Neil Oliver, Chris Packham, Andy Torbet and Shini Somara uncover the secrets of Orkney. Andy and some locals cross the Pentland Firth as the ancient Orcadians would have done.
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on the plains of Southern England.
Britain's most famous ancient monument.
But over 500 miles north,
new discoveries are being unearthed that challenge its supremacy...
..and they're turning the Stone Age map of Britain on its head.
Could the centre of our ancient world
really have been the remote islands of Orkney?
A place cut off by the fastest flowing stretch of water in Europe.
We're investigating how these far-flung islands
may have forged Britain's first common culture.
-Andy, look at this!
-This is so impressive.
So far, we've discovered their society was much older
than previously thought...
So there we go.
The earliest possible date is 3512 years BC.
That is early.
..that people and their animals were drawn here from Europe...
Look at that. Orkney vole.
..and that the stone circles here inspired Stonehenge.
It boggles the mind, it beggars belief.
Now our team has a new mission.
If Orkney was the cultural capital of Britain, how did they do it?
Engineer Shini Somara
and archaeological adventurer Andy Torbet
investigate how they could have navigated the treacherous seas.
The wind's picked up and the sea's picked up, it's much, much choppier.
Naturalist Chris Packham and cameraman Doug Allen
will explore how they could have survived and thrived
on these remote islands.
Look at the size of that!
We discover a mass deposit of bones...
Oh, that's pretty special.
..and ask how their beliefs might have bound their society together.
This isn't human sacrifice?
We're joining hundreds of archaeologists,
volunteers and locals to discover how this ancient society
in far-flung Orkney could have dominated Britain
for a thousand years.
An archipelago of over 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland.
At their heart is an archaeological dig
which is rewriting history.
The Ness of Brodgar.
Poised on a narrow spit of land between two stone circles.
We're getting closer to understanding the significance
of this place,
and its influence on the rest of Britain.
They started building here around 5,500 years ago.
That part of the Stone Age called the Neolithic,
when people began to farm.
The archaeologists and volunteers have been digging here
every summer for over a decade.
So far, they've uncovered 14 monumental buildings.
Surrounded by a massive perimeter wall,
everything about this complex reveals ambition.
Now the team are poised to reveal the secrets of the building
at its heart, the structure which they think
may have been some kind of a temple.
This is structure ten, the most famous building
on the Ness of Brodgar.
It's been called the Cathedral of Orkney.
I'm on the outside of the wall.
I'm standing on a pavement that runs right round all four sides of the
building, and it's truly vast.
It would have been the most grandiose structure
that was ever here.
The archaeologists have reached a crucial stage of their excavation.
They're right down at the foundation stones,
which can often conceal the most significant finds.
Some stones here that we can lift this season,
but we don't want to be removing this too quickly,
we want to take a lot of care about it.
It's somewhat frustrating, as you can imagine,
because there could be anything underneath there.
But we're just going to have to wait and see in time.
Whatever's buried beneath here
might give vital clues about the philosophy,
rituals and beliefs of this culture -
beliefs which may have spread throughout Neolithic Britain.
But it'll be a few days before they're ready to lift the slabs.
In the meantime, we've set up our camp
on a hill above the site to work out how on earth the people
of this remote place could have spread their
influence so widely.
Orkney really was a central hub of knowledge in terms of ingenuity,
But it was the sharing of ideas which was probably most important.
And they did share that knowledge.
We know that these ideas were exported to the mainland Britain.
So there's been a process by which people could quite happily come
and go between all of the islands.
You know, they're moving back and forth from mainland Britain
and they're going back and forth to all of the islands.
The question now, of course, is how were they exported?
How did they get from here, across this piece of sea,
famed for its horrible currents?
What method did they use?
To discover how the ancient Orcadians thrived
and travelled in this tough environment,
we're going to explore across the archipelago.
While Shini heads back to the ness,
I'm on my way to the island of Westray.
Chris and Doug are heading to the sandy beaches of Stronsay.
And Andy's mission is to work out the most intriguing problem of all -
how did they navigate the length and breadth of the seaways
of Britain, beginning with the treacherous Pentland Firth?
What I'd like to do is speak to the archaeologists,
speak to the boat-building experts,
see if we could figure out the sort of boat they could've used.
And then, build that boat.
And then take that boat and see if we could paddle
it across the Pentland Firth.
And that is not going to be easy.
The Pentland Firth is Britain's most dangerous stretch of water.
When the powerful tide race fights the wind,
extreme seas can quickly build up.
It's claimed ten lives in the last ten years alone.
The ship that was last seen some 48 hours ago
steaming through the Pentland Firth
has mysteriously been found upturned
not far away from where she was last seen.
Andy needs to find out what kind of seagoing boats the ancient Orcadians
could have used. But that's no easy task.
There's no archaeological evidence at all for the boats
being used here at that time.
He's meeting up with marine expert Sandra Hendry.
So by the Neolithic, the period we're interested in...
