The ‘Cathedral’ at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney

The Neolithic 'cathedral' — Structure 10, from the north. (ORCA)

It has to be a religious building, a temple, the cathedral of its period – the words of Nick Card, describing this summer’s work on a massive Neolithic structure on the Ness of Brodgar.

Going by the name of Structure Ten, the building first came to light during last summer’s excavation on the Ness. Geophysics scans of the site had suggested there was something large under the turf but once digging began, the sheer scale of what lay beneath became clear.

This year, the monumental proportions of the building have been revealed.

Measuring 25 metres (82 feet) long by 20 metres (65 feet) wide, the five-metre-thick outer walls remain to a height of approximately one metre (three feet). It is an oft-used phrase, but Structure Ten is truly like nothing found in Orkney, and perhaps Britain, before.

At the helm of the excavations again is Nick Card, from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

He explained: “Before the Barnhouse Settlement was excavated, in the 1980s, we had two types of Neolithic structure – the house and the tomb. The Barnhouse excavations, by Dr Colin Richards, gave us two ‘new’ structure types – House Two and Structure Eight — and now we’ve got Structure Ten on the Ness of Brodgar.

“When we consider the overall scale of Structure Ten, with its five-metre-thick walls, containing a cruciform central chamber, it fits in none of the present Neolithic categories. Instead, it’s something quite extraordinary and seems to be very much a mix of the domestic and the religious, or ritual. In effect, it combines elements of both the chambered tombs and the domestic houses, such as those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae — but it has become startlingly clear that this was no domestic house.”

Nick added: “I think we can quite safely say what we have here has to be a temple – a structure that was in some way involved in the belief systems of the Neolithic Orcadians. But again, given the monumental scale of the building, and the artefacts we’ve been recovering, I think it was more than just a simple religious structure for a handful of people. It has to have been a cathedral of its period and, as such, perhaps the focal point for people across Orkney, and beyond.”

Outside Structure Ten’s massive external wall, a carefully paved area has been uncovered, lying between it and an outer wall that once enclosed the building. The paved passage has led to speculation that Structure Ten once featured a massive roof, the eaves possibly coming out as far as the outer wall and lending the outer paved area the impression of an access passage, or walkway.

To anyone who has visited one of Orkney’s chambered tombs, the idea of an entrance passage will be familiar. At Maeshowe, for example, after bending double to negotiate the narrow, low, entrance passage, when the visitor reaches the main chamber, it unfolds as a vast expanse of space. The same may be true of Structure Ten – after being led through a darkened stone passage, the visitor arrived in a high-roofed central chamber.

Inside, however, despite the sheer size of the building’s exterior, the inner, cross-shaped, chamber turned out to be comparatively small. Measuring six metres (19 feet) across, the “inner sanctum” is a slightly larger “copy” of Maeshowe’s central chamber and was clearly not meant to hold many people at any one time.

Dresser in one of the houses in Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)

The chamber contained an example of the ubiquitous stone dresser — but where these are found built against the walls at Skara Brae, for example, in Structure Ten it was free-standing and incorporated slabs of striking red and yellow sandstone, as elsewhere in the central chamber.

“This sandstone must have been ‘imported’ to the site and was deliberately used as a feature in the dresser’s construction,” said Nick. “We don’t know its source yet, but it’s tempting to wonder whether the sandstone was quarried from the same sources used in St Magnus Cathedral, almost 4,000 years later.”

Even to the modern eye, the exterior stonework of Structure Ten is a sight to behold – a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Inside, however, the central chamber stonework is, as Nick described it, “particularly scrappy.”

He said: “The masonry of the chamber is not a patch on the immaculate stonework on the outside of the building. This suggests that Structure Ten was meant to be viewed from the outside, with access to the ‘inner sanctum’ restricted to a privileged few.

“Standing here today, looking at these remains and the sheer scale and complexity of the architecture, it’s an awe-inspiring sight. Imagine it in its heyday, with walls standing two metres high, and perhaps a massive roof stretching skyward. Clearly, this was meant to impress. It would have been a truly incredible sight — monumental in every sense of the word. It would have been visible from miles around and as you drew nearer, it would have dominated the landscape – perhaps even more so than the nearby Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, it must have been extremely impressive and something that most Neolithic people would have been in awe off.”

From the start, the archaeologists noted similarities between Structure Ten and the Barnhouse Settlement’s Structure Eight and now Nick thinks the two buildings were probably contemporary. The Barnhouse building, built around 2600BC, after the village had been abandoned, was a massive hall-like structure, seven metres (23 feet) square, also with incredibly thick outer walls. It was built on a platform of yellow clay — another feature paralleling Maeshowe – which was then surrounded by an enclosing circular wall, creating an internal courtyard over 20 metres across.

