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19 September 2014
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Stones of Stenness Visit some of the earliest and most mysterious of Britain’s stone circles. With the strongest concentration in the highlands and islands, the stones remain as a monument to a forgotten age with a forgotten purpose, although, as we shall see, they've had more than a little help from modern hands.

The Stones of Stenness - Orkney - Factsheet
  • Stenness is one of the earliest and most impressive stone circles in Britain. It is over 44m (144ft) in diameter, it was surrounded by a massive ditch 7m (23ft) wide and 2.3m (7 ½ft) deep, and was breached by an entrance causeway. Little trace of the ditch remains on the surface today, but Archaeologists estimate that it took over 20, 000 man hours for it to be carved out of the solid Orcadian bedrock using only stone tools.

  • Originally there were 12 stones, but through time many simply vanished. Even in very recent history the stones have changed their shape and numbers.

  • When the famous Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott, visited in 1814, he found five stones still standing. No sooner had he seen them than a farmer, tired of ploughing round the stones, started to demolish them: destroying one and toppling another before he was stopped. Ninety years later the toppled stone was re-erected and another smaller, more angular, stone was discovered hidden below the ground. When it was put in an upright position it was dwarfed by the other monoliths, which, according to folk tales, were four sun-stricken giants or trolls turned to stone by the rising sun.

  • Human Sacrifice at Stenness?
    Walter Scott believed the stones held a darker, magical secret. He thought a large slab lying in the middle of the circle was ‘probably once an altar for human victims to be sacrificed’. It was too good an idea to resist, so at the start of the 20th century, when the other stones were repositioned to the vertical, the slab was raised and placed on top of the two stones like an altar table. Then, in 1972, the altar-table stone was toppled off after a drunken party, or perhaps by a disgruntled archaeologist who didn't care for the sacrificial altar theory?

  • Evidence
    When the ditch around the stones was excavated, the bones of oxen, sheep, dogs, wolves and even a human finger were discovered.

  • Inside the circle they found a stone hearth, perhaps used for cooking and feasting, with what could have been the remains of a totem pole nearby. Near to the hearth, traces of a wooden structure were found next to two central standing stones - perhaps part of the central altar of which Walter Scott had spoken. It has been suggested that the fire, totem pole, wooden structure and central stone altar were all used to aid sacrificial rituals.
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