We are all mortified, not to say mystified, by the stranded pilot whales in New Zealand. But in Orkney some four thousand years ago, the people would have regarded such a beaching not as a tragedy but as a bounty from the sea.
No-one knows how whales manage to get themselves beached in the shallows. It is a mystery. One theory is that the lack of depth plays havoc with their sonar.
It is certainly a sad sight when great living creatures find themselves in such difficulties and we are powerless to help them.
One would have thought X (insert favoured figure) ‘millions of years of evolution’ would have sorted the problem out, but no. Still the whales come.
Orkney – cradle of British civilisation
Last night (Thursday 9th Feb 2017) on BBC4, the TV archeologist Neil Oliver led a team uncovering Orkney’s neolithic past. The programme was part of the series Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney. The first rule of archeology is this: ‘Remember, these were people like us’. Dr Oliver in particular pays great respect to the people of the past. (He pays less deference to politicians of the present, particularly those of the SNP. But let that pass.)
The Orcadians were pagans. They worshipped the signs of the heavens and quite probably deified anything which was important to them, such as the sea and the weather. They also kept large herds of cattle. It is probable they viewed their cattle as a store of wealth, like African nomadic tribesmen today.
The foundations of their temples at the Ness of Brodgar were built over sacrifices of their cattle. As a confirmation of the practice, building sacrifices into foundations is spoken of in the Bible. Joshua prophesied that whoever would rebuild Jericho would bury two of his children in the foundations:
Joshua 6:26 And Joshua adjured them at that time, saying, Cursed be the man before the LORD, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it. (KJV)
Stone Age Orkney highly civilised
The Orcadians were not on the evidence found so far as depraved as Hiel the Bethelite, the Iron Age king who fulfilled the curse of Joshua in 1Kings 16:34 probably around 860 BC.
We have an image of Stone Age people grunting and shivering as they struggled to build a fire. Secrets of Orkney has laid this canard to rest. They were highly civilised people, wealthy, delighting in art, skilled shipbuilders and navigators, trading across the world, exchanging ideas. The excavations on Orkney give us confidence in accounts of trade and technological advance in the Bible. Bible people too really were people like us.
The programme last night also explained how the people of Orkney would have taken advantage of regular strandings of whales. They took the meat and rendered the blubber. The evidence shows they used the bones to make everything from needles to the internal structure of their boats. The BBC iPlayer link is here if you want to watch on catch-up.
The whales’ contribution to the ancient Orkney economy may be scant consolation to those mourning the pilot whales in New Zealand. Nevertheless, it might just add a tiny bit of perspective. Perhaps the whales and their sad, mysterious death wish are there for our benefit. Perhaps the good Lord graciously designed them like that. We may be horrified at the thought of the Orcadians rushing to the sea shore to slaughter beached whales. But then again, Stone Age people might well view some of the things we take for granted in our civilisation today as barbarous.
Genesis 1:21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
Gen 9:3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things.