Ongoing geophysics project continues to reveal secrets of the Ness of Brodgar

The geophysics of the Wasbister area of the Ness o' Brodgar. The settlement is clearly apparent in the centre of the scan. The Wasbister Disc Barrow can be seen in the lower left and the Dyke o' Sean moving upwards on the left side. Click the image for an enlargement.

One of the first impressions of the Ring o’ Brodgar is isolation.

The stone circle stands stark in a landscape that appears, at first glance, to have been untouched by humankind.

But the idea that the megaliths stood in a secluded area, far from everyday life, is one that continues to be challenged by the latest archaeological surveys carried out on the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney’s West Mainland.

The geophysics scans are part of an ongoing project which has seen 60 hectares of Orkney’s World Heritage Site examined to date.

The latest scans continue to peer through the soil of centuries to reveal more about the extent of the sub-surface archaeology. Of particular interest to archaeologists is a massive prehistoric settlement to the north of the Ring o’ Brodgar.

And according to Orkney Archaeological Trust’s Nick Card, the latest results have surpassed their expectations yet again.

“These results really are incredibly exciting,” he said. “They have not only confirmed much of what we suspected after seeing the results of all the previous scans, but really serve to emphasise the importance of the area, not only in terms of visible monuments but what appears to lie beneath the surface.”

Up until the discovery of the Barnhouse Settlement, in 1984, there was no evidence of Neolithic settlement in the Ness of Brodgar and Stenness area. As such it was assumed that the area’s importance lay solely in the ritual nature of the surviving monuments.

But now, thanks to modern technology, the bigger picture is slowly emerging.

Nick Card explained: “We thought we had found enough having uncovered the Barnhouse Settlement, not to mention the surprise last year when the settlement on the Ness of Brodgar, to the south of the ring, was uncovered. But the new geophysics survey results are incredible and show an area of extensive settlement to the north of the Ring of Brodgar.

“Apart from a few isolated lumps and bumps on the surface, there is little visible in the area but the geophysics has shown this to be a huge complex of anomalies, including structures, old field boundaries and enclosures.

He added: “We now know we have a huge archaeological complex covering several hectares – a massive area rich in sub-soil anomalies running from the Dyke o’ Sean up to base of the hill at Wasbister. We’re assuming it probably continues under the main road and continues toward the Harray Loch.”

This is the first time the extent of this settlement has been realised.

Standing out clearly on the scans of the complex is a pair of prehistoric round-houses, still traceable on the ground as slight earthworks. For years these mounds were assumed to be the remains of a pair of burial cairns, in keeping with the funerary landscape around the Ring o’ Brodgar.

Now, however, it is clear that the structure represents a Bronze Age ‘figure-of-eight’ house – of a style comparable to similar structures excavated in Shetland and the Western Isles. Although this house is almost certainly later than the Ring o’ Brodgar, as Nick pointed out, it seems likely that there are layers of archaeology and that the area was inhabited for a considerable period of time.

He said: “Although we think that most of the anomalies are associated with the pair of Bronze Age houses, the settlement complex is also visible from the Bookan Chambered Cairn on the ridge to the north. The apparent association of other Neolithic settlements in Orkney with tombs that overlook them, may also imply that there is also Neolithic settlement hidden among the remains at Wasbister.”

But although the geophysics scans clearly show the presence of archaeology, it will take excavation work to find out exactly what was in the area.

“The scans show anomalies so extensive and complex that we can’t yet be sure what they all represent, ” said Nick. “As well as the obvious circular structures present, there also appears to be some rectangular structures which could imply much later activity – perhaps even medieval or Viking.”

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

Looking westward along the Dyke o' Sean towards the Stenness Loch. This earthwork possibly marks the northern boundary of the Ring o' Brodgar ritual complex.

The ritual boundary

But despite the apparent scale of the settlement area to the north of the Ring o’ Brodgar, the new scans have further emphasised an element clearly apparent on previous surveys on the Ness. To the north of the stone circle there was a distinct cut-off point – an invisible boundary that seemed to demarcate the ritual area around the Ring o’ Brodgar.

