality are increasingly in the news at the current time of writing and neither archaeology nor spirituality operate in a vacuum. When I sit at places like the Knowes of Trotty, I think on the princelings (and princesslings) who thought they could “take it all with them”. How many slaves were exchanged for those gold discs? How many ill or disabled or old people – those not fully productive – went hungry so that there was a surplus of food to trade for the amber? How many of those of lesser status had to provide time to construct the barrow, torn away from their own land perhaps? What were the consequences for their dependents that their land wasn’t subsequently as productive as it might have been?
And for what? An eroding mound. A forgotten ritual. A disposal of an anonymous body. All gone, all gone to nothing. The irony is that The Knowes of Trotty, in a direct line, is not too far from our peedie (=little) house; it is quite possible that the folk buried in all their finery under those mounds once “owned” the land that we now “own” because the County Archaeologist for Orkney has advised me that our land (now covered in heather and peat bog and fairly useless for anything “productive”) may be a preserved Bronze Age farming landscape.
Some archaeologists think that capitalism has its roots in the Bronze Age. I believe that there is a change in the human brain / mind at this time and that this was when the modern ego developed, when people started to think about “me” rather than “we”. When people started to really get to grips with ownership and exploitation. This is illustrated by the rise in demarcation of territory which goes on during this period, particularly in the form of field boundaries: this is mine, not yours, keep out of mine.
I am too political for my own good. A child of the 1960s, I was inculcated with idealistic ideas that I could change the world through radical behaviour and anarchic protests. I am mature enough now to know that I cannot, but I am still far too opinionated, on everything.
One of the things that I really like about Orkney is how difficult it is to be materialistic. Oh sure, there are folk with fancy cars, but if you drive an old banger you won’t be judged for it and the small garages up here will try to fix it for you. Likewise, you can wear the smartest clothing but when the rains start it had better be waterproof. Big houses cost a fortune to heat and our petrol is roughly 15p a litre more than off-island, at those prices you learn to think carefully about every car journey.
I don’t shop as a hobby any more. The lack of most “high street” stores in Orkney has meant less opportunities to window-shop and this has helped me to differentiate between what I want and what I need. I no longer have things suggested to me by advertisers; I resist being taught that my life is lacking all the time I fail to own a particular item. I still live well, incredibly well by most of the world’s standards, but I live on a lot less than I used to before I moved here, and I have learnt to waste less too. I’ve always been into “saving the planet” and recycling, but it was not until I was forced to that I became “green”. And I have had plenty of time to reflect that absolutely nothing material that I have has ever brought me more than a transitory happiness, and some of it has brought me regrets.
It often isn’t until I explain my life to others that I realise just how alternative my lifestyle is. I have a weekly trip to a local builders’ skip, for example, where I am allowed to take out any wood. I do this before I go to work in the mornings. The builder is happy – costs him less to have the contents of the skip taken away – and I get free fuel for the wood-burning stove, even the scraps make kindling. I shop when I know food will be discounted and I keep a well-stocked freezer; previously I would throw excess food away, now I cook less and freeze more. And I mend my clothes!!!
I’m not sure if this has necessarily made me “happier”. I still remember the buzz from a bit of retail therapy, the short enjoyment of an acquisition, but that happiness was illusory and brief. I am pleased that I rule my spending and not the other way around, this gives me a sense of control and freedom, but I think even that is a part of the dreamscape and it is possible to go beyond that self-congratulatory ego state: we are never fully in control!
In many societies, wealth and power are usually partners and as well as these thoughts on my changing attitudes to money, this burial site has also led me to contemplate power. In many ways, moving to Orkney and leaving so many support systems behind, was an experience of power-loss for me. I enjoyed the status of the job I had before, I liked telling others what I did, and I was proud of it because it was so interesting. I enjoyed my friends and family near me too. I had a lovely home in a good location. I lost all of those things when I moved to Orkney – it was the ultimate bridge-burning exercise.
That job, in many ways, gave me power. It was responsible, it was respected, it was professional, and it was reasonably well-rewarded (wealth). I had not fully acknowledged this before as power is something which I suspect I have tried to shove into my shadow. Outwardly, I would tell you that I don’t like and don’t want power, more truthfully, I don’t want responsibility: everyone wants power – until they get it and realise what a pain it is to hold onto it and how much responsibility it is!
I have never been shy of admitting that my first steps onto the Pagan path were far from noble ones – I started off by studying magick far more than being interested in any Pagan religion or spirituality, and I did so because I wanted stuff and (being even more painfully honest) vengeance. Yes, I was young and naive and fully immersed in Malkuth, this material world which we initially perceive as the one and only reality. It worked too! I was enriched and empowered and some quite weird coincidences happened which led me to question quite how potent these forces were, especially when stuff would suddenly appear – like magick!
Over the years, I started to use magick more to heal, bring positive changes, and more recently (embarrassingly recently since I’ve been at this for 20 years) to change only myself. I find now that I need to do less and less magick, in many ways, everything is already perfect just as it is. Or it sorts itself out if I resist the urge to tweak and fiddle ...
When I moved to Orkney, the post of Local Organiser for the Scottish Pagan Federation was vacant and I volunteered (a post I share with my husband). The key word here is “organiser” – I found that very little was being organised for Pagans in Orkney and I started to plan monthly Moots and celebrations of the seasonal rituals at the Ring of Brodgar. More recently, I have been forced to reflect on whether this was simply another bid of my ego to grasp at a semblance of power and status or whether it was to truly serve the Pagan community. I know what I like to think but I suspect far more changes will be required before my ego stops charging in to grab some of the action at every opportunity ... I remain, very much, a spiritual work in progress.