..what sort of boats are we seeing in the archaeological record?
The only sort of maritime craft we're getting in Europe
is the log boat.
So, we're finding log boats in the maritime context.
You know, that's not the sort of thing I would see myself
trying to cross the Pentland Firth in.
No, you're probably looking at the use of log boats
for maybe coastal movements and smaller distances.
For the Pentland Firth, the most likely is hide boats,
where you're looking at them using animal skins
to create the hull of the vessel
-and then kind of a wickerwork framework.
The oldest surviving boat in Britain is the Dover boat
from around 1500 BC and nearly 600 miles to the south.
It's made of timber - a material in short supply in Orkney.
Scandinavian rock carvings from around the same time appear to show
vessels made of wicker and animal hide.
This offers a more likely model for Andy and his team to follow.
I think it's going to be really interesting to see
the navigational methods you use,
how you work with the tidal movements in the Pentland Firth
and how the boat reacts.
Do you know of anyone who's tried an experiment like this,
to try and recreate and prove the type of vessel
that they would have used in the Neolithic?
Not here across the Pentland Firth, no, this will be a first.
Yeah. So, do you think we stand a chance?
I wouldn't fancy your chances!
It's uncharted territory as far as how the guys have got back and
forth from Orkney to the mainland.
If we can pull this off,
then there's genuine knowledge to be gained here
That will fill that gap in the archaeological record,
the bit that no-one knows anything about.
The sea was the highway for the ancient Orcadians.
Not only did they travel to the mainland,
they also had to go back and forth between the many islands of Orkney.
I'm on my way to Westray,
where they're uncovering evidence of a Stone Age suburbia.
What it will give us is an insight into the day-to-day lives
of the people, the community,
that was responsible for designing and then building
the Ness of Brodgar.
This site here will give us that look at how they lived
the other part of their lives.
Unlike the ness, with its grand buildings,
this was a domestic site where people farmed, fished
'Hazel Moore is the dig director.'
The people here must have obviously
been strongly connected to the Ness of Brodgar.
I mean, such a place, it's like the Vatican City or something.
Communities like this all over Orkney were coming together
to create a shared sense of identity at somewhere like the ness.
What kind of life was being lived by the people here?
Well, I think you had a good life here.
They were living on a diet of mostly beef and oyster,
which sounds quite good to me!
-That's surf and turf!
They had big herds of animals that, you know,
I think was more than just for subsistence.
It was for show as well.
And this is a collection of some of our finest things.
You do have treasures.
We've had a lot of whalebone from the site
and this is just a very small amount of the kinds of things
that we're finding.
You can see it's a whale vertebrae that's been hollowed out
in the centre to make a little vessel.
It's fairly rough, isn't it?
It is, it's lost some of its outer surface.
-Now, that's more recognisable.
So that's some sort of, what is it, an agricultural tool or something?
It is, I think it's like a mattock, yeah.
So, there'd be a shaft through there.
Yes. And I think, really, whalebone is great,
because it's being used instead of wood,
because there isn't a lot of wood here.
And yet can be carved easily into the same kinds of objects.
The waters around Orkney are still a whale paradise,
thanks to abundant plankton and krill.
Regular visitors include orca, minke and the vast fin,
the second-biggest animal on the planet.
In northern waters, the fin whale reaches 22 metres long
and weighs in at 60 tonnes.
Quite a challenge for Stone Age hunters to capture and kill.
That's why Chris and Doug want to discover
how the ancient Orcadians got hold of whalebone.
Recent events on the island of Stronsay may offer an answer.
They've had word from locals of a possible whale washed up on a beach.
-What's the name of this beach?
-This is Housby.
No, no, it is, it's there!
-Oh, there it is, yeah.
-Looks like a vertebrae.
-That's definitely it, isn't it?
Go and have a look.
Yeah, that's definitely its backbone.
Look at the size of that! Look here, ribs.
Oh, aye. Yeah.
Yeah. Couple of ribs stuck there.
-Still with lots of flesh on them.
-And this one.
-From a Neolithic perspective,
this is a valuable piece of fabric, isn't it?
That could be the bottom of a boat, for example,
or it could be the roof on a house.
Or you could carve things from this, knives, needles.
I love this, it's like a whale anatomy lesson.
-Oh! It's baleen.
Yes, look, the place is littered with it.
-This is fantastic, Doug.
Now this is how the whale feeds, isn't it?
Used to get used for women's corsets, you know.
-Back in the sort of 1800s or so.
-And they also used it for springs in buggies,
things like that. Because, as I say, it's flexible,
yet also very strong.
-This was the sort of Neolithic plastic of its day.
I love that, Neolithic plastic! Superb!
The thing is, which species?
Size might give us a clue. I reckon 15 metres.
Yeah, 15 metres, that would be a medium-sized fin whale or similar.
It must've been a real bonanza when these things came ashore.
I don't think they actually would hunt them,
they certainly wouldn't hunt these, they're way, way too fast.