Just as building to the south of the Ring o’ Brodgar stopped abruptly some distance from the stone circle, the situation to the north is identical. Here, the boundary seems to be marked by an earthen bank that runs across the Ness. Known as the Dyke o’ Sean, the exact age of this feature has never been determined.

But in light of the new geophysics data, which shows a correlation between the earthwork and the cessation of building, it seems possible that the Dyke o’ Sean is contemporary with the Brodgar ring, perhaps marking an outer boundary on the northern edge of the Brodgar henge complex.

A tantalising reference to a “dilapidated dyke” to the south of the ring, on a mid-19th century map of the Ness, could indicate a similar earthwork. It is hoped that the next series of scans, due to begin in March, will shed more light on this.

So within these boundaries, the land around the Ring o’ Brodgar seems to have been maintained as a definite “non domestic” area – a space set apart from “everyday” life and perhaps connected with the ritual, or religious, practices centred on the stone circle. Or was the area perceived as being distinctly different and as such avoided?

Symbolic circles

A recent theory surrounding groups of stone circles in the British Isles is that they had a particular symbolism – in particular representing life and death.

This theory was first proposed by Sheffield University archaeologist, Mike Parker Pearson, in a paper presented at the Neolithic Conference, in Kirkwall, in 1998.

Based on his earlier work surrounding Stonehenge and Avebury in England, he suggested that the Standing Stones o’ Stenness, with its central hearth and surrounded by evidence of feasting, settlement and activity, represented life and the world of the living. In stark contrast, the Brodgar henge, with its marked lack of domestic activity and surrounded by a complex of Bronze Age burial barrows, represented death or a spiritual domain of the ancestors.

This is a vastly simplified account of the theory, but archaeologists have long suspected that ancestor worship formed a part of Neolithic life, and that the ancestors were regarded as supernatural or divine entities.

Perhaps the clearest example of the contrast between the two megalithic monuments is the Barnhouse Settlement, a short distance to the north of the Standing Stones of Stenness.

When Barnhouse was excavated, Dr Colin Richards suspected he was working on a very small part of a larger settlement. The geophysics have since confirmed that the structures visible today are a mere fragment of the original settlement. At one time the village extended to the south-east along the shores of the Harray Loch and there is related activity under the present Odin Cottage – all a stone’s throw from the Stenness henge.

So if this theory is correct, was the procession from Stenness to Brodgar seen as a symbolic journey from life to death? Although there remains no evidence of an “artificial” processional way along the Ness, it has been suggested that the peninsula itself formed a natural procession, bounded on both sides by the Stenness and Harray lochs.


Picture sigurd Towrie
The area of the Wasbister settlement, revealed by the latest geophysics scans, looking east across the Ness of Brodgar, towards the Harray Loch.

As well as illuminating the area around Orkney’s two stone circles, other areas of the World Heritage Site have also benefited from the ongoing geophysics project. Across the Harray Loch to the east of the Barnhouse settlement lies Maeshowe – arguably Orkney’s finest example of a chambered cairn.

Here, in section of field to the north of the 5,000-year-old cairn, the scans focussed on a circular anomaly first noticed in aerial photographs of the area.

“From the photographic evidence we weren’t sure whether this feature represented the remains of another tomb, a ritual enclosure or even an area for animals,” said Nick Card. “The scans, however, have confirmed the existence of a large circular enclosure with several associated features. And from the lack of magnetic responses we can be fairly sure that this was not a domestic site.”

So with the scan results ruling out the mundane, what was the site for?

Given its close proximity to Maeshowe, the archaeologists feel the area was in some way involved with the chambered cairn.

Nick added: “From the evidence so far, we’re thinking that the enclosure was part of the ritual landscape around Maeshowe and as such perhaps involved somehow in the rituals and ceremonies centred on the cairn.”

But further details will have to wait until the archaeologists have the chance to “ground-truth” the geophysics results through detailed excavation work.

Another 30 hectares of the World Heritage Site remain to be scanned this year – 15 hectares in March and a further 15 in the autumn. Scanning work is carried out by GSB Prospection and the project is sponsored by Historic Scotland, Orkney Islands Council, Orkney Archaeological Trust and Orkney College.

Orkney Archaeological Trust would like to thank all landowners and farmers for their permission to work on their property.

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