Secrets of Orkney

In this blog, the late Caroline Wickham-Jones takes us behind the scenes of her involvement in the BBC2 series Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney, sharing her love of this beautiful and historic place, and encouraging readers to explore prehistoric sites and walk in the footsteps of their ancestors.

By Caroline Wickham-Jones | 5 min read

Finally, after much anticipation, BBC Two’s series on Neolithic Orkney started in January 2017. It is a handsome show with truly magnificent filming and it aims to present some of the most recent ideas about Neolithic Britain to a wider audience than the current academic papers have, perhaps, been able to reach. It is an interesting series that is bound to get you thinking – and, hopefully, make you add Orkney to your wish-list of places to be visited.

I’m biased – I live in Orkney and much of my archaeology is based here.

Of course, the show-piece of the series is the amazing site at Ness of Brodgar, but you can’t understand one site in isolation and so some of our other ‘goodies’ are also featured, such as the complex site at Links of Noltland and the great tomb of Maeshowe.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. Photo: Caroline-Wickham Jones.

I first heard about the filming in early May when we discussed some of my research with a view to the film crew covering work in progress. Gradually, that developed and I went on to answer some of their more general queries about Neolithic Orkney.  Often, it was just a matter of putting the production team in touch with other specialists. In August, I was duly filmed – looking rather windswept on various Orkney hillsides and waving my arms around rather a lot. I thought it would end there, but stayed in touch to answer the odd question.

Aside from archaeology, one of my loves is playing with words, so I was delighted to be asked to become involved with the series’ text a bit more generally, albeit from a distance.

Excavations at Ness of Brodgar. By S Marshall via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It has been a fun experience. And I have learnt a lot. I’m used to writing in a static ‘turn-the-page’ sort of way and I enjoy that. I always imagine that I’m talking to someone as I write. But it is a totally different thing to put together a visual script. I guess it follows the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, because I found that we were really trying to get over some very complex ideas, but using very short texts – the visuals were, of course, paramount. It made me think long and hard about each word. Every addition became a luxury, every deletion a relief.

The production team were keen to show how archaeologists work as well as to highlight individual sites. They spent the summer filming and had several film crews spread out across the archipelago. Logistically, it was a complicated operation. I was only part of this for a couple of days, and I have to say that while it was fun, I was happy once it was over. It is a hard way to earn a living.

Back in the city, the time came to stitch those film clips into a coherent thread. It takes a special kind of eye to see how a story is built out of images. That is when the real questions started. Although the story is one that has begun to emerge among archaeologists over the last few years, committing it to screen for a non-archaeological audience was much more complex than you might think.

It takes a special kind of eye to see how a story is built out of images.

To start with, as archaeologists we share an academic background. When we speak of some things, such as the Neolithic, or Chambered Tombs, we know what we mean, or we think we do. But you just can’t make assumptions like this when you are putting together a television programme. Everything has to be defined and explained – albeit briefly.

So, while the story emerged, the production team had numerous questions. Not only were they keen to make sure that every statement was backed by archaeological fact, but also they had to fill in the gaps that the archaeologists tend to gloss over. What exactly were the implications of our statements: what does it mean if something developed thus? How do ideas move? What is a ‘Neolithic set of beliefs’? Why do house styles change? What is a henge? What was a tomb used for? Only by joining all of the dots would it become possible to build an archaeological narrative.

Skara Brae, Orkney. Photo: Caroline Wickham-Jones.

This is where it all got interesting. As an archaeologist, it is easy to slip into the trap of narrow thinking rather than really exploring the possible implications of our ideas. Of course, the team were keen to make good telly, but it had to be factually accurate. They took ideas that were familiar to me, shook them around as a dog might, threw them up into the air, and then wanted me to catch them. I had to justify everything – and I could not just stop with the familiar and obvious.

It is good to be taken out of our comfort zones. No doubt there will be more questions once the series airs. And no doubt there will be a lot of interest in Orkney. You can, of course, read the books. You can watch the series. You can also visit – in fact nothing beats actually experiencing the remains, especially if you can get away to some of our less promoted sites. These are, after all, the very places that our ancestors knew.

If you can’t get to Orkney, then there is always a stone circle somewhere nearby

Our life experiences are, by and large, distinct from the communities of the past. The landscape is no longer quite the same. Our knowledge base is very different. We visit the sites with the experience of hindsight – in some ways we are in a privileged position, but in other ways we are not. We don’t know precisely what people did, or believed, when they crossed into the sacred heart of a henge. We don’t know exactly how they transported and erected the great stones that lined the inside of the platform. We don’t know how the work of building the henge was initiated, or designed.

Despite these gaps, I do recommend visiting the sites. If you can’t get to Orkney, then there is always a stone circle somewhere nearby. Seek out your local site and, as you walk, think of those who built it and the world in which it was set. Watch the series, read some books: they will get you thinking about what you are experiencing and perhaps, hopefully, bring you closer to the ancestors who worked to create the amazing legacy of the past.

Caroline Wickham-Jones (1955-2022) lived and worked in Orkney. She was an honorary Research Associate in archaeology at the University of Aberdeen. She worked on, and directed archaeological excavations across Scotland including Skara Brae and Links of Noltland in Orkney.  She directed the excavations of a Mesolithic site on the island of Rum and was involved in a number of other Mesolithic projects including the sites at Camas Daraich, in Skye and Long Howe in Orkney, and as co-director of the Scotland’s First Settlers Project. She is the author of several popular archaeology books, as well as many academic papers.

You can find out more about Caroline’s life in this obituary.

Books by Caroline Wickham-Jones

Learn more about Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney here.

Cover image ©  Robert Beharie and licensed for reuse  (CC BY-SA 2.0)