Whale strandings could have provided the ancient Orcadians
with an invaluable resource.
But sometimes a harder material was needed.
This summer at the ness, the archaeologists
have already discovered several significant stone artefacts.
Including a broken mace head, a sort of ceremonial axe.
Shini is keen to find out how they created objects like this.
Archaeologist Chris Gee specialises in stone working.
-OK, shall I have a go?
So you can do some of these bits
and sometimes the best way is to...
-So it's just like sandpaper?
And the good thing about sandstone in Orkney
is that you get different grades.
And you can move onto this and then you can go on to even finer sands.
Gosh, I can really see how they were able to achieve those fine finishes.
Yeah, that's right. And you see that on the stone tools,
obviously, at the Ness of Brodgar.
That's a mace head that I made earlier.
And we're still working on it.
How on earth did you get this perfect circle?
What I've used to do that hole is a bow drill.
-So wood is used to create these circles in a stone?
I have experimented in the past with
breaking up some quartz or some flint.
And then if you press the flint into the end of the drillbit,
it sets in it and then it'll cut through it quite fast.
'We, basically, in a short space of time, managed to'
transform a lump of unworkable material
into something that had smooth edges and an artistic feel to it.
Just by using really simple techniques
and sticks and stones, essentially.
It's an experiment that shows what these people could achieve
with simple technology.
Andy's mission is to work out how Neolithic materials
and techniques could be used to create a much more complex object,
like a boat.
Patrick McGlinchey is an expert in prehistoric craft.
-Andrew, how are you? Nice to meet you.
Also joining the team are some local seafaring volunteers.
Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming.
So the idea is that you guys build this boat,
partly under your direction, using the knowledge you've got
from ancient boat-building techniques.
Once we've built this boat, try and paddle it across the Pentland Firth.
I think you should see a psychiatrist!
Well, I like the word "trying"!
This is going to be a big build.
So what sort of good boat-building materials
would they have had to hand?
Essentially anything that was flexible,
that we could put a bend in.
That essentially is going to give you the shape.
And of course the strength comes from weaving.
And this is willow. But everybody would have built a boat differently.
There was no set way, and every one that floated was the right way,
if you like.
What other sort of resource would they have used to build it?
We're getting a large skin.
We're also getting fat for sealing the skin.
We're getting the bones to make the tools,
we're getting the sinew to make the bindings and so on.
So the cow itself contains a lot of natural resources.
So, essentially we're going to build a seaworthy boat
out of trees and cows?
We're going to pull out from the middle
-and see what kind of shape we're getting.
-Punch one in there, Andy.
Out a bit, Andy, that way a bit, please.
-I would say that's not bad.
Now, that's the voice of experience!
How many of these have you built, Davey?
DAVEY CLEARS THROAT
What we've got here at the moment, the boat is actually upside down.
-So this, the gunwale, is that wall at the top.
-Just the sides.
-The two sides.
So, it's what's holding the top of the boat together
and then, eventually, we'll bend these over and that...
they tie them together and that's what creates the bottom of the boat.
Yeah, these are partners.
These will be bent over together as a shape, we'll call them the ribs,
if you like. When they're bent to the right shape,
they'll slot down into the weave and these will lock together.
I can see how the boat's going to come together and be built,
but I just... You know, to deal with the power
of the Pentland Firth is another matter.
Well, what you need, Andy, is faith.
Back at the Ness of Brodgar,
work is concentrating on the excavation of structure ten.
Archaeologist Dr Mike Copper is just preparing
to lift the first of the floor slabs.
He's hoping there might be something intriguing hidden beneath it.
Oh, I'm always excited about the prospects of lifting slabs,
we've had interesting things come out
from underneath them before, yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
OK. OK, with care.
Oh-ho-ho! Oh, my goodness!
That is cattle bone.
There are more slabs to lift.
Yeah, I need a cup of tea now, definitely.
That...oh...that's pretty special. Wow. Hm.
Jasper, would you mind telling Nick
-we've got a load more bone down here.
Very, very intriguing.
These cattle bones are unlikely to be here by accident.
Around 5,000 years ago, someone carefully placed them
underneath one of the four cornered buttresses,
inside structure ten.
Even to this day, cattle are central to the way of life here.
We know this all began with the people of ancient Orkney
who used them for food and clothes.
Perhaps they also revered them.
It's possible these cattle bones were ritual offerings
made to imbue the structure with some mystical power.
Dig director Nick Card has come to take a look.
-So what have we got, Mike?
-OK. We have...
Oh, my goodness!
It's, yeah.... It's quite spectacular.
I think from now on, this area is basically, as you've been doing,
almost out of bounds, so we'll have to just work in from the edges.
Just in case there's yet more underneath these other flags.
I'd be very surprised if there wasn't more bone
down there, absolutely. The deposit looks very extensive, so, yes,
I think there's probably more to come.
Back on Stronsay, Chris is on the hunt for information
about how the ancient Orcadians got hold of whalebone.
