The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland


1 Comment

Stones of Stenness, Orkney Island, Scotland

Stones of Stenness, in Orkney Island, Scotland

NGR: HY 30683 12513. At the far south-western edge of Loch Harray – beside the B9095 (Brodgar road), on the Island of Orkney, Scotland, is the famous henge monument known as ‘Stones of Stenness’ or ‘Ring of Stenness’, which is considered to date from around 3,000 BC – the Neolithic age of prehistory. There used to be twelve tall standing stones forming the circle, but now there are only four (one of these having been damaged and is now only half the size) – the other stones apparently vanished into thin air or, more likely, they were toppled and broken up to be used for building material, though there are outliers close by: one in particular stands beside the road, while close to the centre of the henge there are two smaller stones and one large recumbent, which may have been a cist grave, or a hearth? The four stones are surrounded by a (slight) low bank or fosse and, a rock-cut ditch now filled-in. The thinking was that this monument was either a temple to the sun, a ritualistic place sacred to the Druids, or an astronomical site? Stenness is 5 miles northeast of Stromness, 5 miles west of Finstown and 1 mile southeast of the ‘Ring of Brodgar’, which is another Stone Circle, just to the north of Stenness.

Charles Tate (1999) tells us a lot about the site, saying: “The Standing Stones of Stenness……were originally a circle of 12 stones with a diameter of 30m and now comprises of 4 uprights, the tallest of which is over 5m high. The circle was surrounded by a rock-cut ditch 2m deep, 7m wide and 44m in diameter which has become filled-in over the years. Excavation has revealed a square setting of stones and bedding holes for further uprights, either stone or wooden.

“Remains of domestic animals , including cattle, sheep and dog bones as well as a human finger and sherds of Grooved Ware pottery were found in the ditch. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the circle was constructed about 3000 BC, which is older than many henge monuments further south in Britain.

Tate goes on to add, that: “Nearby, at the Bridge of Brodgar, stands the Watchstone, (HY 305128 – 5.6m). At the Winter solstice the sun sets into a notch in the Hoy Hills as seen from this stone, clearly marking the shortest day. A recent observation suggests that there is an interesting alignment from the Watch Stone at Old New Year – still celebrated in Shetland with Up Helly Aa. At this date at the end of January, the sun disappears behind the Hoy Hills just before sunset and then reappears from the other side, before finally setting into a notch in the skyline.

“This impressive menhir and the Barnhouse Stone (HY312122 – 3.2m), in a field near the main road, as well as the Stone of Odin, which was destroyed in 1814, must have had some connection with the stone circles and Maeshowe. Since so many stones are missing, interpretation of the remaining stones remains problematical. This of course serves to add to the mystery of the purpose of the monuments. Other standing stones at Stoneyhill (HY320158), Howe and Deepdale (HY272118) may also form part of this Neolithic complex.

“The stone destroyed in 1814 was used as lintels by the farmer at Barnhouse, who was incidentally an incomer. Apparently the part with the hole was used as the pivot for a horse mill but was destroyed after World War II. Luckily the selfish farmer was stopped from demolishing the rest of the Standing Stones, but only after he had toppled two more of the menhirs, one of which he broke up. The threat of Court action finally stopped this 19th century vandal, and the fallen stone was re-erected in 1906. Luckily the vast majority of landowners over the millennia have had great respect for our antiquities.

“The Odin Stone had a hole in it through which lovers clasped hands and swore their everlasting love. The Oath of Odin was then said and the contract was binding thereafter. The stone was also credited with healing powers, in association with the well at Bigswell (HY345105) and especially at Beltane and midsummer. Recently the probable sockets of both this stone and another were found between the Standing Stones and the Watch Stone.”

Timothy Darvill (1988) says: “Little now remains of the bank and ditch of this site which was originally 61m in diameter, but a single entrance lies to the north. Four massive stones remain of the ring of 13 slabs that once stood inside the monument. Cists and pits containing burials have been found in the henge, and radiocarbon dates suggest that it was constructed about 2900BC.”

