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The Heart of Neolithic Orkney

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The Heart Of Neolithic Orkney

Role of Historic Scotland
The monuments comprising the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site are all cared for by Historic Scotland on behalf of Scottish Ministers. Historic Scotland therefore has responsibilities as both the manager of this particular World Heritage Site and as the State party that must answer via the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to UNESCO for the ongoing protection of the World Heritage Site.

Date of Inscription
The Site was inscribed in December 1999. The nomination proposal, Nomination of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney for inclusion in the World Heritage List, is available from Historic Scotland in our Publications section.

Description of Site
The site comprises a series of discrete, but related, Neolithic monuments which fall into two complexes, 6 km apart.

Skara Brae is a Neolithic village occupied from around 3100 to 2500 BC.
Maeshowe (alternative spelling Maes Howe) is a late Neolithic chambered tomb, probably built sometime before 2700 cal BC. Its passage, and the Barnhouse Stone beyond, is famously aligned with the setting of the winter sun. The tomb contains an exceptionally large collection of later Norse runic inscriptions, as well as Neolithic graffiti.

The Stones of Stenness, with the Watch Stone and Barnhouse Stone, is a Neolithic ceremonial enclosure (henge) and stone ring, constructed around 3100-2900 cal BC. Nearby, the so-called Watch Stone, a tall standing stone, is a tangible reminder of the larger number of stones that used to stand in the surrounding area.

The Ring of Brodgar (alternative spelling Brogar) comprises a massive ceremonial enclosure and stone circle probably dating from between 2500 and 2000 BC. Around it are at least 13 prehistoric burial mounds and a stone setting (2500-1500 BC).

Statement of Significance
The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation.

Maeshowe is a masterpiece of Neolithic peoples. It is an exceptionally early architectural accomplishment. With its almost classical strength and simplicity it is a unique survival from 5000 years ago. It is an expression of genius within a group of people whose other tombs were claustrophobic chambers in smaller mounds.

Stenness is a unique and early expression of the major ritual customs of the people who buried their dead in tombs like Maeshowe and lived in settlements like Skara Brae. They bear witness, with an extraordinary degree of richness, to a vanished culture which gave rise to the World Heritage sites at Avebury and Stonehenge in England. The Ring of Brodgar is the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring and a later expression of the spirit which gave rise to Maeshowe, Stenness and Skara Brae.

Skara Brae has particularly rich surviving remains. Largely complete, it displays remarkable preservation of stone-built furniture and a fine range of ritual and domestic artefacts. Its remarkable preservation allows a level of interpretation which is unmatched on other excavated settlement sites of this period in Europe. Together, Skara Brae and the monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney demonstrate with exceptional richness the domestic, ritual and burial practices of a now vanished 5000-year-old culture.

Justification for Inscription
The monuments represent masterpieces of human creative genius; they exhibit an important interchange of human values during the development of the architecture of major ceremonial complexes in Britain; they bear unique or exceptional testimony to an important indigenous cultural tradition, which flourished over a period of between 1000 to 500 years but had disappeared by about 2000 BC; and they are an outstanding example of a type of architectural ensemble and archaeological landscape which illustrates that significant stage of human history during which the first large ceremonial monuments were built.

Managing the Site
Since all the World Heritage Site is in State care, Historic Scotland manages it on behalf of the Scottish Ministers. Following public consultation, a Management Plan for the Site was published in March 2001. In liaison with local parties, Historic Scotland has also produced an Interpretation Plan for the Site and grant-aided the production of a Research Agenda. Further new research has also been grant-aided, commissioned or directly undertaken by Historic Scotland itself.

The management issues to be addressed extend beyond the boundaries of the monuments in State care and resolution requires the input of other national and local organisations as well as the local community. A Steering Group has been formed to influence and assist with the implementation of the Management Plan. Project Groups are formed, as necessary, to progress specific issues. A Consultation Group has also been established as the basis for consultation with local and other interest groups.

Finding Out More About the Site
Details of the monuments, including the precise boundaries of the World Heritage Site and its buffer zones, can be found in the Nomination document. Background information about the monuments and Neolithic Orkney in general can also be found in Historic Scotland’s guidebooks and other publications.

Information about archaeological sites in general, including those that comprise the World Heritage Site and fall within its buffer zones, can be found in www.rcahms.gov.uk or www.pastmap.org.uk

For enquiries or advice on the Management Plan and how World Heritage status affects monuments in Orkney contact olwyn.owen@scotland.gsi.gov.uk or telephone 0131 668 8756.

 Embedded links on this page

  1. UNESCO

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Publications
View our World Heritage Sites Publications
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