He wants to find out the number and scale
of whale strandings in recent times,
Which might shed light on how often
this could have happened in the past.
In 1950, Jean Stevenson
witnessed a whole pod of pilot whales washed up on the beach.
Well, that's a photograph. That gives you an idea...
-..just how many there were.
They were groaning and blowing and they were obviously in distress.
Some of the smaller ones, the men tried to put them out
into the sea again and they stayed for about 20 minutes, maybe.
And then they just came back in again.
So there was really nothing they could do to help them.
These animals, they rely on their echolocation
for close-to-shore navigation
and this shallow, sloping sandy beach is just the sort of place
where you don't get a good bounce...
-..off rocks or cliffs or things like that.
And so it's quite possible that they just got a bit confused coming into
this bay, and ended up coming onto the beach.
These pods are very strongly based on the mother,
and if she gets it wrong, all the others will simply follow her.
So, if she's old or sick or debilitated or confused,
it's that herd mentality.
On average, ten whales or dolphins end up stranded
on the shores of Orkney every year.
But long before commercial hunting,
the picture would have been even more dramatic.
In those days, there would have been an enormously larger number
of whales, so there could have been
a chance that there would have been a lot more stranded.
And all of a sudden you've got tonnes of meat lying on the beach.
So there's going to be a big barbecue bonanza.
But then it's not just the meat, I mean, all of the bones.
-Exactly. I've got a small specimen here.
-You've been making some soup.
It's like a propeller.
I mean, imagine how many needles you could make from that.
And then, of course, you've got the shoreline itself,
full of crustaceans and shellfish, seaweed,
which would have been rich beyond our imagination.
People in Neolithic times had such an extensive knowledge
of everything they did.
I tried to make a mace this morning.
That's a thing of wonder. I love that.
I love how you can already see the finished object
emerging from that piece.
It seems that they reached a point where their understanding
of their environment and their understanding of the resources
that were available to them
enabled them to bring together a civilisation that worked
on every level.
The ancient Orcadians were people of plenty.
They had the natural resources and the technological know-how
to help their culture thrive.
But there is still much to find out.
How did they cross the raging seas?
Argh, this weighs a tonne!
And what might they have believed?
At the ness, all eyes are on structure ten -
Mike is about to lift another slab.
Well, we're looking at the second part of a fractured slab
that was overlying the large cattle bones
that we can see just down here.
If there's any bone adhering to the base of it we'll have two flip it
over, move it that way, and put it down.
OK? Right. Are we ready?
OK. Let's have a look.
I'll pull it up that way. Careful, careful.
This is... That looks remarkably like bone.
That could just be the tip of the iceberg,
poking above the surface of the ocean.
A spray of water reveals it is another bone,
but this one isn't from a cow.
Has that helped?
I have to admit, it does actually look human.
But I wouldn't want to commit myself at this stage, really,
but if it were to be human, that would be fascinating,
particularly as it's in with so much cattle bone.
But before Mike can investigate the remarkable find further...
..the fickle Orkney weather intervenes.
It looks like the weather's closing in,
so we're just getting the site ready,
because I think it is going to start heaving down with rain.
Bye-bye, site, for the afternoon.
We'll be back tomorrow morning when it will be bright and sunny
and subtropical temperatures.
So we hope.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
The storm reveals something surprising
to art expert Antonia Thomas.
It was all muddy, and I just saw the top of it there
and realised it went across the grain,
but these were full of mud.
Some of this stonework had become washed by the recent rains,
and there it was, this new piece of Neolithic art.
To have this sort of arcing carved in parallel lines,
a kind of rosette pattern with little drilled cupolae
is really unusual.
We've not got anything like that on site.
Shini is catching up with Antonia to find out more
about the art found at the ness
and, especially, the astonishing objects
recovered from structure ten.
Oh, are these special finds?
-What I've got here are some of the more
interesting objects - specifically, ones with decoration.
This is quite a large stone,
it actually weighs about 35, 40 kilos, so it's quite a beast.
Do these shapes symbolise anything?
Well, the kind of carvings we get,
the decoration we get in Orkney
is almost entirely these sort of geometric, linear abstract forms.
We don't get any figurative carvings of people or animals, for example,
like you do in other places.
They've found over 700 examples of decorated stone
at the Ness of Brodgar.
One of the rarest is this carved stone ball,
discovered a few years ago beneath structure ten.
Some archaeologists go their whole life kind of dreaming of finding
a carved stone ball - it's one of those sort of finds.
-Was it you that found it?
-Nope. It wasn't me, I've never found one.
I'd quite like to.
I don't know, maybe as an engineer, I feel like it can't just be art.
There must have been a function to this.
It seems likely that they were kind of a special
kind of ritual artefact that was
kind of used, perhaps, in ceremonies.
They certainly show a very keen interest in geometry.
If you look at the skill and how they're made,
that sort of carving around is quite sophisticated.
Carved stone balls like this have been found across Scotland
and the north of England and may be part of the stone circle culture
which swept down Britain around 3000 BC.
