The Mysteries of Shetland’s Neolithic Past

2,500-Mile Hike, Neolithic, Shetland
Take a walk through Shetland’s Stone Age sites where questions are still left unanswered.

It growled and raced towards us, now roaring, as silence fell momentarily upon my lips. I craned my neck around and hunched my back, trying to defend myself from its path. The archaeologists beside me were unperturbed by the wind’s advance and continued talking above the howl.

Bernard Gilhooly shouted through the gusts as he held a tool made by Shetland’s Neolithic people. “They were just like modern-day humans,” he explained. “They looked the same physically, and they would have felt the same, emotionally.”

“They couldn’t have felt the wind like us, surely. It’s freezing up here!” his colleague, Joanne Gaffrey, joked as she shivered.

We were huddled in a slight dip of land on Grut Wells, a hill in North Roe, Shetland, as the wind cried out around us. The Scottish landscape was awash with the sub-arctic terrain of woolly-fringe moss scattered with pink granite. To the untrained eye, it looked pretty ordinary. Yet to the team of archaeologists from University College Dublin, it was the key to the past.

Shetland's Neolithic past - felsite Dig
Dr Gabriel Cooney and his team of archaeologists at Shetland’s Neolithic dig at a felsite quarry.

Headed up by Neolithic expert, Dr Gabriel Cooney, a trench was being excavated to see how settlers approximately 5,500 years ago mined for the unique rock, felsite, found only in Shetland. Grey in colour, its properties were prized for making both work axes and ceremonial knives.

“What we’re starting to see is that the scale of quarrying is larger than we imagined in this area,” Gabriel said as he stretched out his arm to the sea of pink rock, speckled with shards of grey. “On our dig last year we didn’t extend far enough, so this year we’re hoping to discover the extent of their quarry. It’s deeper than we thought.”

The realisation of how advanced Neolithic people were in terms of understanding their environment and working it to their advantage is becoming evident thanks to excavations and discoveries such as this one.

I’d been fortunate to reach this two-week dig as part of my 2,500-mile hike through British history. I was starting as far back as the Neolithic period at the top of the country and working my way south through time and places from 3,500BC to 2018.

Val Turner, the county archaeologist in Shetland, had been instrumental in helping with my route. “Shetland is a special place archaeologically,” she smiled. Although not as grand or on as large a scale as Orkney, it still has plenty to offer in terms of archaeological riches of Neolithic domestic life. “And I think it’s just as impressive, if not more, for that reason,” she added.

I met Val again in a windswept field where she took me to a perfectly built heel-shaped cairn. It was a grassy two-foot deep hollow in the ground, with stones around the sides. “This is the best cairn in Shetland,” she told me and I was suitably impressed. It had been used as a burial chamber in Shetland’s Neolithic period. A few representative bones from the dead were buried in the tomb, and then, presumably removed when it became too full. It’s a mystery as to how they procured the bones, who they decided would be buried here and what they did with the rest of the body because no complete human skeletons have been found in Shetland’s Neolithic cairns.

Shetland's Neolithic sites - Scord of Brouster
Scord of Brouster in Shetland

Prior to meeting Val on that blustery afternoon, I had visited the oldest settlement in Shetland, the Scord of Brouster. The remains of three round houses dating back to 3,000BC look out over a peat bog to a nearby loch. Thousands of years ago, it was arable land where barley was farmed. Now it is tufts of grass and squelching bog which jumped over my boots on several occasions.

As the weather decided if it was going to be kind to me or not (it wasn’t), I headed over to Stanydale Temple. It’s a brilliantly preserved piece of Shetland Neolithic architecture. Its carefully tendered grassy topped walls are like manicured nails on a weathered hand, as it sits neatly in a pot-holed field.

Shetland's Neolithic past - Stanydale Temple
Stanydale Temple, one of Shetland’s Neolithic sites

I walked eagerly through the narrow entrance to a large, round interior, the chest-high walls still perfectly complete. Stones weighing up to 300kg each were brought from elsewhere, leaving the question of where they came from and how. Traces of a spruce and pine roof found when Stanydale was excavated, neither of which are native to Shetland, also left archaeologists scratching their heads. While it’s not conclusive, one theory is that the wooden roof was made from driftwood washed ashore.

“You’re like detectives without witnesses,” I said to Gabriel when we met.
With a wry smile he said, “Yes, I guess we are.”

While no one knows for certain what Stanydale was used for, the lack of domestic tools rules out a house. In 1949 during its excavation, Charles Calder decided that its similarity to temples found in Malta from the same period deemed it a place of worship. Whether it was, or whether it was a ‘community hall’, the structure is remarkable.

Taking Val and Gabriel’s advice, I walked to impressive locations with striking views, covering some 130 miles. The rugged terrain, uninterrupted by modern development, allows these incredible Neolithic sites to remain intact, some of them 5,500 years after they were built. There are no cordons, no manned areas, just sheep and bog. Plenty of bog. It seems that many people understand and respect their environment in Shetland now just as archaeologists are seeing how Neolithic people understood theirs.

Shetland's Neolithic sites
A foundation of a house and standing stones in Shetland

This is a short article on Shetland’s Neolithic past with the aim of writing a book about my walk through Britain which will cover this, and more, in further detail.

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