While Structure Ten mirrors Maeshowe, the spatial layout of Barnhouse’s Structure Eight closely resembles that of the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness.

The construction of both buildings seems to indicate a change in religious and ritual practices of the time. Where ceremonies were perhaps once open to the entire community, things seem to have changed. The rituals and religious ceremonies now took place in an enclosed space that was accessible to a select few.

Nick said: “There was some major change happening. We have these massive structures being built around the same time that chambered cairns were going out of use and being deliberately blocked up. It might be that we’re seeing a centralisation of religious belief. Before, everything was community based, and related to individual settlements or areas, but it seems there was a gradual shift towards a centralised, perhaps hierarchical, way of thinking.”

On the Ness, Structure Ten was also the last building on the site. Like the Barnhouse settlement’s Structure Eight, it was constructed after earlier buildings fell out of — or were taken out of — use.

Nick explained: “What we’ve really been concentrating on this season is defining the relationship between the three structures we’ve got on the site. Last year, I thought they might be contemporary but it has since become clear that this is not actually the case. The two other structures under investigation pre-date Structure Ten. One — Structure Eight — was found to have been partially dismantled to allow the construction of the “cathedral on the Ness”.

Structures Eight and One, while nowhere near the size of Structure Ten, dwarf the houses at Skara Brae. In addition, they are architecturally similar to Barnhouse’s House Two — particularly Structure One — and, once again, bear the same elements of design as chambered cairns, Quanterness in particular. Structure Eight, however, is much larger than Barnhouse’s House Two with at least eight recessed areas. Work this year has also been concentrating on the area directly opposite its entrance.

It is this area of Structure Eight that Nick feels could have been the “three cists” excavated in 1925. If so, this would make Structure Eight the original home of the “Brodgar stone” – a decorated slab featuring eight bands of lozenge decoration – a design common at a number of megalithic sites, in Orkney and beyond.

The architectural differences between Skara Brae, Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar site adds weight to the idea that the Ness site was not a domestic settlement. Unlike Skara Brae, the layout of the Barnhouse settlement prompted the theory that the settlement had a hierarchical social structure, with a chief or religious leader overseeing the community’s daily activities. Whereas Skara Brae’s houses had a uniform size and layout, perhaps indicating that no individual was more important than another, Barnhouse was distinctly different. There, at least six “normal” dwellings surrounding the larger, more elaborate House Two.

Standing in the south-western quarter of the village, the size and architecture of House Two was completely different to the other contemporary houses excavated in the settlement. Much larger, and built to a higher standard, the building was partitioned, with stone slabs, to form two chambers with rectangular recesses built into the interior wall. Although these recesses look like the bed “chambers” found in other Neolithic dwellings, their similarity to the interior of the Quanterness chambered cairn has led to the theory that this was not their actual purpose.

A few feet in from the main entrance, a stone cist in the floor was found to contain human remains. Covered by a triangular shaped slab of stone, the cist was positioned in such a way that anyone entering the structure was forced to pass over it. The cist, together with the architectural similarity to chambered cairns, could indicate that the structure symbolised a link to the villagers’ dead, or ancestors. Because of this, it is thought that Barnhouse’s House Two was more than a residence but was perhaps involved in rituals or ceremonies significant to the village.

While all the other houses in the settlement were periodic-ally pulled down and rebuilt, House Two was left untouched throughout the life of the village. This, together with its central position and the open “communal” area to the front of the building, suggests it was a focal point for the community.

Back when the Barnhouse Settlement was excavated by Dr Colin Richards, in the 1980s, one of the suggestions was that the village housed an elite class of “priest”. This theory originally surfaced a number of years prior to the discovery of the Barnhouse site, when it was suggested by archaeologist Euan Mackie, that Skara Brae was the home of those who officiated at tribal ceremonies in and around the Stenness rings. At the time, however, the idea was abandoned only to be resurrected after the Barnhouse settlement was found.

The design of House Two, and subsequently the Ness of Brodgar’s Structures Eight and One, seems to fit with this idea because of the structural similarities between them and Orkney’s chambered cairns. Perhaps these buildings were not mere dwellings but were some form of meeting hall, connected with the ceremonies at the nearby stone rings. Or were the tribal “wise-men” cloistered in this sacred compound close to their ceremonial centre? The ritualistic elements apparent in the design of the Barnhouse and Ness of Brodgar structures and their location in the ceremonial heartland of Neolithic Orkney — the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe are all clearly visible from Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar site – certainly lends weight to this idea.

One key element to both the Ness of Brodgar and the Barnhouse settlement was Maeshowe.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Structure Ten was linked to Maeshowe,” said Nick. “Not only do we have the architectural similarities, but the building itself is aligned to face the 5,000 year old cairn.”

