I rarely watch broadcast television. When I do I tend to watch documentaries from the previous century, all of which seem more intelligent and civil than the tosh we put out today (thank god for the iPlayer archives). However, I recently caught the Sacred Wonders of Britain on repeat, which was presented by Neil Oliver and originally broadcast in 2014. It really wasn’t too bad. In fact, Oliver’s passion for neolithic Orkney is intellectually contagious.
It is a very welcome passion, because our culture and identity has never been able to fathom the henges, monoliths and barrows which still dot our landscape. Our prehistory might be self-evident but it is indigestible. One may glimpse its ruins from almost any A-road, but they remain eternally exotic and foreign and alien. Our failure to make sense of the neolithic – to draw some meaningful, human line from the people of these monuments to us – parallels a centuries-old inability to accept the landscape around us. Hence the ultimate failure of the romantics, who, heads stuffed full of pastoral nonsense, could never accept modernity any more than Wordsworth could accept the liberté, égalité, fraternité of the French Revolution. It echoes too the Marxist notion of capitalist alienation, a palpable sensation for any sentient being who has ever spent any time at all in an out-of-town retail centre or industrial estate. Behind all this stand the stones, saying something we cannot understand.
Neolithic Orkney saw continuous occupation and development between 3000BC and 2000BC. Its most famous site may be the amazing ruins of Skara Brae, but the Ring of Brodgar, less than seven miles away, is generally regarded as the finest stone circle in the British Isles, as well as one of the oldest. Oliver explained that the stones which formed the Ring came from many different parts of the island. Individual slabs were probably brought to the Ring by every extended family who formed part of the island community, from each stead of land. Like every other neolithic monument, its purpose remains unknown, but its curious composition suggests an essential element. From what I understand of Oliver’s theory, the Ring has to be understood as a polity made physical. It was the construction of a symbol of community, and in that act of construction an actual community was forged. Generations would speak of the travails of the stones, of which stone was theirs, of how arduous or comical or tragic its transport, and so on. Therein lies the true meaning of the Ring of Brodgar, although people are also inclined to add on additional and hypothetical elements.
This meaning, however, has been eclipsed. It has been hidden for centuries until it was revealed by modern technology. In its place sprung mythology, the first of which apparently originated with the vikings, or some early precursor of the viking peoples. From this period comes the tale that the Ring was a circle of dancing giants, turned to stone by the sunrise. This sort of nonsense is common to most of Europe if not the world. One wonders if anyone ever really believed it. What really was its purpose? The Ring of Brogdar offers a clue.
Invaders from Scandinavia arrived in the ninth century and promptly projected their own theology onto the neolithic monuments of Orkney. But they also had to explain how such monuments had come into existence in the first place, and they could hardly admit to what the stones really signified – that they were the symbolic and literal fruition of an earlier and more advanced micro-civilisation, which the parasitic and less advanced vikings had helped to destroy. This was a reality that could not be admitted. An alternative explanation had to be found, and its plausibility was not important. What mattered was that it wasn’t the truth, because the truth would have destroyed the self-image of the people who now walked the land.
I don’t know how deliberately this mythology was crafted to serve that purpose, but there can’t be much doubt that this is exactly what the new story of the stones served to do. Was there some Machiavellian skald behind it all? I doubt that. Humanity’s collective need for delusion and denial probably surpasses its individual genius.
History, if done properly, should be strange. I agree with Patrick Kellier on this. I disagree with the safe, anodyne interpretation that the historic should essentially be like today but different. The frontiers of history always rest upon the profoundly unknown. That which makes history something other than alien is, more often than not, something other than the truth. This is the lesson of the Ring Of Brodgar.
It also causes me to reflect a little on “conspiracy theory”. The term has little value other than as a term of abuse, and anyone who is critical of British foreign policy or the work of our intelligence community will inevitably be labelled a conspiracy theorist. Since 9/11 much cultural capital and public money has been spent elucidating the dangers of “conspiracy theory”. Naturally, such voices feel compelled to advance the idea the term “conspiracy theory” has some intrinsic currency, that it is a concept capable of definition, beyond that of simply doubting establishment narratives. Conspiracy theory, they commonly offer, is “history for losers”. Well. Perhaps such voices might like to consider that the very fabric of history is itself “history for losers”. History is a deep grave made of loss and defeat, of the forgotten, the dead, the disappeared. That sheening gloss which the victors weave over it never lasts for long, and, as each winning generation succumbs to the next, only adds to the strata. Anyone who might offer that “conspiracy theory” is “history for losers” is a political animal who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near history. Or politics, for that matter.