There is no doubt that Orkney was a very special place during the Neolithic period – its remarkable range of prehistoric structures and ceremonial sites bear eloquent witness to this – and at its heart, both literally and figuratively, lies the Ness of Brodgar. This site occupies a central position within the Orkney archipelago, lying between the Lochs of Stenness and Harray, in the middle of the islands’ most imposing complex of monuments. It seems clear that this was a place of pivotal importance to Neolithic Orcadians, and perhaps further afield.
Since our last major report in CA seven years ago (see CA 241), ongoing excavation has revealed a much more complex story than could ever have been imagined at the project’s outset. We have pieced together a site biography that spans millennia, from traces of Mesolithic activity to the site’s Neolithic heyday, through to the early Bronze Age, with a later episode of use in the Iron Age. Our investigations have expanded greatly since their modest start over a decade ago, but the excavations still only cover less than 10% of the Ness. It is a site that keeps on giving, with much more to uncover – geophysical survey continues to reveal new features, while excavation has revealed a deeply stratified, multiphase complex that is presently without parallel in north Atlantic Europe.
At its zenith, in the main phase that we are currently exploring (dating from c.3100 BC), the Ness was dominated by huge free-standing buildings enclosed by a massive stone wall. This was much more than a domestic settlement: the size, quality, and architecture of these structures, together with evidence for tiled roofs, coloured walls, and over 800 examples of decorated stone – not to mention the rich assemblages of artefacts recovered from them – all add to an overall sense of the Ness being special in some way. Although the site’s function no doubt changed over time, during this peak period we can see that it was a place of meeting, of coming together for people from all over Orkney and probably from outside the archipelago too. Why? The archaeology suggests that they were feasting and exchanging ideas and objects, while the site may have also hosted rituals and celebrations of the ‘political’ and celestial events that were important to this evidently vibrant society.
Towards a (pre)history of the Ness
What can we deduce about the development of this unique site? One of our key aims has long been to pin down a timeline for the Ness – and while a relative overall chronology for it has been developed, more dates are required in order to refine the dating of the site, and see how it fits into the wider Neolithic world. This is work in progress, but we had a stroke of luck when the Ness was chosen to be included in the Europe-wide Times of Their Lives radiocarbon-dating project with Alasdair Whittle, Alex Bayliss, and their team. Further dates are to come, via a crowdfunding appeal, and the radiocarbon results are also being augmented by recent developments in archaeomagnetic dating, creating a new calibration curve in an exciting project with Bradford University (see ‘Science Notes’, CA 334). This research should have much wider implications for the latter technique’s use on earlier prehistoric sites, and the radiocarbon analysis is already transforming our understanding of the Ness.
Previously, it had been tempting to think of a very long span of almost continuous activity at our site – but the new radiocarbon dates, combined with Bayesian statistical analysis (see CA 259), instead testify to an organic, but at times stuttering, development that was punctuated by clear hiatuses. It is a pattern that is paralleled at other Orcadian sites, and seems to reflect wider changes in prehistoric society. The new chronologies also invite direct comparison with the Ness’s contemporary near-neighbours at Barnhouse – a settlement that was in use from the later 32nd to the earlier 29th century BC (CA 131) – and the Stones of Stenness, probably erected by the 30th century BC. These overlapping histories raise intriguing questions about the relationship between these sites. Were they rivals or perhaps distinct parts of the same huge complex? For now such ideas can only be a matter of speculation, but we hope that post-excavation analysis will prove illuminating.
Back to the beginning
The earliest days of occupation on the Ness remain shrouded in obscurity; we have some Mesolithic stone tools and a number of 5th millennium BC radiocarbon dates recovered from redeposited material, but otherwise this phase of activity still awaits further exploration. It is tempting, though, to imagine that the site may have been regarded as significant in some way long before it was monumentalised – in the same way that archaeological research is uncovering evidence of Mesolithic activity in the area around Stonehenge (such as at Blick Mead, see CA 324 and 325).
So far, the earliest Neolithic activity that we have identified at the Ness is represented by a few sherds of round-based Carinated Bowl, dated to around 3500 BC. This is several centuries earlier than the main structures that we are currently excavating, but we have uncovered a building that is probably contemporary with the ceramic fragments. Working in Trench J (where the northern boundary wall was first identified), we have revealed remains that are in form very reminiscent of other early Neolithic buildings, where upright stones, partly built into the walls, divide and define the internal space to create an interior that looks strikingly similar to that of stalled tombs. (Such structures have been researched as part of the Cuween-Wideford Landscape Project – see CA 318.) The relationship between this early building and the enclosure wall is not clear, but as work continues it now seems possible that both could be contemporary, and that the surrounding wall was a primary, not a climactic, element of the Ness.
