As this year’s eight-week dig season at the Ness of Brodgar – one of the largest and most important Neolithic sites in Europe (see CA 241 and 335) – came to an end, an international team of archaeologists uncovered a surprising subterranean structure, shedding more light on the sophistication of the first farmers who built this site 5,000 years ago.

An aerial view of the Ness of Brodgar. This season of excavation was as fruitful as ever.
An aerial view of the Ness of Brodgar. This season of excavation was as fruitful as ever. [Image: Scott Pike]

While working adjacent to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, the team found a massive stone-lined drain running underneath several of the buildings. It can be traced directly for over 1.8m, but potentially extends for at least 30m and may head for the Loch of Stenness. At 50cm wide and at least 70cm deep, there is nothing quite like it on site. Other drains found from the Ness are significantly smaller, which possibly suggests that this was a main drain for the site.

The Ness of Brodgar Site Director Nick Card said, ‘This is an important discovery as it reinforces the complexity of the architecture and indicates the high degree of planning required in its construction.’

During the latest excavation a large drain was discovered, which appears to head towards the Loch of Stenness.
During the latest excavation a large drain was discovered, which appears to head towards the Loch of Stenness. [Image: ORCA]

Nick believes that the drain was built during the primary phase of construction of the later piered structures. Taking this into account, it places its construction at a very early period of the site itself, and means that it played an important role in the more complex phases at the Ness which followed.

This year also saw the continuation of work in a trench at the very tip of the Brodgar peninsula that has uncovered one of the most complex buildings on the site. This structure is extremely large and is unlike any other building at the complex, or indeed elsewhere, built using large orthostats instead of the usual dry-stone construction. It was abandoned, even as the remaining structures nearby continued in use, and subsequently covered with domestic rubbish to form a huge midden. The midden was so large, it probably could have been seen from a considerable distance, and is perhaps a reflection of prehistoric conspicuous consumption, as well as of the status and affluence of the Ness.

Also unearthed was a great selection of decorated stones, a beautiful yet unfinished macehead made of olivine basalt, and a human bone, which was found in a (potentially votive) foundation deposit relating to the remodelling of Structure 10 – the last major construction built around 2900 BC. The bone is an ulna, part of the lower arm, and is most likely from a young adult. Interestingly, it is contemporary with another human arm bone found close by in 2016, along with the leg bones of several very large cattle. Further in-depth analysis of the human bone, including DNA, may well determine if the two arm bones are from the same individual or, if not, whether they were related.

While excavation has now finished for this season, work on the site will continue next year with more significant discoveries anticipated; the Ness of Brodgar is a site that keeps on giving.

Text by Sean Page


This news article appears in issue 356 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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