Found: The Real Town of ‘Bedrock’

Archaeologists aren't saying 'yabba-dabba-do,' but one team has uncovered a stone age city that deserves a little cheering

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Knap of Howar, the oldest standing house in western Europe, Papa Westray, Orkney Islands, Scotland.

Nobody pretends we know everything about the people of the Stone Age, but a few things are settled. They definitely didn’t drive cars powered by their feet. They didn’t keep barking dinosaurs as housepets (the last Dino—domesticated or not—had vanished 65 million years earlier). And from what we know about Neolithic music, they almost certainly didn’t have a theme song.

But while the veracity of humanity’s favorite Neoliths, The Flinstones, was clearly never peer-reviewed, one small part of their story seems to have been true: There was—sort of, kind of—a town of Bedrock, and it was a remarkably complex place. The proper name of the ancient community is the Orkney Islands, located 25 mi. (40 km) off the northernmost coast of Scotland. That may be quite at the fringes of the modern developed world, but a newly released study in Science shows that 5,000 years ago, it was very much at the center of things.

The latter period of the Stone Age, more properly known as the Neolithic, ended about 4,000 years ago and was characterized by elaborate work with—no surprise here—stone. The most famous of all the great stone monuments of the era is Stonehenge, built in southern England about 4,600 years ago. In some respects that’s late in the game: Europe‘s first stone monuments were erected in southeastern Turkey 11,000 years ago, and as far back as 8,500 years ago, stonework was fairly widespread across Europe.

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But there’s stonework and there’s stonework, and nowhere in the world was the skill more brilliantly or creatively mastered than on one of the Orkney Islands, beginning about 4,800 years ago.  The particular site that is the focus of the Science study is known as the Ness of Brodgar and was discovered in 2003, when a local farmer was digging in a field and unearthed a stone that was marked and notched in ways that were clearly the work of a primitive hand. Archaeologists had never seen anything like those particular markings and flocked to the site.

The digs that have taken place since and which are now led by archaeologist Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), involve a 30,000 sq. yd. (25,000sq. m) site, only 10% of which has been fully uncovered so far. Even that relatively small fraction of excavated land is revealing something remarkable. The Ness is located on an isthmus between two lochs—one freshwater and one salt water—and its focal point was a 600 sq. yd (500 sq. m) meeting hall with walls up to 4.3 yds (4 m) thick. It was surrounded by a complex of stone buildings covering 12,000 sq. yds. (10,000 sq. m)—or two football fields—with up to a dozen stone monoliths reaching 20 ft. (6 m) in height and 60 others measuring 15 ft. (4.5 m). The entire complex spans almost the complete width of the isthmus.

Whatever was going on here, it was big and it was bustling. Constructing and maintaining a complex this big would have required a population of at least 10,000 people. And the artifacts that have been unearthed with the architecture, including pottery and animal bones, reveal that the site was used for ceremonies and feasting. Indeed, it’s those animal remains that allow the overall complex to be pegged in history so precisely, since radiocarbon dating can only be performed on organic materials.

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Despite its remote location, Oakney was attractive to its ancient residents because its soil and climate made it a fertile place to grow grains and cereals. And the fact that it was an agrarian community is not a surprise. Most archaeologists believe that in the pre-agricultural era, hunter-gatherers never bothered to change their surroundings much, in part because they were never in any one place terribly long. But the very definition of an agricultural community is that it claims and tames the land, and once you’ve imposed your will on your surroundings that way, dragging stones and building  structures is just one more step in the art of terraforming.

Archaeologist Jane Downes of Oakney College on Mainland believes that the Ness might have been a power center, controlled by Neolithic elites. The very narrowness of the complex, occupying the thinnest part of the Isthmus, suggests to her that it was used partly for grand processions. “You can imagine people and animals moving up and down…this ancient route,” she said in the Science story. Added Card: “People were being choreographed in movement through the Ness.”

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More than simple choreography may have been at work too. Card and the others believe that the hierarchical structure of Europe itself may have gotten its start–or at least have been encouraged—by the doings at the Ness. No one had ever moved such huge stones before, and the quarries where they were unearthed were often many miles away. People from different communities and clans may have come to the site in order to stage an early sort of spectator sport, competing to drag and raise the largest possible stones. Success would boost a clan’s status, failure would lower it. And those positions on the social ladder might have stuck.

It wouldn’t be long before the primitive metropolis would be eclipsed by vastly bigger ones all over Europe, and what was impressive in the Neolitihic era was a backwater only a little bit later. Still, the Oakney Islands had their moment—and a very important one. Only now, is the modern continent coming to realize what it owes the largely forgotten spot.

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