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  A Brief History of Orkney

The Iron Age - 800BC-500AD

The Riddle of the Iron Age Dead Religion and Belief

The Iron Age in Orkney, as in the rest of Scotland, seems to have been a time of change and unrest. At the time, the people of Orkney were probably still arranged in fragmented individual tribes, each likely to be under the leadership of an independent 'chieftain'.

Climatic deterioration had begun in the Bronze Age but around 600BC Orkney's climate deteriorated further. The islands became colder and wetter and as peat and heather claimed the once-fertile high ground, upland cultivation became impossible, forcing people down to the low-lying areas.

The shortage of good, fertile soil meant land became precious and the competition for farmland may have led to a more aggressive society. The construction of robust, fortified dwellings in Orkney coincides with the expansion of the bronze industry on the Scottish mainland - something that saw a marked increase in the number of readily available weaponry.

These roundhouses began appearing from around 600BC, and by 100BC had evolved into the massive, fortified stone towers we now know as brochs.

Although there is no denying their defensive properties, it may be that the roundhouse and broch were as much a visible symbol of social status than a fortress or refuge.

Around 120 brochs have been recorded in Orkney, but whether they were actually intended for defence, or were merely a symbol of wealth and prestige, the popularity of the monumental broch declined in importance around 100AD.

Orcadian society in the Iron Age had formed into distinct social layers with an "aristocratic" ruling class above the ordinary islander. As in more recent history, a substantial and impressive dwelling was a good way to mark territory and remind others of the individual's standing in the community.

Throughout the Iron Age, metal goods were being crafted in Orkney, with the metalworking at Minehowe in Tankerness being hailed as one of one of the best assemblages of Iron Age metalworking in Britain. Together with this industry, there appears to have been an extensive series of trading routes in operation.

During the Iron Age, Orkney was far from isolated, with discoveries of Roman pottery and artefacts are a number of broch sites as well as Minehowe in Tankerness. The accounts of Pytheas in 325BC shows that the islands were at least known in the Mediterranean.

The standard of life in Orkney seems to have been quite high. Evidence shows that, by Iron Age standards, Orkney was a prosperous and secure place.

This prosperity was the result of mixed farming activities combined with fishing and hunting. Grain was grown but farming centred around the rearing of cattle - thus providing not only meat and milk but also leather - pigs, sheep, hens and goats. The broch builders also hunted, though this was not only through necessity but for leisure.

By the 4th and 5th centuries AD, patterns of farming had changed in Orkney. Its Iron Age tribes had become part of the Pictish nation. They lived in farmsteads across the Orcadian landscape - one shamrock-shaped farm being built right next to the Broch of Gurness.

The riddle of the Iron Age dead

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