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Orkney in London: connections through space and time

After hardly leaving Orkney for the past two years, the thought of going to central London was daunting to say to least. But I shouldn’t have worried. Stepping off the train at Kings Cross, the weather had a reassuringly Orcadian feel to it, with blustery gales and rain showers. I took this as a good omen! I was in London because I’d been invited to the evening preview of The World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum, a showcase of some of the finest prehistoric artefacts from across Europe, including a fantastic number of Neolithic and Bronze Age items from Orkney. But first, my 9-year-old daughter Lucie and I had some sightseeing to do.

One of the things which always amazes me when I go south is how there seem to be Orcadian connections everywhere. If we’d had time, we might have visited the church of St Magnus the Martyr at the head of the old London Bridge in the City, dedicated to our very own St Magnus. Although very different in size and style from St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, this was Sir Christopher Wren’s most expensive parish church and was built following the Great Fire of London in 1666, replacing a medieval building that once stood on the same site. But we didn’t have time - with just a day in town we had to prioritise, and I’d promised Lucie a trip to the Natural History Museum. 

But even here there were Orkney connections. Upstairs we found a display of manuscripts and artworks by Joseph Banks, one of the most influential British scientists of the late 1700s. An explorer and naturalist, he documented many new species of birds, including the Great Auk, which went extinct in 1844. If you’ve ever been to Papa Westray, you might be familiar with this creature, and its red clay memorial at Fowl Crag on the island’s northern cliffs. The last Great Auk recorded in the British Isles was shot there in 1813, its stuffed remains providing the only UK specimen of this incredible bird.

In 1772, Banks led the first British scientific expedition to Iceland, accompanied by three artists, John Cleveley and brothers James and John Frederick Miller. Their return journey included a stop in Orkney, and their journals, drawings and watercolours provide us with some of the earliest images of Orkney’s famous Neolithic sites. They illustrated the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar and even found time to excavate some ‘ancient tombs’ near Skara Brae in Sandwick, describing what appear to have been Bronze Age cist burials.

Seeing Banks’ collections in the Natural History Museum was a reminder of how Orkney has always been linked to global histories of travel and exploration. This was a wonderful taster for what was to come, and our main reason for being in London – The World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. Walking into the reception that evening, there were more connections: friends and colleagues from the world of archaeology, many of whom I haven’t seen since before the pandemic, and many who have worked on Orkney excavations and artefacts over the years.

The 630 artefacts on show were loaned from some 36 collections from across the UK, the Republic of Ireland, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland.

Carved stones, polished axes and maceheads, decorated pottery and from the Ness of Brodgar, Skara Brae, and the Knowes of Trotty sat on show alongside some of the finest objects and constructions from prehistoric Europe: timber circles and trackways, gold capes and hats, sparkling green jadeite axes, carved stone balls, cups worked in pure gold or carved from amber.

A pottery sherd from Skara Brae, decorated with spirals and lozenges was displayed next to a chalk drum with striking similar patterns. This drum, which had been tenderly placed in the grave of three Neolithic children in Yorkshire, was for me the most poignant object in the show. It provided a connection back through time, rendering the pain of bereavement tangible even after five millennia.

Other connections were to be found throughout. Incised geometric patterns on slate plaques from Portugal recall similar markings on examples from Cornwall, or the carved stones from the Ness of Brodgar. We saw the incredible Nebra Sky Disc from eastern Germany, which included Cornish gold, and axes which had travelled from the North Italian Alps to Scotland thousands of years ago. Each item in the show was unique, but the displays highlighted the incredible stylistic and material connections between artefacts and architecture found over a vast geographical area.

This exhibition was a truly European endeavour, which spoke of not just our shared historical connections, but the value of collaborative international research now. It was a reminder that, whether in the Neolithic, the time of St Magnus, or the age of explorers like Joseph Banks, and now in the 21st century, Orkney sits at the heart of a cosmopolitan and connected world.

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