Adding to this picture, other early buildings have been encountered under the southern boundary wall; the presence of further structures are also implied by the subsidence, collapse, and undulating wall-lines of some of the site’s later Neolithic structures, as well as by several lengths of walling found between, under and, in some cases, incorporated into these later buildings. If an early date for the boundary wall is proven, that would have dramatic implications for the development of the Neolithic, and the capabilities and social structure of these early settlers in northern Britain.
As for the walls themselves, these were monumental constructions measuring up to 6m wide and surviving up to 1.8m in height. They run parallel to the north-west and south-east of our main trench, and geophysics showed these sections curving towards each other along the shores of the adjacent lochs – though excavation to confirm this proved fruitless. Close examination of an aerial photograph of the Ness, though, has now revealed very faint, but definite, cropmarks running along the shore of the Loch of Stenness and coinciding with a steep change in topography. The marks align with the north and south boundary walls, and we believe that they represent further traces of walls’ route. Unfortunately, it appears that the opposing wall along the shore of the Loch of Harray now lies under the modern road, but it does seem increasingly likely that the main buildings in the complex were completely enclosed.
However advanced the site might have been in its earliest days, the Ness reached its high point in around 3100 BC, when the site became dominated by Grooved Ware ceramics and several large communal buildings (Structures 1, 8, 12, 14, 21, and 30, plus many others indicated by geophysics) were built along broadly similar lines. The key architectural element that they shared was pairs of opposed drystone piers creating recesses along the internal faces of their walls. These structures saw several phases of reuse and remodelling, but in their original form they appear to be exaggerated or elongated versions of a kind of house seen in early phases of Neolithic settlements like Skara Brae, where single stone piers and corner buttresses also form key parts.
At the Ness, the large buildings all follow similar architectural themes, but they are not identical – perhaps these differences might help to explain why so many communal structures existed at the same time. It could be that each structure represented a different co-existing but competitive community, each wanting to have a presence at this important location. As for the buildings’ purpose, the structures all have deep and complex floor deposits, and we have recovered a wealth of samples from these that are still being analysed – we hope that this research, combined with distribution plots of artefacts found within this area, will shed more light on how these structures were used, and how their function changed over time.
The location of the buildings is also intriguing: they cluster around a paved area containing a prominent decorated standing stone, which forms a central point to the whole walled enclosure. The stone is aligned north–south and its eastern face lines up with the central axis of a later building dubbed Structure 10, as well as the nearby chambered tomb of Maeshowe and, beyond that, aligns with the equinox sunrise. This deliberate positioning strongly suggests that the stone was seen as somehow significant. If this site was held in special regard, though, our new dating evidence suggests that its heyday was not as long-lasting as previously thought. The large communal buildings seem to have fallen out of use in around 2800 BC, at which point they were infilled with midden material and rubble. There are many potential reasons for this sudden change, but it could simply be that the level of social and resource investment required for building and maintaining the Ness and other monuments ultimately proved unsustainable in the long term, causing the whole social network to begin to disintegrate.
A change in trajectory
As the glory days of the Ness faded, one last major structure was erected in c.2900 BC. Structure 10 had two major phases of construction, and its architecture represents a complete departure, both in terms of style and scale, from the earlier piered buildings. Instead, it reflects later styles of house construction, with notable similarities to structures like House 1 at Skara Brae.
In its original incarnation, Structure 10 comprised a large square central chamber with rounded internal corners – very similar to Structure 8 at Barnhouse. It was a huge building, with external measurements of more than 20m by 19m. In some ways, this mirrors a general trend towards monumentality – the birth of what we call ‘big houses’ – in the later Neolithic period. Other elements make Structure 10 stand out, though: the extensive use of pick-dressed, decorated, and coloured stone, and the incorporation of standing stones in its construction, gives this building a strikingly different design. When first constructed, it must have been one of the most impressive buildings in northern Europe.
There is much speculation about why such radical changes happen, but it is tempting to envisage the construction of Structure 10 as representing a wider social change. Might we see the development of buildings like this as reflecting the emergence of more complex social systems, perhaps hierarchical in nature, while the earlier piered structures could represent individually functioning communities?
