The Ness of Brodgar in Orkney is ‘a site of superlatives’. So write the authors of this absorbing new book about a truly extraordinary site. Nestled on a thin spit of land between two lochs, the Ness is a unique complex of monumental buildings in an area already rich in Neolithic archaeology.
The present excavations have been running for over a decade, and while the team modestly stresses that this is only a summary of the present state of understanding, what has already been revealed is truly breathtaking; this wide-ranging book is an accomplishment to be saluted.
Each of the Ness’ key aspects is explored in turn, in illuminating detail. The complex is home to a unique array of Neolithic buildings, as well as a rich range of artefacts and the largest assemblage of ‘architecturally situated’ carvings from a single site in northern Europe. Over 900 individual decorated stones have been recovered so far, marked with mostly geometric motifs created through various means – incising, pecking, carving, cup-marks, and more. Some of this imagery is familiar from other Neolithic sites, placing the Ness within a fascinating context of ancient artists, while other designs are unique, such as an ‘opposed fan’ motif dubbed the ‘Brodgar butterfly’ by the team.
The Ness also boasts the most diverse assemblage of stone tools of any Orcadian Neolithic site: from practical implements to enigmatic carved stone balls, these are described in loving detail, with an extra chapter dedicated to the 13 beautifully crafted stone maceheads that have been found to-date. Other chapters explore pottery (including preliminary findings from analysis of residues hinting at what the ceramics contained), animal bones and other insights into the Ness’ Neolithic diet, and human remains, as well as neatly synthesising the history of investigations on the Ness. Particularly insightful, however, are contributions that both place the site within its Orcadian context and give a wider view, comparing the Ness to sites from Salisbury Plain, Shetland, and Ireland.
It is an added bonus that this is a fantastically photogenic site: the book’s comprehensive contents are complemented by plenty of beautiful images of structures, artefacts, and landscapes. If this is only an interim view, I can’t wait to see what these long-running investigations find next.
The Ness of Brodgar: as it stands, Nick Card, Mark Edmonds, and Anne Mitchell (eds), The Orcadian, www.orcadian.co.uk/shop, £35.99, ISBN 978-1912889082.
Review by CH.