Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Stanydale Temple - Shetland Mainland

Stanydale Temple (panoramic)

Stanydale Temple, is situated a short while off the minor road to Gruting, which runs south from the A971. The structure - a heel shaped building - with six internal recesses, and two post holes - was so named as a "temple" by Charles Calder in the 1950s following his excavation of the site; as it was thought to resemble the shape of the Maltese Neolithic temple buildings (Turner, V. 1998).

Coincidentally, it was a visit to Malta in the early 1990's which fuelled our burgeoning interest in the sacred landscapes of the prehistoric. In a pretty hectic week of exploration by foot, by local bus; by push-bike, boat and private hired mini-bus; we took in the grandness of the Maltese churches; its ancient walled city and stunning Port.

However, we came away most affected by our times spent within the temple complexes of GGantija, Tarxian and Buggiba; and beneath the streets in the cool air of the catacombs. I remember running my hands across one particular carved stone at Tarxian, imagining the hand of the stone mason who carved it doing exactly the same; trying to connect physically and spiritually to these ancient people. I felt a connection. To both my bemusement and my partner's grand hilarity, this carved stone turned out to be a modern replica - with the original being held in the Valletta museum (Zammit, T. 1980).

I returned home with a plaster model of the headless Maltese Goddess of the temples, which I still contemplate on occasion, sitting as she does behind the glass of the first bookcase that I ever bought.

The Maltese Goddess

The way-marked approach to the Stanydale "temple" takes you firstly across wet moor, and then into the centre of a small pre-historic settlement with the remains of three Neolithic houses, stone walls and clearance cairns on the horizon. The first Neolithic house that you encounter has a SW facing wind break at it's entrance (Fojut, N. 1993). The settlement is dated to Ca 2500BC (on site interpretation).

Neolithic farmhouse

The temple itself stands out due to both its size and construction being twice as big as any excavated prehistoric house found on the islands, and constructed of very large blocks of stone with smooth facing internal wall stones. Turner describes it as Shetland's only megalithic structure (Turner, V. 1998). I sat within the temple, for a long time sheltered from the ever-present wind behind it's low walls. I noticed common dog-violet (Viola riviniana) flowering in the eastern recess.

Common dog-violet

The archaeological record suggests strongly that the "temple" was a special meeting place, perhaps a place of ritual? Excavation found very little evidence of what would be considered domestic use of the building - there was no central hearth - although small hearths were found near the entrance, there was a lack of rubbish and rough stones, which are normally found in a domestic setting. Some pottery was found of late Neolithic, and early bronze age, along with a polished stone knife (Turner, V. 1998; Fojut, N. 1993). Other pottery found dated to the Broch period may suggest use of the site for over a 1000yrs (Turner, V. 1998).

Entering the temple
Towards the entrance (panoramic)
The smooth internal walls

The two stone set post holes in the centre of the temple floor, would have contained wooden posts to hold the roof up. The wood found within these settings was spruce, a tree which did not grow native to Shetland at the time of the temple being built. It is suggested that the trees may have originally arrived as driftwood from America (Turner, V. 1998); or imported from Scandinavia (Fojut, N. 1993).

Post holes

When we visited St Ninian's Isle the following week, we came across a large driftwood log, on the sands below the low cliffs; cleaned and scoured by the sea, it made an instant connection in my mind, to the construction of the Stanydale temple.

The St Ninian's Isle driftwood

So taken was I with the actual temple itself, that I completely failed to spend any time amongst the standing stones sited immediately adjacent to the temple in a curved line. I think I was spooked by the arrival of a couple heading along the path who held a large sheet of paper, and a GPS - plotting as they went the archaeology within the surrounding landscape. Whilst curious to ask them "who? what? why?"; I did not want to break the silence and peace of the site with unnecessary conversation. I moved on, and left them to their purpose. A single photo record shows at least some of the standing stones over the height of the temple walls?


Fojut, N. 1993 A Guide to Prehistoric and Viking Shetland, The Shetland Times Ltd., Lerwick Shetland

Turner, V. 1998 Ancient Shetland, B.T. Batsford Ltd / Historic Scotland, London

Zammit, T. 1980 (7th Edition) The Copper Age Temples Tarxian Malta, Malta
On-site interpretation

Sunday, 15 May 2016