Like the other late buildings on site, we can tell that Structure 10 was plagued by subsidence – its south-western corner collapsed within a generation or two of its initial construction – but the house was subsequently rebuilt and extensively remodelled, with its central chamber taking on a cruciform plan with the addition of corner buttresses. These latter features might be viewed as merely a structural element to counter further instability, but they can also be seen as reflecting in stone the four-post settings found in some large late Neolithic buildings seen outside Orkney. This rebuild was not a purely practical procedure: it was during this process that a number of enigmatic, possibly votive, items were incorporated into the new foundations. These include the only carved stone ball so far discovered from the Ness; a big unusually decorated stone block; the articulated leg bones of several large cattle; and a single human arm bone.
The second phase was relatively short-lived, but after a period during which there was apparently no activity on the entire site, Structure 10 was back in focus around 2500 BC, when we can see its central hearth being reused, albeit only briefly. After this, the structure was partially dismantled and carefully filled with a sequence of midden and rubble, which was heaped within its interior to create, in essence, a mound or barrow-like monument. It seems no accident that by this date Structure 10 was the one visible locus of activity on the site. Everywhere else seems to have been abandoned, but this massive building was still able to attract attention – presumably thanks to the power of social memory and the enduring status of the site. This remembrance of Structure 10 continues for another several more generations, and it was revisited once more around 2400 BC when it was surrounded by a massive deposit of animal bone.
This was not just a rubbish dump, but a very structured deposit; part of our project, called ‘SmartFauna’, involved a programme of stringent excavation and recording to painstakingly unpick this layer and analyse its contents. Cattle skulls were overlain by mainly cattle tibia (representing over 400 individual animals which, radiocarbon dates suggest, were all killed at the same time). These were covered in places by complete red-deer carcasses. It looks very much like the product of a communal event, most likely involving the coming together of large numbers of people for an ostentatious feast. Might they have been commemorating the end of the Ness, or celebrating the start of a something new?
These feasting remains belong to a radically changing world, coinciding with the appearance in Britain of the Beaker culture, with its package of new pottery styles and the use of bronze. Indeed, a single sherd of early Bronze Age Beaker ceramics and a classic barbed and tanged arrowhead were found in the layers just above the bone deposit. We have here not only echoes of the final decline of the grandeur of the Ness, but also of late Neolithic Orkney, as ideas, society, and networks were realigned.
Mystery of the midden mound
Outside the walled enclosure, to the south-east of the main trench, we have also been investigating a large mound, previously thought to be an Iron Age broch, but which has recently been shown to be an integral part of the complex’s development. Initially, geophysical survey revealed that the mound was surrounded by concentric anomalies, which we originally took to be the kind of revetments found at various Maeshowe-type tombs. Further investigations in 2013 suggested a rather different interpretation, however: they lined a large ditch around the mound’s summit, further enhanced by an internal revetted bank – but these encompassing features all date to the Iron Age.
This was not a complete shock: we know that Iron Age Orcadians continued to use, and respect, earlier prehistoric sites, and the reuse of Neolithic buildings is not uncommon in the archipelago. A prime example of this is Quanterness chambered tomb, where an Iron Age roundhouse was later built into the front of the monument. That the Ness also attracted the attention of Iron Age individuals should come as no surprise. Not only is there a suspected broch site at Big Howe, close to the Ness, but there is evidence of Iron Age activity at the nearby Stones of Stenness, millennia after the circle of uprights was first erected.
The mound itself, though, is a monumental Neolithic midden measuring over 70m in diameter and over 4m high. This monumental pile of rubbish may seem a strange addition to the grandeur of the Ness, but it needs to be thought of as a deliberate statement reflecting the affluence and status of the site, and the conspicuous consumption taking place there: a symbol, for all to see, reflecting the magnificence of the Ness.
This may not be the whole story, though: in 2014, we discovered the stump of a standing stone at the foot of the mound, and the following year we uncovered sections of associated walling and orthostats, all pre-dating the midden’s construction. The 2016 season brought more masonry to light: massive stone slabs representing the remains of a particularly puzzling structure that had been robbed of most of its stone and partially dismantled in the late Neolithic. Dubbed Structure 27, elements of this early building were reminiscent of Bookan chambered tomb, which lies to the north-west the Ness, and it would have been an imposing sight.
For one thing, Structure 27 is huge: more than 12m wide by at least 17m long. The scale of its slabs suggests that they could have been repurposed standing stones, like some of the monoliths in Maeshowe. The prone, massive stones, up to 4m in length, had been very carefully laid out with their levels only differing by a couple of centimetres. They were used to support orthostats that clad the structure’s internal wall faces, perhaps replicating plank construction seen elsewhere. Structure 27’s beautifully executed external wall face was further enhanced in places by pick-dressing and, like the later Structure 10, was surrounded by paving with drains underneath.
