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ea-level research in Orkney rkney’s landscape, like that of Stonehenge, also has multiple monuments dating from the Neolithic. Much has been made of the symbolic relationship between land and water in the positioning of the Neolithic henge and stone circle called the Ring of Brodgar, or the placing of the Stones of Stenness.

New research by Caroline WickhamJones and Sue Dawson, as part of the Rising Tide project, now suggests that the landscape might well have been very different, and that previous assumptions may need to be rethought. The project has been using samples of gyttja (mud sediments rich in animal, plant and plankton residues) to work out when the sea first entered the loch of Stenness, by looking for changes in the diatom (microfossil) assemblages that indicate the change from freshwater to saline conditions as the sea level rose.

The coring samples suggest that the loch of Stenness comprised a smaller freshwater lake with reed beds at the time when the Stones of Stenness (c.3100 BC) and the Ring of Brodgar (2500–2000 BC) were first built, and that the sea did not inundate the Stenness basin until the late second millennium, around 1140 BC. ‘The dates immediately raise a number of questions,’

Below A typical core from Voy, Loch Stenness.

Bottom The Lochs of Stenness (foreground) and Harray (background), Orkney from the southwest.

Caroline Wickham-Jones commented ‘if the expanse of water was less, the theory that the stones were floated to their present site goes out of the window. Another casualty is the idea that the Standing Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar were erected where they are because of an interaction between saline and fresh water.’

The fact that sea levels would have been lower for much of the Neolithic period also raises the possibility of submerged Neolithic sites and landscapes in the shallow seas between the islands. ‘The sudden ingress of seawater into the loch of Stenness, as it reached the level of the rock lip at the Brig o’ Waithe, must have been a notable event,’ Caroline said. ‘The subsequent flooding of the Stenness basin took place over the later life of the monuments, making this an area of dynamic environmental change which must have impacted on the lives of those living in the area.’

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