Landscapes Revealed: geophysical survey in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area 2002-2011

Over the past 50 years or so, archaeologists have managed to hone their focus on several areas of Europe that show clear advances in social and ritual development: areas such as the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany, the Newgrange complex in Ireland, and, of course, the settlement and burial ritual complexes in Orkney. It is probably within this area of Atlantic Neolithic Europe where the current focus in understanding the Neolithic and its social, political, and ritual elements is best understood, although there is still much to explore through systematic fieldwork and recording processes (along with a little bit of theoretical discussion as well).

Orkney is regarded as one of Europe’s Neolithic core areas, having recently yielded what can only be described as a number of spectacular discoveries, many of which rewrite the settlement complexity for this period. The central part of the Orkney archipelago was, in 1999, inscribed as a World Heritage Site (WHS). This included the sites of Maeshowe, Ring of Brodgar, and Skara Brae, as well as the landscapes in which these and other monuments stand. Not surprisingly, the survey team uncovered through the various surveys a multi-layered and multifaceted archaeological landscape, both ritual and secular, that extended beyond the Neolithic.

It is interesting that, only a generation ago, Skara Brae was considered a later prehistoric entity – a well-preserved settlement that was originally sealed by wind-blown deposits. Since then, systematic fieldwork in Orkney using a variety of scientific methods has exposed a vast area of settlement and ritual monuments that rewrites the story of a north-western European island archipelago that was once considered to be a Neolithic backwater.

Landscapes Revealed deals with the geophysical project that was undertaken between 2002 and 2011, and records the results across 285 hectares of land, between Skara Brae on the west Orkney coast and Maeshowe, by the Loch of Stenness.

The first two chapters provide the reader with a useful narrative of the survey area, charting its recent archaeological history and historic development and land use. The next four chapters include accounts of the surveys that were undertaken within the Bay of Skaill (Chapter 3), North of Bookan (Chapter 4), Bookan to Brodgar (Chapter 5), and Stenness to Maeshowe (Chapter 6). The survey methods employed throughout the four areas were standardised, with each area revealing its subsurface secrets. The project permitted targeted excavation within those areas where prehistoric anomalies were identified, as revealed within the Bookan to Brodgar survey area – see Chapter 5 and the excavation of the stone structures within the curtilage of the Ness of Brodgar.

The final chapter – Chapter 7, ‘Threads and Tapestries’ – discusses the complexities and character of the buried later prehistoric landscapes revealed from the geophysics, and concludes that a survey project such as this will provide an essential database for conserving and managing this finite archaeological resource. Moreover, the sealed and undisturbed nature of the buried remains will, over the next few decades, begin to unravel the complexities of the prehistoric development of this busy area of Neolithic Europe.

The book is supported by a useful set of appendices that includes short summaries on the various survey methods and equipment employed (e.g. gradiometer, earth resistance survey, GPR, and ERT), as well as a comprehensive bibliography and index.

This lavishly illustrated book gets to the heart of what a total Neolithic landscape is, exposing through various non-intrusive surveys, thorough targeted excavation, and thoughtful synthesis the complexities of later prehistoric island life. Supported by excellent mapping, geophysics plans, and atmospheric photography, this book makes an important statement on the way non-intrusive methods should be employed in one of Europe’s archaeologically most sensitive areas. Where we once saw subsistence lifestyles, this book reveals a community that is dynamic and in tune with its landscape. 

Review by George Nash.
Revealed: geophysical survey in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area, 2002-2011, Amanda Brend, Nick Card, Jane Downes, Mark Edmonds, and James Moore (eds), Oxbow, £35, ISBN 978-1789255065.