It is an artificial mound the size of five football pitches, formed of monumental stone structures and massive dumps of waste. And it is up to 5,000 years old. Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology describes why we may be on the brink of a radical rethink of prehistoric religion in Orkney.
People used to think that the whaleback ridge between two famous stone circles on the Brodgar peninsula was a natural rock formation. It lies in the middle of the natural bowl formed by the western side of Mainland Orkney, and is, therefore, at the heart of some of the most iconic Neolithic monuments in Europe. Then, in 2002, archaeologists carried out a geophysical survey of two fields on the tip of the Brodgar peninsula, as part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site Geophysics Programme. The aim was to create a complete survey record of the entire monument complex. They immediately discovered something extraordinary, even by Orcadian standards in prehistoric archaeology: a great complex of ‘anomalies’, suggestive of a settlement covering 2.5 hectares.
The new Ness of Brodgar site sits in the middle of one of the most remarkable archaeological landscapes in Europe. From the Ness, you can see the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maes Howe, the Watch Stone and the Barnhouse Stone. On the south side of the Bridge of Brodgar, barely 300m distant, is the Neolithic settlement of Barnhouse, discovered and excavated by Colin Richards in the 1980s.
Though the whale-back ridge was assumed to be natural, it had undergone some archaeological investigation even before 2002. Two standing stones and a large mound lie within the field forming the southern part of the site, while in the northern field the geometrically-incised Brodgar Stone had been discovered in 1925.
What the 2002 survey revealed, however, was a dense concentration of potential archaeological features covering the tip of the Ness peninsula. Features representing structures of every conceivable shape could be seen on the geophysics printouts — rectangular, oval, linear, concentric, double rectangular, and more.
What did they represent? What age were they? Were we looking at a composite picture of many structures of different ages superimposed on one another: a multi-period site? Or were they all part of single Neolithic complex? Only excavation could provide answers.
Two monumental structures
We now know the full extent of Structure 1, which was revealed by area excavation to be over 15m long and 10m wide, and to survive to more than a metre in height. There were several phases of remodelling and reuse. Initially, Structure 1, like Structure 2 at Barnhouse, had six very regular recesses around its inner wall face. It also had two opposing entrances at either end of the building (whereas Barnhouse had a single entrance in one of the long walls). In later phases, the internal area of Structure 1 was reduced in size by the insertion of a large curving wall, and later still, a small oval structure was built in the interior.
Although rather like the subterranean houses at Skara Brae, Structure 1 was freestanding when built. It appears ‘underground’ only because of the large amounts of midden-like material dumped around it, a feature that also occurred around other structures on the site. This phase of dumping seems to have been a deliberate and short-lived event, and perhaps represents a conscious attempt to erase these buildings from the landscape. Could this be some form of ritual closure?
Until the floor layers of Structure 1 are excavated, we can only guess how the building was used. Was it similar to Structure 2 at Barnhouse, a ceremonial or cult house where special food was consumed and mace-heads manufactured? To have just one such ‘special’ structure on the site would be amazing; but Structure 1 proved to be only the beginning of what was in store for us on this unprecedented site.
In 2007, adjacent to Structure 1, we exposed a linear wall with a series of regular, slightly tapered, stone-built piers arranged along its length. Trench extensions in 2008 revealed the mirror image of this wall on the opposite side, giving us a 7m-wide building (Structure 8). A further extension in 2009 revealed a curving ‘end’ wall to this structure, making it over 15m long. As with Structure 1, this turned out to be a later insertion: the building was bigger, its original wall lines continuing, tantalisingly, beyond the limits of our most recent trench. Although the remains were found disturbed in this area by earlier, unrecorded investigations (we presume from 1925 when the original ‘Brodgar Stone’ was found), the walls again survive to over a metre in height.
However, even the enormous scale and complexity of Structures 1 and 8 could not prepare us for what we uncovered next.