Including, of course, the most famous stone circle
of them all, Stonehenge.
This culture seems to have emanated from Orkney,
with the ness at its heart.
A culture transmitted by people travelling the seaways of Britain.
After a week of hard graft, Patrick and the volunteers
have completed the willow frame of their Neolithic boat.
I'll tell you what, that looks so much stronger
than I thought it would.
It should be like a tight drum, but it should have some flex in it.
What I would prefer not to happen is, when I'm halfway across
the Pentland Firth, it starts shaking apart.
It's not going to shake apart. It's going to flex.
You're going to feel the motion of the water underneath you,
but it's not going to break.
It's clear that the ancient Orcadians
would have had a plentiful supply of cowhide.
So that's what the team used to cover the frame.
-These are damp.
-Yeah, they stretch better if they're damp.
Good old-fashioned beef dripping.
It's a good smell.
The cattle fat is used to waterproof the hide and the seams.
If that's not watertight, nothing will be.
For apprentice Jeff Mackie, building the boat is his way
of finding out more about his Orcadian roots.
This is telling the story of how our ancestors travelled
from Orkney to the mainland.
It's our history. It's an important part
of how we became what we are today.
Making the boat isn't enough by itself, though,
we also need to understand the tides and sea routes
the ancient Orcadians had to tackle.
No-one knows this stretch of sea better than the lifeboat crew
who patrol it.
Coxswain Angus Budge takes Shini out to the middle of the Pentland Firth.
So, if I shut the engines down right now,
could we measure how much we drift?
So, what on this screen tells us that we are drifting,
-and at what speed?
-Speed overground tells us that.
Speed overground, SOG. 4.9 knots, 5.2 knots.
So is that how fast the tide is pushing us, then?
That's correct, yes.
One knot is slightly over a mile an hour,
currents this fast will push a boat about a mile off course
every ten minutes.
At times, the tidal flow can hit over ten knots.
The strongest tides anywhere in Britain.
So what we're drifting in now is what we're likely to encounter
-in our Neolithic boat.
But they could encounter something even worse.
In parts of the firth, the tide race creates violent turbulence.
-That is amazing.
-There's a whirlpool there.
So what exactly is happening here?
Cos there seems to be a real sort of conflict of water flow.
What's happening is the Atlantic Ocean is trying to make its way
towards the North Sea. So on one side we have tide
that is moving east, and on the opposite side,
on the inside of this turbulence, the tide is actually moving west.
So a huge volume of water is being squeezed into a tiny space,
and that tiny space is caused by islands on each side, kind of,
-constricting the flow, essentially.
As the tidal race surges through the firth,
the island of Stroma disrupts the flow.
Areas of chaotic, deadly turbulence form at the island's tip.
Sailors have long called it the Swelkie.
-So is this Swelkie?
-Yeah, we're in the Swelkie.
I believe that the Norse translation of the name means swallower.
Gosh, that doesn't sound too promising!
There are something like five shipwrecks
within 200 metres of where we are.
That's how bad it is.
The Swelkie varies in violence depending on the phase of the tides.
Every two weeks the tides swing between the gentle, neap tides,
and the more powerful spring tides.
This change is determined by the waxing and waning of the moon,
and it's this that the ancient Orcadians
are likely to have used to predict when it was safe to cross.
Back at the ness, the archaeologists are now ready, carefully,
to remove the mystery bone from the clay beneath structure ten.
My thoughts are that it is human.
There is little doubt in my mind, having excavated various skeletons
before in the past, that it is a human humerus.
Only a few human bones have ever been discovered at the ness.
And none of them in such a significant location.
The bone, from an arm, is around 5,000 years old,
and extremely fragile.
It's sitting on clay and that means that if we try and lift it,
the clay may actually stick to the bone
and the bone will just break in half.
So what we've got to do is we've got to ensure there's absolutely nothing
holding it down and then when we lift it,
it should lift in one piece.
Oh, careful, careful.
Yeah, wait a minute, though, it's not free yet.
This end needs dealing with.
-Let's try and get hands underneath.
-Hold it underneath, the middle part.
There we go, right, gently, gently.
Lovely. OK then.
Once cleaned and dried, the bone can be examined in detail,
along with the cattle bones discovered earlier.
So, this was found as a kind of foundation deposit,
right underneath this buttress.
-Cattle. Very large cattle.
And in this particular area there was three articulated leg bones.
So articulated, so they went in with meat still on them?
Yes, at least the sinews holding them together,
but I would expect that these were still enfleshed.
So that was buried beside, at the same time as this?
Right in the midst of all these cattle bone, but very odd,
just a single human bone.
This isn't human sacrifice, this isn't...
hasn't been butchered like the cattle bones?
No, there's no evidence that this has been butchered.
This seems to have been somebody who was dead already,
and the bones were...
and then this particular bone selected to be placed
-next to the cattle bone.
-It's great, isn't it?
