The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, with the hills of Hoy in the background. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, with the hills of Hoy in the background. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

In March this column looked at how our buildings often dictate the way in which we live. There are theories, though, that delve even deeper into the psychological balance between human beings and their structures – theories that suggest that the landscape itself has influenced our building.

This in many ways is self-evident; nearly all settlements must originally have been founded at a place where the landscape was favourable.

The castle at Scarborough dominates the town. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The castle at Scarborough dominates the town. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

There was somewhere the river could be forded, perhaps, as in Ripon, where there was a ford across the River Ure near where North Bridge now stands.

If there was no river or stream immediately at hand, the settlement might be placed near a spring, as water was always of vital importance.

Wood was also a deciding factor. In ancient times Brittan was more thickly-forested, so the edges of woods were premium locations, where the trees offered a plentiful supply for building and for burning, but the open aspect allowed the inhabitants of the settlement to see the approach of others – and of possibly-dangerous animals.

But as well as these considerations, there may have been other, less obvious reasons why a particular place should be chosen for the location of a settlement. It is suggested that ancient peoples were influenced by the spiritual aspects of the landscape as much as by its physical form.

Fountains Abbey - chosen as a deserted place � David Winpenny (single use only)

Fountains Abbey - chosen as a deserted place � David Winpenny (single use only)

Analysis of several ancient Minoan and Greek sites, for example, have found that they have strikingly similar settings.

They are set in an enclosed valley; at one end is a rounded or conical hill and beyond it, in the same line of view, there is a mountain with a double peak or at least an obvious cleft.

This layout is found at Knossos in Crete, for example, and at Troy. They are also there at lesser-known sites like the Minoan Phaistos and Gournia and in Greece at Delphi.

Why should this be?

We cannot know for sure, of course, but it has been suggested that it had links with the form of the earth-mother. The rounded hill was the comfort she gave, the double peak her upraised arms protecting the site.

But it was not just in classical Greece that landscape has such an effect on the placement of a settlement. It happened in Britain, too.

The Ness of Brodgar on Orkney is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country.

The complex dates from at least 5,000 years ago and has had many structures on the site, overlying each other. Many archaeological sites are interpreted as ‘ritual’ when it’s impossible to tell what they were actually for, but in the case of the Ness of Brodgar it seems to be true.

There were ritual feasts (animals bones are a clue) and it’s probable that some of the structures were built to accommodate the religious needs of the settlers.

But there is more at the Ness. The geography of the site consists of a narrow neck of land; at each end there are circles of standing stones – at Stenness and Brodgar.

The recently-excavated buildings are between the two circles.

To the east, across the Loch of Harray, is the man-made mound of Maeshowe. Maeshowe and the structures of the Ness are both in line with what’s to the west – the island of Hoy.

Orkney is mostly low-lying, but Hoy has high hills. Because of the setting of the Ness buildings and of the surrounding ancient remains, it is thought that there was special significance in the relationship between the Ness and the dominating hills to the west, where the sun set.

It is well known that the sun and the moon are likely to have had influence on the placing of stone circles like Stonehenge and of tombs like Newgrange in Ireland’s Boyne Valley.

The influence of topography has been less-studied, but it may be that may of our prehistoric sites have a special relationship to the surrounding landforms.

Thornborough Henges, for example, seem to have a special relationship with both the Pennines to the west and the Vale of Mowbray to the east, as well as to the River Ure and River Swale, and to the availability of gypsum to make the sides of the circles shine brilliantly white.

How much of this idea was carried forward into later times?

It is probably impossible to estimate, but we know, of course, that when Christianity arrived here churches were orientated to face the east (just as mosques are orientated towards Mecca). So matters outside practical considerations have often been in play.

Castles need defensive positions, so their location will always be dictated by geography, of course, but there was probably also the less-tangible desire to elevate the castle not just physically but also psychologically above possible enemies, or to dominate the local people – think of the castles at Richmond or Scarborough, for example.

And when monasteries were founded the monks needed seclusion – especially the austere Cistercians. So they chose out-of-the way valleys, like Fountains and Rievaulx, where they could feel safe; indeed, the Skell valley where Fountains was founded has something of the same feeling of enclosure as the sites of Knossos or Troy.

These monastic valleys were wild places, which was also an influence, harking back to the start of monasticism with men living holy lives in the desert.

To say the monks chose beautiful places for their monasteries is as wide of the mark as are the people who ask why Windsor Castle was built under the Heathrow flight path.

Today we think little about the geography of our buildings, unless a new development threatens a cherished open space, or we want a new house to take advantage of a view.

But perhaps there is, even now, something deep inside the human psyche that responds to the ancient feel of the landscape.