Given the building’s position in the stratigraphy of the mound, and as it seems to stand on the natural land surface, it is likely to pre-date most of the other structures on site. What it was is still open to interpretation, but its scale, refinement of build, and the lack of midden used in its construction suggest a non-domestic function. Despite utilising several tomb- like features in its architecture (for example, large orthostats), it appears to have been roofed with stone slates – a feature in common with the other structures at the Ness, but unlike any known Orkney tombs. Whatever its purpose – something we plan to investigate further in the 2018 excavation – Structure 27 was a house of the living, not the dead.
It has long been thought that Orkney held a special significance during the Neolithic period, with renown stretching far beyond the limits of the archipelago, and at the Ness we can see intriguing links with the British mainland that suggest it was known and respected beyond the shores of Orkney. Numerous finds hint at long-distance contacts: pitchstone from Arran (which has only been found at two sites in Orkney: Barnhouse and the Ness); an axe blank from the famous Neolithic axe ‘factory’ at Langdale Pike, in the Lake District; amber beads, representing the most northerly occurrence of these in the Neolithic; and striking parallels with art from the Boyne Valley in Ireland.
Of particular interest was an item discovered in 2017 that suggests contact between Orkney and the Stonehenge landscape. At first sight, the small, broken clay artefact seemed rather unprepossessing, but thankfully Claire Copper, who had just finished a research project on the subject, immediately recognised it for what it was: a small pot known as an ‘incense cup’. These ceramics, sometimes highly decorated, are mostly found in early Bronze Age contexts, and often associated with burials. There are only four other examples of this particular style known in the UK, and they all hail from the Stonehenge area. Could this small object reflect direct contact between the Ness and Stonehenge, linking two ceremonial centres hundreds of miles apart?
From cultural connections to creative impulses, another illuminating aspect of the Ness is what it has added to our understanding of Neolithic artwork. Prior to our excavations, such creations were rare in Orkney, though relatively common compared to the rest of Britain, where they are scarcer still. There were examples known from Skara Brae; some incised motifs recorded in Maeshowe; the Pierowall Stone and, of course, the Brodgar Stone (discovered at the Ness in 1925, probably from a hole dug into Structure 8) – a fascinating handful of finds. More recently, this body of work has expanded enormously; as our work continues, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Ness of Brodgar is the sheer volume of Stone Age decoration that is appearing on site. All the main structures have yielded examples of decorated stone, which now total well over 800, and range from stunning examples of deeply incised, pecked, and cup-marked decoration, to a large proportion of lightly incised markings that are almost invisible to the naked eye.
These designs formed the focus of Antonia Thomas’s PhD, a study that proved very productive – in Structure 1, for example, careful examination revealed 36 new examples of incised stone in just one week. A number of these designs were clearly not meant to be seen, facing wall interiors, and while some decorated stones have no doubt been reused from elsewhere, others have clearly been created during the process of wall construction. There are no simple explanations for this. The placing of the stone and its execution suggests that it was not simply decoration or casual ‘doodling’. Instead, there is a sense that creating decorated stone was a crucial part of the building and living process, intimately linked to the identity of its creators.
Looking back to the more recent past, it is hard to believe that over 14 years have passed since the discovery of the Ness of Brodgar complex, but global interest in the site shows no sign of abating. Since work began, one of our main aims has always been to share the archaeology with as many people as possible – and with over 21,000 visitors to the 2017 dig alone, and website traffic up by 20%, it seems this strategy is working. Television crews and journalists are also regular fixtures at the annual excavations, but above all it is heartening to see popular interest continuing to grow. The bulk of our funding comes from donations from the general public, both as visitors during the excavation period and to our website (www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/FriendsNessBrodgar). Without that support, the Ness investigations just would not happen, and we are very grateful for all contributions.
More than anything, this is a place where we are able to showcase archaeology itself, as much as any specific discoveries. On a site where the extraordinary has become the norm, it is clear that visitors to the Ness are looking beyond the ‘wow’ factor of particular finds and are equally as interested in the excavation as a whole – the trenches, the ideas, and the archaeologists who make Orkney their home over the summer months. As diggers, locals, and visitors from further afield flood to the site during the excavation season, it is an appealing thought that collectively we are recreating anew the coming together, millennia previously, of people at the Ness of Brodgar.
Nick Card is the Director of the Ness of Brodgar excavation, which is run jointly by the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the UHI Archaeology Institute, with support from a host of individuals and bodies including European LEADER funding.
All images: ORCA, unless otherwise stated.