I mean, it's unintentional on the part of the people
that put it on the ground, but they are sending us, you know, a message,
they're sending us information from their present to our present.
Indeed. This is one of the kind of gifts of archaeology.
These kind of unexpected deposits can sometimes shed a whole lot more
light on various aspects of life 5,000 years ago.
Similar discoveries of human and animal bones together
have been made elsewhere in Orkney.
The more examples we can find, the more situations
in which we come across human remains and animal remains
being put deliberately together,
then the better the chance we have of working out what's going on.
But it's complicated.
It is fundamentally about trying to get inside the mind
of the Neolithic human being.
The most spectacular discovery in Orkney of human and animal bones
combined was made on the island of South Ronaldsay 50 years ago.
Farmer Ronnie Simison stumbled across a Neolithic tomb containing
thousands of human bones and alongside the bones of the people,
he discovered the remains of scores of sea eagles.
The sea eagle is the largest bird of prey in Britain
and can still be seen around the cliffs of Orkney today.
Perhaps the Tomb of the Eagles can help shed light on the mysterious
practices of the ancient Orcadians.
You can see why they chose it for a burial place.
'Ronnie's daughter, Kathleen, is now the keeper of the tomb.'
Right, I'm guessing I lie on my back, cos I can see a rope.
You've got a choice, some people do it on their front,
you can do it on your back, if you like.
-Watch your head, that's it.
-Pull on the rope, there you go.
Oh, yes. Oh, I love it.
What exactly did your dad see?
There was just a dark space inside, so he got a cigarette lighter
and put that in and lit it,
-and there were between 20 and 30 skulls smiling back at him.
He was the first person to put light in there for thousands of years.
-How many human bones did he find in here?
There were 16,000 human bones.
-16,000 human bones?!
So how many individuals does that represent?
Well, there are about 85 skulls,
but I believe there's about 114 jawbones,
and there'll be a few more than that.
-So a lot of the bones were broken up?
-A lot of people.
-Tell me the story of the eagle bones, then.
There were 70 talons found in the tomb,
one man had five buried with him, another person had seven.
Another had 15.
You get a real sense, that really gives you the sea eagle,
doesn't it, when you see that?
It's possibly a status symbol.
Are all the bones and all the talons from sea eagles...
-..all one species?
But different tombs in Orkney,
some of them appear to have more than one bird or animal
than any other.
So it's possibly a totem, an emblem, as well.
'There is debate about when and how the sea eagle bones
'entered the tomb.
'But it could be that they were carefully placed
'alongside the human skeletons.'
It is fascinating having the opportunity to speculate
about what the sea eagles meant to the people
who took the trouble to incorporate their bones
in amongst the human remains at the tomb.
As they flew in the sky, they were guardians
for what the ancestors had been and who they had represented.
Now, was something similar happening at the ness?
Was it the case there that there was also a belief
or an understanding of a symbiotic relationship
between the human beings and the cattle that they took care of?
Was it some kind of coming together of everything
that was important about life?
The Neolithic boat is nearly finished.
As far as possible, the team have used materials and techniques
the ancient Orcadians were known to have.
Marine archaeologist Sandra Hendry has come to inspect it.
-In you go.
This is the boat, which will hopefully take us across
-the Pentland Firth.
-That is amazing!
And what did you use for the skin of the vessel?
-It's cow. Cowhide.
And then covered in lard, basically.
Animal fat...to waterproof it.
Really small paddles as well.
Massive blades will give you more power per stroke,
but it's a huge amount of effort to use them,
so it's a balance between the power,
but not completely knackering yourself in the first two minutes.
-This is really impressive.
So, is this the sort of thing they would have had
in the Neolithic?
Yeah, this is the kind of craft we're probably looking at them using
to cross the Pentland Firth.
You know, the kind of internal wickerwork frame
and the hides.
You've a nice double-ended vessel.
You have a rudder in place.
I think that you're doing pretty well with what you've built here.
-Yeah. I still don't particularly fancy your chances,
just cos it's such a dangerous body of water.
But...best of luck.
All the boat needs now is a crew.
Five members of the Orkney Rowing Club
and apprentice boat builder Jeff have volunteered
to make the crossing along with Andy.
-This is it. This is it.
-Another boat for you to inspect.
I've never seen a canoe made out of cow before, so...
But it's... Yeah, the work on the inside here is amazing.
Davey is the club's skipper.
Yeah, it's impressive. Yeah.
Looking forward to get her in the water and give it a shot.
Audrey is the cox who will steer.
I think she looks quite sturdy.
But, yeah, I'm just intrigued if she's going to be too light.
Andy's got a boat and a crew.
But Shini's research is now also crucial.
The precise route, tides, weather and timing
will all play an important role.
Get any one factor wrong and the voyage could founder.
So what did the lifeboat guys say?
Well, first of all, the lifeboatmen really suggested
that we shouldn't do this, cos it's so dangerous. Very treacherous.
-But they said if we were going to attempt it,
we should start leaving the bay at 8am.
