“What we’ve got here is probably one of the largest, if not the largest, stone-built Neolithic non-funerary structures in Britain.”
Now into its fourth week, the dig has left Nick in no doubt that this was no “ordinary” Neolithic village.
“At some stage in the site’s life it wasn’t domestic at all,” he said. “The sheer scale of these structures suggest it’s something way beyond that.”
The geophysics scans of the site had suggested there was something large under the turf. Once digging began in the area last week, the scale of the structure became clear.
Christened Structure Ten, the building looks like being over 20 metres long (almost 66 feet) — with an internal width of over 11 metres.
Nick explained: “Only half of this structure has been revealed in this trench as the other half disappears under the house of Lochview, as indicated by the geophysical surveys.
“However, in this half we can already make out a sub-rectangular building with rounded corners, over 11 metres wide internally, surrounded by a massive wall over two metres thick. The scale of this structure is even larger than the monumental Structure Eight at the nearby Barnhouse village.
“If Structure Ten was roofed, it would have have been truly incredible — monumental in every sense of the word — an astonishing sight and something that most Neolithic people would have been in awe off.”
Aligned to Maeshowe
Nick Card is sure this alignment is no coincidence.
Built roughly east-west, the Ness structure points across the Harray loch towards Maeshowe. Dating from around 2600BC, Structure Eight at Barnhouse is surrounded by a wall with two entrances. One of these entrances also faces the chambered cairn.
A third possibility, although open to debate, are the two “dolmen” stones in the centre of the Standing Stones of Stenness. Maeshowe is framed beautifully through the gap in these two stones, thought to be the remnants of a “porch” or “monumental entrance” to a timber structure that once stood within the stone circle.
The alignments could be significant in a number of ways.
Were the buildings, symbolic of life, facing Maeshowe, a symbolic house of the dead? Or were the alignments a way to tie all the structures together — to highlight, or emphasise, the connections between them?
A building appears to have been inserted into the interior of Structure Ten, probably late on in the site’s history, but it will take further excavation to clarify how it fits into the site’s chronological sequence.
“Just having the one structure like Structure Ten on a site would be amazing,” said Nick. “But we’ve got more — one or two which are bigger than those at Barnhouse. Our Structure Eight, for example, features these beautifully-constructed, regular, stone piers, creating a building over seven metres wide internally.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got several large buildings which appear to be contemporary. You’re looking at a complex of large buildings which highlight the importance and significance of this site.”
Neolithic focal point?
The diversity of pottery found, including a decorated pot sherd featuring a design very similar to those found in Skara Brae, suggests that the Ness site was a focus for a number of communities — perhaps visited by people from all over Stone Age Orkney.
Nick said: “Whereas excavation at other settlement sites has tended to produce a limited range of pottery, here, from the quantity of different pottery uncovered, might suggest it was brought in from a wide range of sites.”
Once again, this echoes the excavations at Durrington Walls, in England, where part of a settlement was uncovered 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.
The Durrington Walls settlement, it is suggested, became a “pilgrimage” site — a place where people stayed during the ceremonies and feasts involving Stonehenge.
Was the same happening on the Ness?
The idea dovetails nicely with Dr Colin Richards’ theory that the construction of the nearby Ring of Brodgar was a process involving many different communities, from across Orkney, who gathered at the Ness.
A wealth of Stone Age art
Meanwhile, numerous examples of Neolithic “art” continue to be uncovered on the Ness. Late last Friday afternoon, yet another piece of incised stone was found. The slab features eight diagonal/vertical strokes — almost arrow-like — pointing down.
At the time of writing, another four examples of incised decoration have since been discovered — again some built into walls while others on collapse within the various structures.
“We’ve got the full spectrum of Neolithic ‘art’ here,” said Nick. “From simple incised decoration to pecking and more substantial carved motifs. For obvious reasons we can’t say for sure what these represent — whether purely decoration, ritually symbolic or perhaps just somebody making their mark on a structure.”
But although the significance of the artwork remains unknown, the sheer quantity could be seen as another indicator of the significance of the site.
At Skara Brae, for example, the majority of the decoration found was in two “special” structures — houses eight and seven. These stood apart from the rest of the settlement with noted differences in architecture. This led to the suggestion that the Skara Brae carvings had to be more than mere decor or graffiti.
“If that is indeed the case,” said Nick, “it would indicate that all the structures here were ‘special’ — something more than domestic houses. When it comes to the artwork, I suspect we’re looking at something which, again, truly emphasises the importance of this site.”
The “Great Wall” gets greater
Finally, ongoing work has showed that the infamous “Great Wall of Brodgar” got greater!
The four-metre thick wall came to light last year. It’s discovery, together with geophysics scans showing a distinct lack of human activity around the Ring of Brodgar, suggested that the wall had some symbolic, or ritualistic, function.
The cut-off point between activity and no activity seems to have been differentiated by the huge wall, which prompted the theory that it may have separated the Neolithic realms of the living from that of the dead.
This year, a trench was opened to see whether the wall extended right across the Ness — which it certainly appears to do — forming a clear barrier between the south-eastern and north-western sections.
A trench opened at the start of the 2008 excavation hinted that a massive ditch had been dug directly outside the wall. Further examination, however, revealed that a second two-metre wide section of wall had been built adjacent to the first.
Nick suspects the second wall section was added late in the history of the site, perhaps after the original wall had collapsed, or was dismantled.
The addition of this second section, he suggested, could have been a later attempt to monumentalise the original construction.
An exploratory trench over the wall revealed what could be more buildings, and a possible hearth, which would imply that the wall fell out of use, towards the very end of the Neolithic and maybe into the Bronze Age, and structures spilled out to the north-west.
The Ness of Brodgar excavations are supported by Orkney Islands Council, Orkney College, FOAT, Robert Kiln Trust, Orkney Archaeological Trust and Historic Scotland.