Reader Jimmy Dalek wrote to me about one of my favourite places on the planet – the Dwarfie Stane on wonderful Orkney. The stane or stone (both spellings are widely used) is a huge block of red sandstone about 8.5 metres long. It was hollowed out using the only tools available to Neolithic people: stone tools, deer antler picks, and a great deal of human effort over a long time.
Situated on Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, this remnant of the British Neolithic is usually referred to as a ‘tomb’ – but the evidence is minimal. I have linked to the Wiki article about it below so you can see the accepted wisdom.
I think the Dwarfie Stane had a totally different purpose – that of a restricted meeting place – a critical component of all oral cultures.
One of the most astounding aspects of the Dwarfie Stane is the acoustics. I sat cross-legged and chanted in it and was blown away by the effects. Stunning acoustics might be a coincidence, but it certainly doesn’t offer much to dead bodies in a tomb. I believe that it was deliberate. Acoustic enhancement is one of my Ten Indicators of a Mnemonic Monument.
Jimmy sent the following message and photos:
I have just returned from a week in Orkney. I wanted to visit the Ness of Brodgar dig and see the stones, henges and cairns etc. So I did, with my beautiful friend. Last wednesday we got the ferry from Stromness to Hoy and we cycled to the Dwarfie Stone. I knew about it from Julian Cope’s book. The left hand chamber is bare with a slight lip on the floor the right hand chamber has a beautifully carved lip all round the front. I sat in this “main” chamber and hummed and sang some notes. When I got to just before the lowest I can go (I’m a baritone-ish) the whole slab hummed. Then stopped until I hummed it, then stopped. Then sang, it hummed etc.
In the space of a few minutes I had started to get the hang of it so in the hands of a master this would be an astonishing instrument. I came out after a while, grateful and knowing that this was where many students learned the song from the master. I say master because of the lowness of the notes required to make the stone hum. I tried higher notes but may not be as good with these as others. …
I realised that the difficulty in maintaining the vibration within the stone was probably caused by the damage to the roof and its consequent concrete repair compromising the sonic integrity of the stone.
p.s. It was barely audible outside the stone and thats without the large stone plug in position.
British Neolithic archaeology never ceases to astound me. I adore Orkney and its incredible Ness of Brodgar and many other Neolithic sites. Most of all, I adore the Dwarfie Stane.