So, ideally what you want to do is just sail directly down south
to the mainland.
But it's obviously not going to work out that way,
because you've got tides going from west to east.
So you're going to have to do a journey
that is pointing in the opposite direction,
so that you're drifting south that way.
The lifeboatmen really suggested that we stay away from this area,
it's notoriously dangerous, and having been out on the lifeboat,
I saw whirlpools being formed out of nothing and then dissipating.
I mean, it's just really kind of unpredictable out there.
Andy and the crew plan their journey for just after the less powerful
neap tide that only occurs twice every month.
But even this tide creates powerful currents,
and once they leave the bay,
they'll have to fight hard to avoid being pushed east
into the treacherous Swelkie.
Knowledge of tides was just one consideration
ancient Orcadians would have to make every time they set out to sea.
Now, this doesn't take into account weather.
No. Back in Neolithic times, you know,
they would never risk this crossing in anything but ideal conditions.
It's going to be affected by the wind a huge amount.
So, what I'm hoping for is very,
very light winds - or no wind at all would be nice.
Crew and boat are heading to the launch point,
a sheltered bay on the island of Hoy.
Are we good?
Tomorrow morning, it's key that we get out of this bay
at exactly the right time to get the tide and the right conditions.
So what we don't want to be, is tomorrow morning, at that moment,
messing around trying to sort the boat out.
So everything's got to be perfect tonight,
before we go to bed.
The 16,000 human bones discovered in the Tomb of the Eagles
are now kept at The Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.
It's a treasure trove of evidence that might help shed light
on the human bone found at the ness.
Forensic archaeologist Dave Lawrence has examined all of the bones,
and has come to some startling conclusions
about life in Neolithic Orkney.
It was not in any way peaceful.
Certainly the individuals at the Tomb of the Eagles
suffered violence, some of them fatally.
Possibly up to 40% or 50% of them did,
which is higher than has been estimated anywhere else.
This is a prime example.
This is a young female individual,
this poor woman was hit on the side of the head, just here,
this indentation is a healed depressed fracture.
This is another healed depressed fracture.
So during the course of her life, she has been attacked or beaten...
Either on several occasions or on one occasion, quite severely.
But she survived? She didn't die of these wounds?
She survived that and she's probably lived on to a decent age.
And you say getting on for half of the people in that tomb
had suffered some kind of violence?
This is almost certainly interpersonal violence,
on quite a large scale.
As well as violence, what else is featuring on the skeletons,
on the bones that you're getting out of the tomb?
We see quite a lot of osteoarthritis,
and that's very widespread in the Neolithic. It's a hard life.
They do a lot of physical labour.
So the Tomb of the Eagles is a collection of people
damaged by violence or damaged by disease,
and when they died, there was a decision made to keep them,
because they had been oddities in life?
I think so. I think it's actually a little bit more than that.
If you don't understand what is causing someone's disease,
you might think they've been touched by something supernatural.
And one of the things we see in some societies worldwide is that people
who are touched by the supernatural might be in contact with the
supernatural and might even be able to control the supernatural.
And it might explain why they were selected to go into the tombs.
The Tomb of the Eagles on the Ness of Brodgar would have had very
different roles in the life of Neolithic Orkney.
But both sites have a fascinating combination
of animal and human remains.
It seems likely that the animal bones
were of creatures they revered and that the human bones
were almost certainly also of some spiritual significance.
Perhaps, that helps us to understand the human bone incorporated
into that enigmatic temple structure at the ness.
No doubt, surely, that human bone came from an individual
who was revered by the people who built the temple at the ness.
No doubt it wasn't just some random piece of human anatomy.
It was a bone from someone that they remembered, perhaps somebody
whose life, whose existence, had actually made that whole site,
the Ness of Brodgar significant and memorable in the first place.
We are inching closer to an understanding of the practice
and beliefs of the ancient Orcadians.
But it seems certain that the ness was at the centre of an intricate
belief system that bound their culture together,
a culture they took with them across the seas to the mainland.
The morning of the voyage, unusually for Orkney,
all looks calm.
But crossing six-and-a-half miles of the Pentland Firth
is unlikely to be so tranquil.
There's not much wind.
We'll definitely make some progress.
Whether we can actually make landfall or not, I don't know.
The whole thing's experimental, so, you know,
success or failure, we'll learn something.
We all know, you know, what the water here can do
and the dangers that it has there.
You know, it looks beautiful and pretty on a morning like this,
but, yeah, you know, you don't mess about on it, at all.
You have to respect the sea, because the sea takes no prisoners.
OK, five minutes. Guys, do your last-minute checks.
Make sure everything's in the boat.
It's very deceptive right now, because it's so calm
and so beautiful, but as soon as they make a right-hand turn
they're straight into the Pentland Firth.
And that's when the trial begins,
because those tides are going to be really strong out there.
It just goes to show what people in Neolithic times had to deal with.
OK, guys, let's head off and see what this does.
-Good luck, guys.
