Brodgar assumptions questioned at end of Ness dig

Trench P, just about ready for the final photographs, as the last public tour of the day takes place. (ORCA)

With the 2008 excavations on the Ness of Brodgar drawing to a close this week, site director Nick Card feels its time for a major rethink about the landscape of Orkney’s Neolithic Heartland.

The long-held assumption that the Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stenness were the centre of activity needs looked at again, said Nick, senior project manager of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

He explained: “For centuries people have been coming to the Ness and, because it is dominated by the two massive stone rings, it’s come to be assumed that they were the main Neolithic focus of the area. The Ring of Brodgar, in particular, has become regarded as the ceremonial ‘centre’ of the Ness — an assumed significance that is a creation of our modern, 20th century, interpretation of the landscape.

“In light of this summer’s finds, however, I would question that interpretation. Instead of the notion that the Ring of Brodgar was the focus, I wonder whether the stone circles were merely on the periphery of the true ceremonial centre — a massive ceremonial complex, fragments of which are now only coming to light. It’s becoming clear to us now that this complex, in its heyday, must have completely dominated the landscape.”

The excavation site sits halfway between the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. Flanked on both sides by water, access to the Ness could only be gained from the south-east or north-west. As such, visitors had to pass through either the Ring of Brodgar, or Standing Stones of Stenness, as part of their journey.

Nick added: “Earlier this month, when Colin Richards was excavating at the Ring of Brodgar, he suggested the ring might have been built around an existing pathway along the Ness. The same could be true with the Standing Stones of Stenness at the other end.

“Colin suggested that the rings marked stages in a journey across the Ness — a journey which had a distinct end-point. He wondered whether this end-point was the big mound, by Lochview, but I think, maybe, the focus was just this whole complex — a ceremonial centre comprised of several huge, imposing structures all together. The sheer scale of these structures suggests it was more than a mere settlement.

“If that was the case, were the Ring or Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stenness a ritual, or ceremonial, ‘portal’ into the Ness complex? Something you had to pass through en route to the complex and not necessarily, as has been long believed, the end-points, or sole purpose, of the journey?”

With the Brodgar complex situated between the two henge monuments, the idea fits well with other British sites where henges seem to have been established to create a “corridor” for movement and ceremony.

On the Ness of Brodgar it certainly appears that this ceremonial “corridor” could have been funnelling visitors towards an important ceremonial point. These visitors could have come from all corners of Orkney. As reported last week, the diversity of the pottery found on site suggests that the Ness was a focus for a number of communities.

Nick concluded: “There is something strange about this site. When you think about it being enclosed by the monumental ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’ and its position in the centre of the two stone circles, you really have to wonder about its overall significance.”

The Ness of Brodgar excavations were supported by Orkney Islands Council, Orkney College, FOAT, Robert Kiln Trust, Orkney Archaeological Trust and Historic Scotland.

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