Patterns of a past age

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Patterns of Stone Age Orkney Orkney Museum, Kirkwall until September 30 tel 01856 873191

An exhibition that allows visitors to delve into Orkney's Stone Age past is proving a big hit with local schools.

The centrepiece of Patterns of Stone Age Orkney, which focuses on the carvings on many of the islands' neolithic remains, is a display of four scale models of Orkney's most famous 5,000-year-old cairns.

The table-top tombs were built by Jim Park, custodian and chief model maker at the museum in Tankerness House, Kirkwall, using drawings, photographs and personal observations as references. Working with an assistant, it took four weeks to build each one, but they have created robust miniatures that can be handled by visitors of all ages, allowing them to take the roofs off to get a good look inside.

Most famous of the group is Maes Howe, the magnificent chambered tomb that forms part of Orkney's world heritage site, putting it on a par with Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Visitors can also explore models of Midhowe cairn, Taversoe Tuick and Isbister, which is often called the tomb of the eagles because of the large number of sea-eagle bones and talons found there, leading experts to speculate the bird might have been a tribal emblem.

Children have been "stunned" by a large, chunky Stone Age necklace, says Sheila Garson, the council's heritage cultural co-ordinator, who has been leading school groups around the exhibition.

"They've been genuinely awe-struck by its beauty," she says. "They can see that it was made as a special thing to be worn by a special person on a special occasion, and they're very appreciative of the skill that went into making it."

Anne Brundle, the curator of archaeology, says: "We have so much on Orkney from the Stone Age, we decided to concentrate on objects with patterns on them.

"The designs did have some kind of meaning. Deeply carved designs on massive stones in prominent places were meant to be easily seen. Then there are other stones that were incised very lightly and located in less accessible places, which indicates some kind of secret symbolism.

"In addition to what is in our own collections, we borrowed back from the Museum of Scotland the Brodgar Stone, which is engraved with bands of designs that some people have said are reminiscent of traditional Fair Isle jumper patterns."

Most of the children coming to the exhibition will be in the P5 to P7 age range, says Ms Brundle. "A lot of them may already have been to Maes Howe and be pretty clued up about the Stone Age. But we don't dwell on all the theories about carved patterns during their visits, except to explain that we don't believe they were random doodles."

Children are encouraged to speculate about what the intriguing carved stone balls found at Skara Brae were used for. "Historians and archaeologist have been trying to figure out that mystery for decades," says Ms Brundle, "and it's good for kids to realise that even experts are stumped by some things."

The exhibition is complemented by a number of paper-based activities, including Stone Age pattern making and quizzes.

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