Uncovering Orkney’s Neolithic heart

Overlooking the main trench at the Ness of Brodgar, facing towards the Stones of Stenness. Were this unique settlement and the nearby stone circle competing sites, or part of the same large complex? (Image: Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

For over a decade, archaeological research at the Ness of Brodgar has uncovered an astonishing array of Neolithic structures, including monumental buildings and hundreds of examples of prehistoric artwork. Nick Card brings us the latest news from the Ness.

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 peak, the Ness was dominated by Grooved Ware. This almost complete vessel was found while excavating Structure 14. (Image: Woody Musgrove)

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 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.

The site’s communal buildings cluster around a distinctive decorated standing stone. (Image: Jo Bourne)

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.

Cultural connections

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.

Structure 10, shown at the top of this image (behind Structure 8), was erected in c.2900 BC – the last major building to be constructed at the Ness. (Image: Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

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.

A selection of polished stone artefacts from the site. They include the only carved stone ball yet recovered from the Ness: it had been incorporated into the foundations of Structure 10 when it was rebuilt, possibly as a votive gesture. (Image: Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

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.

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 335. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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