August 30, 2012

Scotland: Maeshowe Chambered Cairn in 3D animation

Orknejar reports on a 3D video-animation of this important megalithic monument, considered a major piece of which was probably a major religious complex in the Chalcolithic (Late Neolithic), located at Orkney:




See also (older news and reports):

13 comments:

  1. I think there must be a good story in why those structures exist in a spot so remote from the centers of civilization and i'm hoping genetics will unbury it.

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    1. I think that it has the following components:

      1. An obvious religious component (but this alone feels lacking, right?)

      2. A cod fishing and salting center. This alone is an important economic reason.

      3. A trade route almost necessary stop (between the Irish Sea ports of Ireland and SW Britain and Scandinavia), exchanging maybe amber from North Germany for some other materials (copper?)

      4. A naval military base. Probably naval military was not too advanced back in the day but the economic and religious elements surely needed some coastguard at the very least.

      Later the whole complex of Ness of Brodgard was buried, implying organized abandonment. This is coincident with the beginnings of Stonehenge but I speculate if there was increased risk from pirates at Orkney or something at that time as well.

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    2. "An obvious religious component (but this alone feels lacking, right?)"

      Yes. I think the psychology of it is (or maybe was) that *because* they were so remote from the meditteranean centers of civilization the structures *must* be simply religious because societies so far from the nearest complex centers of civilization *must* be simple.

      However if the coast from Africa/Iberia up to Orkney was dotted with an inter-connected trading mini-civ comprising fishing settlements, gold mines, flint mines etc then you immediately start to think of
      - docks
      - shipwrights
      - warehouses
      - fish preservation
      - merchant halls
      - garrisons
      you name it - all the buildings you'd associate with a complex society.

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    3. But I'm not aware of any of all that except some villages and barrow cemeteries. You can see the overall (known) occupation pattern at the Megalithic Portal.

      While the monuments are interesting, I'd say that the villages should be much more. We know of some seven villages which could be Neolithic but they are not well researched. Most of these village remnants are at what could well be harbor locations.

      Anyhow, it's not just that Orkney was far away from "the Mediterranean" but from everywhere (for example the core British Megalithic area of the Southwest). Even today it is a very remote location.

      However, would that be pretext for an isolated hermit community, we would not see so many magnificent monuments nor other stuff that seem to require much more workforce than just a few monks. That's why I feel that religion must have been mixed with other more material things: economic production and trade.

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    4. "I'd say that the villages should be much more"

      Yes definitely. To me the main thing about places like Meashowe is it shows that if the builders didn't have wood they could build whatever they needed to in stone. It wouldn't be daunting to them at all.

      "That's why I feel that religion must have been mixed with other more material things: economic production and trade."

      Yes i think so too now. I wonder if what we see in the Orkneys only *seems* to be out of scale and although they could be hermit / religious type communities or people running away from somewhere else for some other reason if you assume just for the sake of argument the premise that it wasn't out of scale at the time i.e. it was part of a bigger cultural network - but apart from religious buildings the bigger network was mostly built in wood - then you get what i think is a more plausible picture.

      The picture i have in my head is of a collection of settlements initially at least connected mostly by sea where - except in the Orkneys - most of the non-religious buildings were built in wood with the Orkneys *seemingly* standing out as an exception to modern eyes simply because of the lack of wood.

      I particularly wonder about mining and if the Atlantic coast megalithic centres have some kind of correlation with sites of past gold, silver, copper and flint mines and if so then the miners would need to trade for food and if this was happening when farming hadn't been fully adapted to northern latitudes then fishing would be an obvious solution.

      fish for copper

      People faced with a good site for a fishing base that didn't have any trees *might* import wood but i think the people who built places like Carnac and Stonehenge would be more likely to just shrug their shoulders and build stone houes instead as they'd be cutting stone for religious monuments anyway.

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    5. Not sure why you insist in the "wood" thing. Not clear why do you imagine that.

      In any case, the Neolithic of the Irish Sea and Scotland was original from Brittany and other nearby areas of Armorica (France between the Seine and the Loire/Garonne), which had already a tradition of building crazy monuments on stone. On the other hand, the Neolithic of most of England was of late Danubian derivation from Nord (Northernmost France), which indeed built wooden monuments instead.

      What we see in much of Britain is that these two traditions converged and even melted, so you see stone monuments mostly to the West and in Scotland and wooden ones mostly in Central and East England but without a strict divide.

      See also: http://leherensuge.blogspot.com.es/2009/12/demographics-of-british-neolithic-2.html

      Re. mining: those kind of stuff is usually known. For example in Iberia we do know the locations of most ancient copper, tin, silver and gold mines. I know that there was some important copper mining in Ireland and tin in Cornwall, but mostly from later times (Bronze and Iron ages). I have not found reference of other once considered precious materials like variscite or amber being found in the Atlantic Islands. However Orkney may have acted as a stop in the trade routes to the Baltic where both semiprecious stones could be found abundantly.

      But I feel that in such "advanced agricultural" societies the most valuable stuff is not this or that rock but fertile land (or good fisheries) the people to exploit them. The rest are just extras.

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  2. "Not sure why you insist in the "wood" thing. Not clear why do you imagine that."

    I was reacting to this

    "An obvious religious component (but this alone feels lacking, right?)"

