Before Stonehenge

One long-ago day around 3200 B.C., the farmers and herdsmen on Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands decided to build something big...

They had Stone Age technology, but their vision was millennia ahead of their time. Five thousand years ago the ancient inhabitants of Orkney—a fertile, green archipelago off the northern tip of modern-day Scotland—erected a complex of monumental buildings unlike anything they had ever attempted before.

They quarried thousands of tons of fine-grained sandstone, trimmed it, dressed it, then transported it several miles to a grassy promontory with commanding views of the surrounding countryside. Their workmanship was impeccable. The imposing walls they built would have done credit to the Roman centurions who, some 30 centuries later, would erect Hadrian’s Wall in another part of Britain.

Cloistered within those walls were dozens of buildings, among them one of the largest roofed structures built in prehistoric northern Europe. It was more than 80 feet long and 60 feet wide, with walls 13 feet thick. The complex featured paved walkways, carved stonework, colored facades, even slate roofs—a rare extravagance in an age when buildings were typically roofed with sod, hides, or thatch.

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