This alignment ties in with Barnhouse’s Structure Eight, which is surrounded by a wall with two entrances. One of these entrances also faces the chambered cairn.

The Maeshowe-facing section of Structure Ten incorporated a paved forecourt, possibly flanked on both sides by a stone wall and standing stone.

At present, the remains of one wall, along with the base of a large, holed, standing stone, have been uncovered, but according to Nick, there’s no reason to believe there isn’t a second wall — and perhaps a second standing stone — waiting to be revealed.

Built into the excavated forecourt “wall” is a massive stone slab. On a recent visit to the site, Dr Colin Richards, of Manchester University, suggested that that, based on its dimensions, it could be part of another standing stone that stood in the area. This, too, echoes Maeshowe, which incorporated four large megaliths into the construction of its inner chamber, with other prostrate stones forming the passage.

So what was Structure Ten for? We can only speculate, but it is possible that, like churches today, it had a number of roles.

A fragment of human skull was found in the forecourt area — belonging to a youth in the late teens or early 20s — while a child’s tooth was retrieved from the inner chamber. Do these mean the structure was involved in the “handling” of the Neolithic dead?

Perhaps, but as Nick stressed: “A few samples of human bone doesn’t necessarily make Structure Ten a funerary structure. It may be that it was involved in part of the rituals involving the dead — in particular the ‘preparation’ of the dead for their ‘onward journey’ — which would make sense when we consider the location and the possible symbolism of the nearby ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’.”

The “Great Wall” was a massive prehistoric construction which appears to have separated the hypothetical “realms of the dead and the living”. The four-metre (13 feet) thick wall came to light in 2007. Its discovery, together with geophysics scans showing a distinct lack of human activity around the Ring of Brodgar, suggested it had some symbolic function.

“We know that the building cut-off point is real and seems to be defined by this massive monumental wall,” said Nick.

“We opened a small trench this year, in the garden of the house adjacent to the site, and found another section of large wall. Although the south-eastern wall was not to the same scale as the ‘Great Wall’ there’s a possibility that it was part of the same construction and perhaps even enclosed the entire Ness of Brodgar site. It wasn’t defensive. It is more like a symbolic barrier, separating the activity on the rest of the Ness from whatever was going on in the settlement.”

The wall’s discovery fits in with a theory proposed a few years ago that the Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stenness had specific roles in Neolithic life — in particular representing life and death.

This was first proposed by archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson in 1998. 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.

The Ness of Brodgar site continues to have parallels with the recent excavations at Durrington Walls, in England, 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. Durrington Walls, it is suggested, was 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’re continuing to get similar evidence here. As well as the huge quantities of pottery turning up, around the outside of Structure Ten, we’ve been gathering large amounts of cattle bone.”

The cattle bone, Nick suggests, is the remains of ceremonial feasts that once took place outside Structure Ten.

In addition, the diversity of pottery found indicates that the Ness of Brodgar site was a focus for a number of communities — perhaps visited by people from all over Stone Age Orkney.

Nick said: “Excavation at other settlement sites usually produces 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.

“On top of that, we’ve been continuing to find a wealth of Neolithic ‘art’ – from simple incised decoration to pecking and more substantial carved motifs.

“What they represent is still open to debate — whether they were purely decoration, ritually symbolic or perhaps just somebody making their mark on a structure. But the sheer quantity highlights that this was a significant site — something really special in terms of Neolithic Orkney. What we now have is another, potentially major, part of a jigsaw puzzle. As I’ve said before, I wonder now whether what we have here is the actual heart of Neolithic Orkney.

“Instead of the long-held idea that the Ring of Brodgar was the focus, I wonder whether, as Colin Richards suggested last year, that the stone circles were merely on the periphery of the true centre — the massive ceremonial complex we’re now beginning to uncover.”

Standing on site, one can easily see how the Ness of Brodgar could have become a Stone Age pilgrimage site. Looking out across the Stenness loch, towards, Hoy, it is not difficult to imagine a mass of people, clustered around Structure Ten, perhaps awaiting the “death” of the Midwinter sun.

For weeks beforehand, the Maeshowe’s inner chamber had been illuminated by the last rays of the dying sun, counting down the days to the longest night.

Over that period, the Ness had become a hive of activity, as visitors gathered for the Midwinter celebrations, bringing with them clay pots full of provisions, offerings and perhaps even the remains of their dead.

When the shortest day arrived — a phenomenon marked by the sun setting over the Barnhouse Stone — the assembled crowds gazed out across the loch and watched, with a mix of fear, trepidation and excitement, as the sun slipped behind Ward Hill.

Inside their “cathedral” the gathered wise-men carried out their ceremonies to ensure the rebirth of the sun, and perhaps the passage of the dead.

Outside, the sun disappeared.

But soon the days would grow long again — and the celebrations began.

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