Monday, 28 January 2019

The Dwarfie Stane

Situated on the island of Hoy in Orkney, the Dwarfie Stane is believed to be a tomb dating to the third millennium BC.

Orkney is one of the most important Neolithic locations in Britain, and perhaps the world. It’s increasingly believed to have been the heart of British culture during the third and fourth millennia BC. Tombs, stone circles, villages and huge ritual buildings are linked in a vast and complex web, a mere glimpse of the complexity of the culture archaeologists are only beginning to discover.


Hoy is an island characterised by lofty peaks, sheer cliffs and swathes of bleak heather moorland, one of the wildest islands in Orkney. There was little habitation in the Neolithic or any other period compared to the other islands. Scraping a living from this unforgiving island would have been near impossible.

The Dwarfie Stane is unique on Orkney and in Britain. It comprises a single huge block of stone, carved out to form an entrance and two side chambers, each about a metre wide. It was broken open long ago and no burials or anything else are known. As such there is nothing to confirm it was even a tomb.

The interior of the Dwarfie Stane.

Legend tells that the Stane, or stone in local dialect, was the home of a (dwarfish) giant and his wife. A third giant imprisoned them inside to make himself master of Hoy, but the imprisoned giant smashed his way through the roof. This explains the now-repaired hole in the roof, probably made by ancient tomb-robbers.

The tomb is situated on a flat stretch of moor between the hills, and it faces the dramatic and sweeping slopes of Hoy’s highest peaks. It’s hard to believe this wasn’t intentional. Most of Orkney’s tombs face out to sea; perhaps the purpose of the Dwarfie Stane’s orientation was to absorb the powerful spirit of Hoy.

The Orkney people’s spiritual beliefs have been barely examined, but there is no doubt their complexity equals the complexity of their material world. The tomb has intriguing similarities to tombs in the Mediterranean, where the first farmers in Britain are believed to have arrived from. Perhaps time will tell us more about this enigmatic construction.

The view from inside the Stane.

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