‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, in archaeology at any rate, that just when you think you understand a site, the evidence makes you think again.’ So write Nick Card and Mark Edmonds in The Ness of Brodgar: as it stands, a comprehensive interim report setting out the story-so-far from one of the most significant prehistoric sites in Britain. Compiling the report was a bittersweet experience, as the team behind it were making productive use of lockdown restrictions that kept them from their excavations for a couple of years – but its contents weave a fascinating tale of a unique Neolithic settlement, and how understanding of its remains has evolved over the last two decades. Once lockdown lifted, work at the Ness resumed, and in August 2022 I visited the excavations and heard the latest thinking on the site. The following account draws on my notes from this trip and the interim report (recently reissued; see ‘Further reading’ at the end).
For those new to the Ness, the name refers not just to the archaeological site, but to the thin strip of land it occupies between the lochs of Harray and Stenness on Orkney’s West Mainland. This area boasts a wealth of upstanding archaeological remains, including the Stenness Stones and the Ring of Brodgar, with Maeshowe chambered tomb located just a short distance away – and for centuries it was these highly visible landmarks that captured antiquarian interest. Little did they know that, beneath their feet, lay one of the most remarkable complexes of Neolithic buildings in north-west Europe, with a spread of building remains (some of whose walls survive to over 1m high) and other evidence of human activity covering an area of at least 25,000m2.
Instead, it was long thought that the standing stones and funerary monuments had existed in splendid isolation, an exclusive ceremonial landscape from which domestic activity was banned. But just as similar assumptions about Stonehenge were overturned a few years ago, thanks to wide-ranging geophysical surveys that revealed a palimpsest of previously unknown enclosures, ditches, and pits surrounding the celebrated stones (see CA 296), people were also clearly living and working among the Ness of Brodgar monuments. In 1984, Colin Richards’ excavation of a late Neolithic settlement at Barnhouse, just behind the Stenness Stones, revolutionised perceptions of the Ness. Then, shortly after the area was designated a World Heritage Site (‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’) in 1999, further revelations emerged.
Over a ten-year period, the World Heritage Area Geophysical Project explored an area of 285ha, revealing not only that many known sites were actually larger than previously thought, but also the presence of many undocumented features, including a number of settlements scattered among the known monuments (CA 199). The most dramatic concentration of anomalies, though, lay just 300m from Barnhouse – and, in 2003, the secrets of this site were abruptly brought to light once more after a farmer’s plough snagged on a huge stone block, dragging it to the surface. Following a visit from Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, together with Regional Archaeologist Julie Gibson and Prof Jane Downes of the UHI Archaeology Institute, the slab was identified as part of a huge stone building – and the rest is (pre)history.
Twenty years later, Nick is still directing excavations on the site (funded primarily by the Ness of Brodgar Trust and, since 2014, the American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar), and that initial building, dubbed ‘Structure 1’, has gained dozens of Neolithic neighbours: numbering of the site’s structures has now climbed into the high 30s, and the archaeology is known to extend out beneath the present level of the lochs. Pottery evidence and the architectural style of some of the buildings suggest that at least a portion of the site’s occupation was contemporary with the settlement at Barnhouse, but while the latter site’s buildings have been reduced to their lowest courses by modern agricultural activity, those at the Ness are remarkably well preserved.
The long-lived hearths, extensive midden deposits, and diverse assemblages of tools and other echoes of everyday activity that have been found at the Ness attest to this being a place of occupation, but its buildings, constructed on a truly monumental scale, are rather more unusual. Was this a straightforward, if very high-status settlement? A place for temporary communal gatherings – perhaps to conduct business or enact ceremonies, and then disperse? A religious complex housing an array of awe-inspiring ancient temples? With every dig season on the site, more clues emerge.
Some 15 other sites with evidence of Neolithic occupation are known in Orkney, and the architectural repertoire seen at the Ness shares many similarities with these. However, the sheer size and quality of its structures are unprecedented. They were originally crowned by flagstone roofs (whose remains often scatter their interiors), with walls that were made of carefully pick-dressed blocks and slabs of stone. Some of the raw materials seem to have been deliberately selected for their colour and placed for visual effect, while others were enhanced using pigment. In Structure 8, for example, a prominent stone within one of its walls had been decorated with curvilinear designs in red, black, and yellow, while other stones on the site were adorned with bright red and orange chevrons. To-date, some 30 stones with possible painted decoration have been recovered during the excavations.
Many other stones – over 900 in all, more than half of which were found in their original location – bear carved decorations. These markings are being studied by Dr Antonia Thomas of the UHI Archaeology Institute, and the Ness team now have a strict protocol on site that all blocks and slabs are scrutinised even for faint markings while being uncovered and removed. The designs are mostly spikily geometric in form (the curving lines associated with Irish passage tombs are also present in places, but much rarer), and while on site I was shown a thin slab from Structure 8, where one face was intricately etched with hatching, crosses, and patterns of vertical lines. Other motifs known from the Ness include sequences of repeated lines, chevrons, zigzags, cupmarks, and an angular hourglass shape nicknamed the ‘Brodgar Butterfly’ (this last design type gained a new addition during the 2022 excavations, spotted on an orthostat from Structure 10). The Ness of Brodgar’s architectural artwork is not unique among Orcadian sites – the Neolithic houses at Skara Brae, for example, have produced 111 decorated stones – but the sheer proliferation of designs is unique in the whole of northern Europe.