So, best-case scenario, they make it to land in however long it takes,
you know, it could be eight hours, could be less, could be more.
Worst-case scenario, I don't even want to think about it.
I don't know if that means good luck or turn back.
"Turn back now, you fools!"
If I look down, I can see the water line through the bottom of the boat
and it's...it's a funny thing that the only thing between us
and the meeting place of the Atlantic and the North Sea
is a bit of cow skin.
It's proved to be absolutely watertight.
So far, the boat is holding its own,
but the powerful tide race is now at its peak.
Running at over 8mph, it's driving the boat east all
-So they need to aim for that headland over there,
cos that will keep them in a south-westerly direction.
So it's crucial that they do that,
cos otherwise the flood tide is just going to keep them moving east,
and that is not a good thing.
It's not a good thing, because to the east
are the whirlpools of the Swelkie.
And despite their best efforts, the tide is pushing the boat
inexorably towards it.
Audrey, on the rudder, must keep them on a safe course,
until the tide turns in a couple of hours.
You can imagine the work that Audrey's doing just to keep the boat
straight, she's having to use her whole body weight
to counteract the thick tide.
Pushing the paddles and everything.
So, good on her, it's hard work for her too.
If nothing else, we've learnt that having a tiller,
being able to steer this boat, is essential
if you want to get across the Pentland Firth.
The Neolithic seafarers must have had boats with tillers.
The wind's picked up and the sea's picked up, it's much, much choppier.
And that just makes it much, much harder.
Out in the open sea, it's far more challenging.
For two hours they've been paddling a relentless 60 strokes a minute.
But they're still less than halfway.
-What's that, Bruce?
There's a few shipwrecks around here.
Probably plenty of guys went down trying to do it in one of these.
Come on, guys. Dig it in.
Long and strong. Go on.
Their heroic efforts keep them clear of the Swelkie,
and now the current that fights them is weakening
as the tide begins to turn.
Slack water will allow them to head straight for mainland Britain.
Andy, you're perfectly on course. Good job.
Dry land. British mainland.
-We made it.
-Yes, we did it!
-Well done, guys. Well done, Andy.
That was cracking. Good effort.
I feel sore, tired, relieved.
The last time that someone did this in that sort of boat,
was probably, I don't know, 2000, 3000 BC.
We did it in, what did we do it in? Just under five hours.
This unique archaeological experiment
has shown the extraordinary feats
which these ancient people were capable of.
Their fragile skin boats carry people,
animals and goods across the most treacherous waters
in the British Isles.
They also carried something less tangible, but equally important.
This was how ideas, beliefs and expertise spread out
to the rest of Britain.
Look at him.
He's radiating smug.
O, ye of little faith!
I was forewarding an understanding of Neolithic man.
You don't think it's anything to do with the fact that it was a day that
Pentland Firth has never seen before and will probably never see again?
I think that's probably the biggest factor, to be fair.
But, yeah, if the wind had been even 5mph more, we probably
-wouldn't have made it.
-Did it feel seaworthy?
-You know, were you confident in the craft?
I think their boat technology was far more advanced than
what we had. If you're making multiple crossings
throughout the year, year after year, generation after generation,
you're going to hone those boats to be fantastic crafts.
People in Neolithic times must have had a massively extensive
knowledge of tides and currents.
And that could have only really come from just patience and observation
over generations. Just passing this information down.
It seems to me that during the Neolithic in Orkney,
there was almost a golden era, they understood their place
in the universe, they understood the relationship
to the world around them.
And it worked for a long, long time.
You know, we are talking at the Ness of Brodgar, about 1,000 years.
I mean, just stop and think about that.
1,000 years of continuity there.
And it obviously begs the question,
why did it come to an end?
Next time, we investigate the dramatic collapse of the ness.
There was a gathering, and as many
as 400 head of cattle were slaughtered.
We ask why people abandoned a whole way of life.
Maybe the people that left here felt good about going to the mainland.
I'm going to put a third this side.
And Shini puts her engineering skills to the test.
-Yeah. It's really good.
Orkney - seven miles off the coast of Scotland, and cut off by the tumultuous Pentland Firth, the fastest-flowing tidal race in Europe is often viewed as being remote. However it is one of the treasure troves of archaeology in Britain, and recent discoveries there are turning the Stone Age map of Britain upside down. Rather than an outpost at the edge of the world, recent finds suggest an extraordinary theory - that Orkney was the cultural capital of our ancient world and the origin of the stone circle cult which culminated in Stonehenge.
In the second of this three-part series, Neil Oliver, Chris Packham, Andy Torbet and Dr Shini Somara join hundreds of archaeologists from around the world who have gathered there to investigate at one of Europe's biggest digs.
Andy and some local seafaring volunteers build a boat made of just willow and cow hide and set out to cross the dangerous Pentland Firth as the ancient Orcadians would have done. Neil investigates the extraordinary discovery of some human bones, Chris goes in search of whales and Shini uncovers the powers of the tides.