Childe & Simpson (1959) tells us: “The Ring of Stenness is now a flat-topped mound or platform, encircled by a fosse with a bank outside it and traversed by a causeway on the northwest. On the platform four monoliths stand on the circumference of a circle, some 52 feet in diameter.

Stones of Stenness, Orkney Island. An early photo by T. Kent.

J. Gunn (1941) tells us that: “As regards the Standing Stones, a common theory has been that they had some connection with the religion of the Druids, and may have been places of sacrifice. Another theory is that they had some astronomical significance. Neither of those beliefs is now accepted by serious students of archaeology. On the other hand it is certain that such stones are in almost every case associated with graves and burial mounds, and in this connection they seem to have had a religious or ritualistic origin. It is probable that the religion of these circle-builders was some form of sun worship which had spread into Europe from the East. In Scandinavia there are many Bronze Age pictorial rock carvings which point to such a worship, and it has been thought that the practice of cremation, which became so general in Western Europe during that period, was due to new ideas regarding the persistence of the soul after death. In more southerly parts of Britain there is no doubt that fresh immigrations took place during this Bronze Age, but whether Orkney was affected by these to any extent we cannot tell. It may well be that the Stone Circles and Standing Stones were the work of the same racial stock, who had retained the megalithic tradition, and had found fresh forms of expression for it under the compel-ling influence of a new world of thought.” 

Sources / References & Related Websites:

Childe, Gordon & Simpson, Douglas, Ancient Monuments—Scotland—Illustrated Guide, H. M. Stationery Office, Edinburgh, 1959.

Darvill, Timothy, AA Glovebox Guide—Ancient Britain, Publishing Division of The Automobile Association, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 1988.

Gunn, J., Orkney—The Magnetic North, Thomas Nelson And Sons, Ltd., London, 1941.

Tate, Charles, The Orkney Guide Book (Edition 2.1), Charles Tait photographic, St. Ola, Orkney, 1999.

The AA, Illustrated Road Book Of Scotland, The Automobile Association, London, 1963.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_Stones_of_Stenness

https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/stones-of-stenness-circle-and-henge/

https://canmore.org.uk/site/2105/stones-of-stenness

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2014/08/neolithic-orkney/

https://www.orkney.com/listings/standing-stones-of-stenness

© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2019.


4 Comments

The Triskele Stone, St Michael’s Church, Iselgate, Cumbria

The Triskele Stone from photo at St. Michael’s church.

NGR: NY 16240 33314. The Church of St Michael at Iselgate, half a mile southeast of Isel village, in the Derwent Valley, Cumbria, used to house the famous ‘Triskele Stone’, a Celtic symbol of motion, but sadly it was stolen from this 12th Century Norman church in 1986. Only a photo survives. However, there are still two large fragments of an Anglo-Saxon cross-shaft. The Triskele is a pre-Christian symbol or motif consisting of a three-armed carving similar to the Manx symbol (Three Legs of Man) which might represent the Holy Trinity? although the symbol goes back thousands of years to the Neolithic, and was used in ancient Greece; this particular stone, however, had Viking origins, being associated with the Norse gods, Thor and Odin. The stone also had carvings of a sun-snake and a four-armed swastika (or fylfot – the symbol of Freya). The hamlet of Iselgate is a few miles northeast of Cockermouth, whilst St Michael & All Angels’ Church is just off Blindcrake Lane – beside the river Derwent, not far from Isel Hall.

Stanley Kingsnorth (1984) in a magazine article tells us a lot about the Triskele Stone, saying: “The Triskele Stone came to light in 1812 when the bridge of 1691 spanning the river Derwent was rebuilt.” Mr Kingsnorth continues, saying it: “takes its name from the three-limbed design which appears on two faces, a variation of this sign is well known to us as the three-legs of Man. This strangely sculptured stone, now placed in front of one of the chancel windows, is about twelve inches high and has been closely studied by scholars. It is described in some detail by the Rev. W. S. Calverley, a former vicar of Aspatria in his paper presented to the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archeology Society in 1885. 