What is also clear about the structures of the Ness is that they were constantly being reworked – Neolithic visitors would have experienced something more akin to a bustling building site than a rarified temple complex, with new structures constantly rising from and recycling the dilapidated ruins of their neighbours. These buildings were being constructed directly on top of their predecessors, covered only by unstable spreads of rubble and midden material. No sooner were they completed than these buildings were destined to subside and eventually collapse – yet Neolithic Orcadians evidently did know how to build sturdy foundations, as sites like Maeshowe testify. Despite the huge effort that would have gone into raising such mighty structures as we see at the Ness, longevity does not seem to have been the primary concern – rather, their location, perhaps representing links to an ancestral past, seems to have been the priority at the expense of everything else.
Due to the nature of archaeology, where the most recent parts of a site are uncovered first, our understanding of the Ness is currently weighted towards the later Neolithic, when the complex was at its zenith. Then, the buildings were bounded on their north and south sides by huge walls running the full width of the isthmus. The northern wall, dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’, was first identified in 2005 and is the larger of the two, measuring 4m (13ft) wide, and accompanied by a 2m-wide outer ditch (dwarfing the rather-later Hadrian’s Wall, which was originally designed to be 3m in width). The wall was later decommissioned and its upper courses robbed for reuse elsewhere, so we do not know how tall it would have originally been, but the width of its base, and the way its lower levels have compacted into the underlying clay, suggest a great weight.
The ‘Lesser Wall’, to the south, was first excavated in 2009; it measures ‘only’ 2m wide, but its masonry is much finer. Both walls were clearly intended to impress, with their outer stonework carefully worked for visitors to see as they approached. What were they for? Their dimensions go far beyond what would be needed for a purely defensive function (and, in any case, would-be attackers could simply walk around them – geophysics attest that there were no eastern or western walls to fully enclose the site, though, of course, the lochs could have had this function). We also know that there were buildings standing before the walls were built, and that others were constructed beyond their lines after they had gone out use. Whatever their purpose, though, they would have made powerful visual statements about the site’s status.
While many of the structures currently under excavation reflect this later period of the site’s life, evidence of earlier activity is starting to emerge from underneath them. During my visit, I was taken to see what is thought to be the earliest building yet identified at the Ness, in Trench J. Structure 5 in its present form is an elongated oval building measuring at least 15m by 6.5m (its full extent is yet to be exposed), but the team have been teasing out traces of several phases of use and alteration, and the building is thought to have begun life in a completely different form: a 10m-long rectangle, whose dominating rectangular hearth was being uncovered at the time of my visit. Five large post-holes are also thought possibly to reflect an earlier design with mighty timbers; these were later removed, and artefacts including a decorated stone and a large piece of whalebone placed in their empty sockets.
The oval form of Structure 5 is dramatically different from the buildings that rose on the site later in its history. Its interior had been subdivided using five upright slabs, a design strikingly reminiscent of early Neolithic stalled cairns (CA 318), and suggesting parallels with buildings from other early sites in Orkney, such as at the Knap of Howar. Recovered pottery (which includes round-based carinated bowl sherds and the earliest form of shell-tempered Grooved Ware) and stone tools support an early date, though this has not yet been confirmed through radiocarbon analysis. The structure’s close association with the northern boundary wall, a section of which was exposed in Trench J, is also persuasive – the wall is known to have been built c.3332-3144 BC, and both it and Structure 5 (which nestles neatly in the curve of its internal corner) were built directly on to the natural glacial till, suggesting that they could be contemporary constructions.
Structures 10 and 27
Over in Trench P – the largest trench on the site, where the remains of more than 20 structures have been identified so far – I was shown a building whose design was a step-change in the Ness’s architectural repertoire. Structure 10 is easily the most impressive building on the site, truly monumental in form, with a grandly square design. We have discussed this structure in detail in previous issues (see CA 241 and 335), but to give an idea of its significance: its main body, a c.15m by 15m square with rounded internal corners, is surrounded by two concentric dry-stone walls – each 2m thick and separated by a 0.5m-thick core of midden and rubble – and, to the front, an elaborate forecourt extends its length for another 5m. Its interior is dominated by a large hearth, and, while much of the stonework of its walls has been robbed out, the remaining carefully dressed slabs of red and yellow sandstone highlight what an impressive building this would have been. This season, the team had reached its primary floor levels, and samples have been taken for XRF and radiocarbon dating, which may shed more light on its use.
