This weeks seminar was entitled “ Evolution of house societies in Orkney questions of Mythopraxis and Mythologization”, presented by Prof. Colin Richards, University of Manchester. The first topic discussed was “house societies”. He demonstrated how this idea could be translated into an understanding of Orcadian society. House societies are organised around dwellings rather then lineage. These societies were highly volatile and social status was extremely important. The development of a house society in Orkney is visible by studying their houses. In the case of Stonehall, the series of early Neolithic houses are scattered meters apart from one another. As we move through time these house move closer together, in the case of the houses of Barnhouse they are next to each other. Finally in the case of the settlement of Skara Brae the houses are physically touching each other. This is demonstrating the need for the community to come closer and try to create a stable community.
An interesting feature of the Orcadian society that Prof. Colin Richards noted was its transition from wood to stone houses. It has long been assumed that stone houses were the norm in Orkney due to a lack of wood to construct houses with. However recent excavations have in fact proved that people in the early Neolithic constructed circular wooded houses, examples of which have been discovered at a site called Bram of Smerquey. These houses have been dated and surprisingly, they are contemporary with the stone-built tombs. This demonstrates an odd transition as in Britain and Ireland it has been accepted that mortuary tombs can be seen as a reflection of houses. As they modelled there tombs based upon their own houses, turning the house of the living into the house of the dead. However in Orkney there seems to be a change whereby they begin by constructing there houses of wood and then shift to using stone. This shows that the people began modelling their houses to look like the tombs they built. Thus demonstrating Orcadian society was very complex and was regionally different from the rest of Britain.
The final topic discussed was a concept caller “wrapping”. Professor Richards has begun to apply this idea to the late Neolithic Orkney based upon ethnographical studies in Polynesia. He began by showing a series of images that demonstrated wrapping such as wrapping a Christmas present. The idea of wrapping can be seen in different cultures whereby they believe that it is important to wrap sacred places to create a barrier between the people and the ancestors and deities. This can be done by building walls around a building or in some cases people wrapped sacred temples with cloths. Richards believes that this idea can be applied to understanding the megalithic structures of Orkney. In the case of Maeshowe, Gordon Childe discovered a series of walls under the mound with no obvious structural functions. He asked the question: is this an example of the people attempting to wrap this monument? Were the people attempting to protect themselves from powerful spirits within the mound? We may never fully understand however one thing is certain is this seminar left many who attended the seminar a lot of food for thought.
By Katherine McCormack