“Each of the four faces of the stone shows designs in relief, those in the upper panels being different on each side, while the lower panel of all sides displays the “‘Sun-Snake”′ sign resembling a double ended hook on its side, which is to be found in the relics of many early cultures. Three of the upper panels depict the emblems of the principal pagan Norse gods. The symbol for Thor is the thunderbolt or hammer device and appears in strong relief on one face. Another side is adorned with an unsymmetrical triskele sign with two limbs to the left and one to the right and which is attributed to Odin, or in the alternative spelling, Woden. 

“On the third face a four-armed swastika appears, being the symbol of Freya the god of fertility and peace, while the re-maining side shows a balanced triskele having all three arms turning to the right, that is, with the sun. This sign is held to represent the Trinity of the Christian faith, and is the most significant dedication if the stone is, as so many suppose, part   of an early stone cross which stood on the site..”  

Stanley Kingsnorth goes on to add: “The other two stones now to be found near the south door are clearly fragments of the main shaft of a pre-Norman cross probably of a later date than the Triskele Stone. They were discovered in the walls of the church during the major restoration which took place just over 100 years ago. One is worked in relief on two sides and the other on all four faces with a variety of spirals and whorls, typical Christian designs of the Celtic post-Roman period. But again the pagan influence has persisted, as at the bottom of the fully patterned stone there is a boldly carved broad arrow or spearhead pointing downward. In his study of 1889, Calverley identified this as the sacred emblem of Woden as descri-bed in the old Norse sagas, where the unfortunate sacrifice has his breast marked with the point of a spear and is offered to Woden, after which he is hanged.

“In heathen ritual, the gallows was in the form of a cross, usually of ash, so it can easily be understood how the Cross of Christ and the symbolic ash cross of the Nordic peoples came to have an over-lapping meaning to the diverse inhabitants of this remote area during the confused and changing times between the withdrawal of the Roman legions and the arrival of the Normans. 

Lawrence E. Jones & Roy Tricker (1992)  say that Isel church has: “A perfect setting by the river Derwent for St Michael’s small and simple towerless church. (The nearby hall is much more spectacular, and has a pele tower). It is a Norman church of c1130 (with a fine chancel arch), but there are three Saxon stones with very interesting carvings, including a swastika and a triskele, also Saxon cross fragments. One 15th century chancel window has three Mass-dials carved in          its stonework.”

Arthur Mee (1961) tells us: “The church was chiefly built by the Normans, and has still their doorway, their chancel arch, and several of their little windows. Another window pierced in the 15th century has three sundials on it. There are two stones carved before the Normans came, and one being part of a 10th-century cross and the other having the rare three-armed symbol called the triskele, one of the earliest devices found on Christian monuments.” 

Sources / References & Related Websites: 

Jones, Lawrence E. & Tricker, Roy, County Guide To English Churches, Countryside Books, Newbury, Berkshire, 1992.

Kingsnorth, Stanley, Storied Stones At Isel — A Visit to St. Michael’s Church, (Magazine Article in Cumbria – Lake District Life, May, 1984), The Dalesman Publishing Co. Ltd., Clapham, Lancaster.

Mee, Arthur, The Kings England — Arthur Mee’s Lake Counties — Cumberland And Westmorland,  Hodder And Stoughton Limited, London, 1961.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Michael%27s_Church,_Isel

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triskelion

https://www.explorechurches.org/church/st-michael-all-angels-isel

https://www.ancient-symbols.com/symbols-directory/triskele.

Check this out: https://mythologian.net/triskelion-triskele-symbol-celtic-spiral-knot-meaning/

© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2019.