The Scottish Ten
Digital heritage preservation
The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site | Date of Inscription 1999
Five thousand years of history can be experienced first-hand through the monuments that make up Orkney’s Neolithic landscape. The six monuments that make up the World Heritage Site reflect the earliest evidence we have of how our ancestors interacted with their surroundings.
The monuments, which can all be easily visited, are: the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Stone, the Watchstone, the Ring of Brodgar and associated funerary monuments and stone setting, and Skara Brae prehistoric village.
Together this group forms one of the richest Neolithic landscapes in Europe - a place of stone circles, villages and burial monuments, where people lived, worshipped and honoured their dead. They were inscribed as a cultural World Heritage Site in 1999, and the important connection between them is reflected in their name, The Heart of Neolithic Orkney.
The monuments are in the care of Scottish Ministers and managed by Historic Scotland, but we work in partnership with Orkney Islands Council, Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB to safeguard the special values, qualities, authenticity and integrity of the World Heritage Site.
The report to the World Heritage Committee recommending the Site’s inscription stated:
“The monuments that make up the Neolithic Heart of Orkney are unquestionably among the most important Neolithic sites in western Europe. They provide exceptional evidence of the material and spiritual standards and beliefs and the social structures of this dynamic period of prehistory.
“The group constitutes a major relict cultural landscape depicting graphically life five thousand years ago in this remote archipelago.
“The monuments of Orkney are outstanding testimony to the cultural achievements of the Neolithic peoples of northern Europe.”
The monumental chambered tomb of Maeshowe is simply the finest Neolithic building in north west Europe. Built around 5,000 years ago, it is a masterpiece of Neolithic design and stonework construction, not least for its use of massive individual stones. It was designed to allow the setting sun to illuminate the chamber at the winter solstice. Broken into by the Norse in the 12th century AD, the tomb also contains a significant collection of runic inscriptions.
Skara Brae prehistoric village was inhabited before the Egyptian pyramids were built, and flourished for centuries before construction began at Stonehenge. It is some 5,000 years old, but it is not its age alone that makes it so remarkable and so important. The structures and furniture of this semi-subterranean village survive in impressive condition. Nowhere else in northern Europe are we able to gain such insight into how our remote ancestors actually lived.
The Stones of Stenness is one of the earliest examples of a stone circle and henge monument in the British Isles, built around 3000 BC. The ditch was originally 6m wide and 2.3m deep and is still visable, though faint. The four surviving standing stones, stone stumps and concrete markers outline an oval that was around 30m in diameter. The impressive size of the three intact stones – up to 6m tall - is the most obviously outstanding feature at the Stones of Stenness.
Ring Of Brodgar
The Ring Of Brodgar stone circle and henge is a spectacular stone circle with a massive ceremonial enclosure and rock-cut ditch,set in a natural amphitheatre and probably dating from between 2500 and 2000 BC. Around it are at least 13 prehistoric burial mounds and a stone setting (2500-1500 BC).
What were the challenges of scanning the WHS?
The history of Orkney and the surviving monuments play a huge part in attracting visitors to the islands each year. Though technically the sites did not pose the same logistical challenges as Mount Rushmore or Rani ki Vav, the team had to work around the hundreds of visitors onsite without compromising their enjoyment of the monuments.
This was the first site where the team used social media to provide real time updates of their work. It also provided them the opportunity to tell visitors about the project.
At Maeshowe chambered tomb hand held scanners allowed the team to get incredible recordings of the Viking inscriptions carved into the walls. The same scanners were used to record faint and delicate Neolithic artwork inscribed on some stones at Skara Brae.
As the scanners rely on reflecting the laser beams to take measurements the team had to work around the weather as both rain and extreme sunshine can impact on it – and anyone who has visited Orkney will testify that you can experience both within a very short time frame. The islands are known for seeming to experience all seasons in just one day.
How will the data be used?
The scans of Orkney are being used for our conservation and management programmes to protect the sites. They are also being used by our Interpretation colleagues to look at how they might be integrated into our plans to update how we explain the monuments to visitors.
We are using the detailing of the Norse inscriptions to look more closely at them and assess their significance in the history of the monuments.
In August 2012 Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched an online virtual tour of Maeshowe chambered tomb.