    I agree with that so i was trying to put myself in the mind of a Victorian studying this and thinking they'd have a long list of stone religious construction all along the Atlantic coast and so when it came to the buildings in the Orkneys i was picturing them simply assuming they were religious too without thinking too much about other possibilities - the way people often do - whereas i think they may have been fish preserving sheds (or something equally practical and mundane) built in stone simply because there wasn't enough local wood.

    "But I feel that in such "advanced agricultural" societies the most valuable stuff is not this or that rock but fertile land"

    That's the thing. I wonder about a time before the neolithic agricultural package was viable going north. If there was a time period when the people in the north africa / southern portugal culture area both

    a) couldn't viably farm further north
    and
    b) knew about mines further north

    then you'd have a reason for people to create mining colonies further north (or simply trading settlements nearby) which would create a need to feed them and if their standard farming package wasn't effective in those latitudes yet then that would provide a reason to create a long range fishing network.

    Speculation of course.

    "I know that there was some important copper mining in Ireland and tin in Cornwall, but mostly from later times (Bronze and Iron ages)."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistoric_Ireland

    "Ireland was also rich in native gold"

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolaucothi_Gold_Mines

    The Dolaucothi Gold Mines...They are the only mines for Welsh gold outside those of the Dolgellau gold-belt...although it does not exclude the likelihood that they exploited other known sources in Devon, North Wales and Scotland".

    Obviously if you had a time where the standard neolithic package was say 70% crops and 30% sheep and the northern climate reduced the crop element below viability then the simplest explanation for a coastally spread culture would be fishing as a partial substitute for the crop element however i still wonder about a possible gold and silver chasing angle.

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    1. Something merely practical would probably make better sense (simpler design) and probably leave some direct evidence like fish remains.

      The structures of Ness of Brodgar are clearly "cultural" (impractical, with a sense of "performance" attached to them), whatever the exact meaning you wish to give them. Cemeteries and burial sites are also quite unmistakable. I would not dare to make the claims you make unless you can really debunk with some data the mainstream theories, because these are generally built on archaeo-facts.

      I was not aware of the gold mine of Ireland but it seems that mining began somewhat later, one or two thousand years, than the period we are discussing here. Also something they always say about British prehistory/megalithism is that it does not have a Chalcolithic senso stricto, i.e. that the use of soft metals as gold or copper is not known (or almost not) before the Bronze Age. This is not really consistent with an early "gold rush".

      I think that the reasons for Neolithic (and Megalithism) to move northwards when it did are more related to advances in navigation and the subsequent exploitation of fisheries and maybe even whale blubber, which had many important uses before the Industrial Era. Another reason may be an improved adaption of crops to colder weather and a warmer mini-period (apparent in the successive expansion, contraction and second expansion of British Neolithic).

      Climatic fluctuations may have been very important as driving pulses: what was grown at X degrees North, now could maybe be successfully planted at X+2 or even X+5 degrees North. Centuries later a cold spell would punish the pioneers but not up to the point of wiping them out. The survivor plants and animals would be better adapted, even the cultural knowledge would be too: the advance was essentially irreversible.

      We see a similar process in Denmark, although the cold spell collapse is not very marked, maybe because they relied more on fishing than the Brits (???).

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  3. "I would not dare to make the claims you make"

    They're not really claims. I'm just thinking aloud - mostly about the psychology of it.

    For example

    "Something merely practical would probably make better sense (simpler design) and probably leave some direct evidence like fish remains."

    I agree but what i mean about the psychology of it is if a person thinks a building is religious then they might never imagine checking for evidence of fish remains or preservation.

    In the same way if someone believes a certain kind of beaker is related to ritual and beer they might test it for beer residue but never imagine testing it for milk. On the other hand someone who believed those beakers were used to eat bowls of milk and cereal then they might test it for milk residue but never imagine testing it for beer.

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  4. "... a person thinks a building is religious then they might never imagine checking for evidence of fish remains or preservation".

    I believe modern archaeologists do double check that. It's only when the practical sense seems to be missing that lables like "cultural", "ritual" or "religious" are applied. "Cultural" is probably the best label because we all know in our cities of monuments which have no religious meaning whatsoever - but can't either be explained in merely practical terms (Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, your random Botero or Oteiza sculpture...) but they are not whale blubber factories either.

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  5. "Later the whole complex of Ness of Brodgard was buried, implying organized abandonment. This is coincident with the beginnings of Stonehenge but I speculate if there was increased risk from pirates at Orkney or something at that time as well."

    A thought i just had on this was if the settlement was there not primarily as a settlement for itself i.e. they caught fish just to eat, but instead was similar to the Newfoundland fishing settlements i.e. it was there as part of a trade network because of the *surplus* fish they could catch, then if the market for their fish collapsed the primary reason for them to be there might go too.

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    1. My idea since the beginning: cod or herring or whatever fish they caught would be dried or salted and delivered to other, far away destinations. This is however not too clear because we don't understand well too many things, like what cargo capacity the ships of that period could have, which were the markets (most communities lived off their local produce most likely: you need urban centers and urban centers only evolved since c. 2600 BCE), etc.

      Alternatively, and this is a theory I have outlined before somewhere, their main economic activity could have been importing amber (and maybe other stuff like furs) from Northern Europe, so when these areas fell in the hands of the Indoeuropean (Kurgan) tribes, the market was disrupted and the whole ceremonial center abandoned (buried).

      Later amber would flow again but then, I presume, under the control of a likely Indoeuropean-speaking guild: the Bell Beaker phenomenon.

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    2. Ah yes. I was picturing the southern part of the network going down but i see what you mean now.

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