Stone wall hints at Neolithic spiritual barrier

A massive prehistoric wall, which may once have separated the realms of the dead and the living, has been unearthed on the Ness of Brodgar, in Stenness.

As a five-week excavation on the Ness draws to a close, the discovery of the “Great Wall of Brodgar” corroborated previous geophysics scans of the area.

These showed that building to the south of the Ring o’ Brodgar stopped abruptly and that an area to the immediate north and south of the stone circle was maintained as a definite “no-go” area – building-wise at least.

Site director, and Orkney Archaeological Trust project manager, Nick Card explained: “What the excavation has shown is that this building cut-off point is real and seems to be defined by this massive monumental wall.

“We can’t tell yet what the wall’s original form would have been – was it a high, view-obscuring barrier, or perhaps just a flat topped platform a few feet high. But judging by the width of the just over four metres wide foundations, you’re looking at something extremely large and very impressive, with the most beautiful stonework incorporated into the side facing the Ring itself.

“It wasn’t defensive. It was more like a stone barrier, separating the activity on the south-east of the Ness from whatever activity was going on around the Ring of Brodgar.

Although the wall remains appear to stop halfway across the Ness, it is thought that the sheer volume of underground archaeology that has shown up on geophysics scans could be obscuring the missing remains scans of the western side.

The wall’s discovery fits in with a theory proposed a few years ago that the two stone rings had specific roles in Neolithic life – in particular representing life and death.

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

Based on his earlier work on Stonehenge and Avebury, in England, he suggested that the Standing Stones of 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 ring, with its marked lack of domestic activity and later surrounded by a complex of Bronze Age burial barrows, represented death, or a spiritual domain of the ancestors.

So if this theory is correct, was the procession from Stenness to Brodgar seen as a symbolic journey from life to death?

The wall first came to light last year, in the same trench that contained a large, oval, stone structure that was thought may have been a chambered cairn.

Nick has since veered away from that idea. Instead, he thinks the building was a house – albeit one that was probably involved in the rituals surrounding the area.

“At least in its latest phase of use, there seems to be a hearth in the centre of it, something usually typical of a domestic building. But we need to uncover the base of the structure – and there’s a lot of archaeology between the current ground level and there. Only when we can get to the primary floor can we be sure what the building’s original function was.”

The 2.5 hectare site has intriguing parallels with recent excavations at Durrington Walls, which uncovered part of a settlement that was not only thought to have housed the builders of Stonehenge but was also part of the larger ceremonial landscape, and the activities carried out therein.

This village, it is suggested, became a “pilgrimage” site – a place where people stayed during the ceremonies and feasts involving Stonehenge. Analysis of pigs’ teeth found at the site indicates that the animals were butchered at midwinter, perhaps to provide the meat for the “festivities”.

Nick said: “We seem to be getting similar evidence here. As well as stone tools, decorated stone and a polished macehead, there has been huge quantities of pottery turning up and lots of cremated animal bone.

Although bone preservation on site is poor, it is hoped that further analysis will allow the archaeologists to look for any patterns – were the Brodgar animals also killed at a specific time of the year, for example? If so, was their slaughter related to a specific event, such as midsummer or midwinter.

 

Over in Trench P – which has since become known simply as “the big trench” – the outline of a beautifully symmetrical Neolithic structure (pictured above) has been the main focus of attention. The building’s similarity to the structures at the nearby Barnhouse Settlement is clearly apparent.

“Several of the buildings we’ve uncovered this summer – in this one area of the site – do have this very regular, symmetrical architecture, very reminiscent of that found in the Neolithic burial chambers,” he said.

“The large structure in its original form may be a hybrid between House Two and Structure Eight at Barnhouse. The later alterations to this structure are comparable to the Bronze Age structures discovered at Crossiecrown, St Ola, with very regular rectangular architecture at the front, but with a large curving wall defining its back.

“The sheer scale of this building, together with the complexity of its construction and architecture suggests that it was maybe more that merely domestic.”

So far, one entrance has been found in this structure but there are suggestions that, unlike any of the structures at Barnhouse, the building may have been served by two opposed entrances, one at either end.

This could suggest the building was meant to be walked through. Given its location on the Ness, lying between the Standing Stones o’ Stenness and the Ring o’ Brodgar, was this structure integral to the use of both monuments? Perhaps it was meant to be passed through by those making their way to, or from, Brodgar.

Incorporated into the stonework of one entrance is a decorated stone – marked with the geometrical lozenges typical of the Neolithic, and similar to those found on decorated stone slabs found on site in 2006, and again this summer.

At present the decorated entrance stone is a few inches above ground, but the fact that those found at Skara Brae were about knee height has highlighted how much further down the excavators must go to reach the structure’s original floor.

This structure is surrounded “cheek to jowl” by a number of other buildings, with the entire site itself possibly representing a millennia of constant use and reuse.

Nick said: “From the geophysics scans, we knew this area would be extremely rich in archaeology and what we have uncovered over the past five weeks is merely the tip of the iceberg.

“In certain areas of the site there’s these large rubble-filled voids which indicate we’re dealing with a huge depth of archaeology – as we had suspected and recently confirmed by ground penetrating radar. As this season’s excavation draws to a close, we’re really just glimpsing a tiny percentage of what is actually here – there’s a whole sequence of buildings on the site, one after the other.”

“Who knows what else is hiding under these later structures.”

 

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