On Orkney’s mainland, on a narrow strip between two lochs, is the Ring of Brodgar, 27 stones forming a perfect circle, half a mile around. From a distance, the seven to 14 foot-high slabs are an imposing sight, squaring up across a centre of quaking heather. It seems more a geological feature than a human one, the stone colours matching greyscale hills in the distance. But a closer look shows comforting traces of people. ‘Walk the Ring of Brodgar and you are witness to the signatures of a vast visitor’s book,’ says Sonia Overall, writer of this Discovering Britain viewpoint. Names have been scratched into the rock surface for centuries, criss-crossing each other under lichens.
These inscriptions can give glimpses of history. ‘Much of the graffiti here dates from the second half of the 19th century,’ explains Overall. ‘This is significantly later than the medieval carvings you might spot in English churches, or the chiselled names of Georgian visitors to Avebury or Stonehenge.’ She speculates this could be because literacy became more common in the 1870s, around the time the Education Act became effective on the island. Once able to read and write, visitors might have been more tempted to leave signatures behind.
Some signatures are much older. In 1907, when one of the fallen stones was lifted off the grass in a preservation operation, its face revealed twig runes – a type of Norse writing, possibly from the hands of a Viking. One translation deciphers the runes to read ‘Bjorn’. Today it can be found on the third stone clockwise from the ring’s northwest entrance. ‘Was Bjorn an early heritage sightseer, drawn by the mysterious henge,’ asks Overall. If so, it is likely Bjorn would have made his carving during the 12th century. Back then, the henge would already have been over 4,000 years old and just as mysterious as it is to us now.
The reasons for the site are still a mystery to archaeologists. In 2012, the ground-breaking discovery of a large temple complex suggested that the Ring of Brodgar, and its sister site, the Standing Stones of Stenness, were part of a larger centre for Neolithic ritual. While the ring’s past visitors were unaware of these discoveries, their signatures help to punctuate its long history. Millennia become a little easier to comprehend.
This was published in the March 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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