Despite the building’s grandeur, though, it had – like so many of its neighbours – been built on the ruins of earlier structures, with its notably lumpy floor showing clear signs of subsidence. At some point, this instability had prompted a dramatic remodelling, with the addition of internal buttresses to shore up its walls – a compromise that required dramatically reducing its interior space and creating a cruciform layout strikingly similar to the central chamber of Maeshowe. During the 2022 excavation, elements of an earlier building – dubbed Structure 20 – as well as hints of possibly two more were emerging from beneath these remains. Structure 20 is yet to be excavated and its plan is unclear, but the use of orthostats to divide its interior suggests a relatively early origin.
In this season’s third trench (Trench T), I was shown the remains of another well-built structure which has intriguing similarities to Structure 10. This was Structure 27: a large rectangular building, lying beyond the limits of the southern boundary wall, which was first discovered in 2015. At some point after this structure had gone out of use, it was covered by a huge mound of midden, but it had once been an imposing construction, measuring 17m by 11m with 2m-thick walls. The remains of a stone-tiled roof were found within its interior, and intriguingly this inner space was defined by a rectangle of enormous slabs – weathered and clearly reused from elsewhere – almost reminiscent of recumbent standing stones. The building had been extensively robbed for its stone, but in 2022 the team were thrilled to uncover an immaculate section of its northern wall, which represents arguably the finest masonry yet found on site, boasting regular courses of precisely arranged stone. Current thinking, based on the floor level of the building’s interior as identified last year, is that this wall could survive up to 1m in height.
On the building’s south-eastern side, massive slabs cover a drain running around its exterior, and there are hints of similar on the north-west side, suggesting that, like Structure 10, this building had sat in a sea of paving. The similarities do not stop there: the paving around Structures 10 and 27 was found to be covered by large quantities of animal bone, and both structures had also been buried after they went out of use, creating cairn-like mounds that may have been monuments in their own right. Certainly, knowledge of both buildings persisted long after they were concealed: at both structures, people had returned to carry out surgically precise excavations to recover some of their building materials (presumably for reuse elsewhere). These visitors clearly knew where to look – the structures’ significance had endured for some time after they were decommissioned.
While visiting the Ness, I also learned more about the latest analysis that is happening away from the site. The team’s archaeo-geologist, Martha Johnson, is currently studying the kinds of stone used to construct the Brodgar buildings, and she has found that 44% of the rock types are ones not naturally found on the isthmus. In some cases, this is not entirely surprising – the Neolithic inhabitants would have needed dense sandstone cobbles, worn and rounded by the sea, to make the pounders, grinders, and hammers that were essential to a range of everyday tasks. As there were no high-energy beaches in the immediate vicinity, though, they would have probably had to turn to the west coast of their island for suitable stones. Some materials came from even further afield, however, with origins outside Orkney – for example, gneiss from western Scotland, and pitchstone from Arran in the Western Isles. At least some of these ‘exotic’ materials seem to represent the arrival of people bringing objects with them, rather than simply traded goods – analysis of knapping techniques used on the pitchstone reveals methods that have few parallels elsewhere in Orkney.
Stone tools and pottery dominate the artefactual finds (partly an accident of preservation), and to-date over 90,000 sherds of pottery have been recovered. Most of these are late Neolithic Grooved Ware, but a few fragments of early Neolithic carinated pots have been recovered too, together with two early Neolithic scrapers. The range of stone tools from the site is particularly broad – indeed, the tools made and used at Ness of Brodgar comprise a wider and more diverse array of types than any other Orcadian Neolithic site. Implements identified so far include querns and mortars, hammerstones, flaked knives, and cobble tools and anvils, as well as 34 polished stone axes, plain and carved stone balls, and 13 maceheads.
Work to analyse and catalogue this material continues. Some of the objects were clearly lost or deliberately discarded, but there are also hints of artefacts being carefully chosen and intentionally arranged, possibly pointing to votive foundation deposits or closing deposits for some of the structures. We have already mentioned the items placed in the post-holes of Structure 5, and when Structure 10 was remodelled with its new internal buttresses, a number of objects were placed beneath these additions, including an incised stone, a carved stone ball, a human arm bone, the leg bones of several large cattle, a wing bone from a white-tailed sea eagle, and a decorated pot. Meanwhile, sometime after its central hearth was last fired c.2500 BC, an upturned cattle skull was set within the abandoned fireplace.
The wealth of archaeology emerging from this thin strip of lochside land is astonishing, and with excavations set to resume this summer, the site will surely reveal even more secrets. Given what has been uncovered already, it is amazing to think that, so far, only 10% of the complex has been excavated.
ALL IMAGES: Simon C B Jones, unless otherwise stated
See www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk for more information about the Ness of Brodgar and its structures. The 2023 excavations will be open to the public on weekdays, 9.30am-4.30pm, between 5 July and 16 August. Free tours will be held at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm, and the public open day (which will feature activities on site) is scheduled for Sunday 30 July. Please note that outside these dates the site is not open to the public and the archaeology is covered over.
Nick Card, Mark Edmonds, and Anne Mitchell (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: as it stands. This book can be bought for £36 directly from www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/product-category/books, with proceeds going directly to the Ness of Brodgar excavation fund. Every purchase will also include a free copy of the project’s guidebook to the site.