It is something that has been speculated on for decades — but now there is proof. Stone Age man used colour to decorate his structures.
Last Friday, five days into the 2010 season of excavations on the Ness of Brodgar, it became clear that sections of walling within two structures had been “painted”.
But rather than breaking out the Stone Age equivalent of a sheepskin roller to jazz up some interior walling, at present it would appear that the decoration was applied to specific, single stones — and the application of paint may have had its own special significance.
Site director is Nick Card, from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).
He explained: “We have discovered stonework within Structures One and Eight, that has been decorated, and enhanced, with extensive layers of pigments.
“On one stone, although no coherent pattern can be discerned, there are several different colours covering most of the stone face – reddish browns, yellows and oranges – while on another stone the whole stone face seems to have the same reddish colour applied right across its surface.
“There are examples from the Mediterranean – Spain and Portugal, for example, in the context of Neolithic cave decoration – but in Northern Europe, until now, it’s not been until the Bronze Age where you start getting stone carvings enhanced by the use of colour.”
We know that Neolithic society went to great lengths to incorporate decoration into other elements of everyday life. Their pots, for example, were often elaborately decorated, and structures such as the Blackhammer Chambered Cairn, in Rousay, featured ornamental stonework on its exterior —with stone slabs slanted to form a triangular pattern.
Here, when the tomb’s entrance was finally sealed, the cairn’s users went to great lengths to ensure the stones used were set flush to the wall and matched the pattern of stones on either side.
Nick Card added: “As archaeologists, we’ve presumed that colour would have been an important part of Neolithic life in Orkney – just as it has been worldwide for millennia.
“There’s no reason to believe they were not colouring their clothes, their hair, facial adornments and the like, but never in our wildest imaginations did we expect to find colour surviving in a Neolithic structure.
“What these discoveries do, is bring these beliefs into sharp relief and reveal a multi-coloured Neolithic world where colour was not limited to perhaps personal adornment, clothes and artefacts, but was also used to decorate structures – perhaps even the standing stones at Brodgar and Stenness themselves.”
The pigments are no doubt derived from material like haematite and limonite — iron ores found in Hoy.
A single piece of haematite, for example, can produce several different colours. Mixed with animal fat, milk, or egg white, it produces a sticky, paste-like paint.
“Haematite can be applied directly to a stone surface with a bit of water,” said Nick, “but I think, in this case, what we’re looking at is ‘paint’ that’s been premixed and then applied to the masonry. But there’s potentially so much decoration that’s gone on here that they could have been using a variety of techniques.
“The fact that we now know they were deliberately applying decoration, for whatever reason, to the interior of their structures maybe goes a long way to explain the sheer quantity of Neolithic artwork we’ve found here.
“While we’ve had what could be described as carvings, other ‘art’ examples were extremely ephemeral that were so faintly incised you could hardly see the design – all too often they seemed to blend into their parent rock. I wonder if these stones are actually the result of people scratching their designs through layers of pre-applied paint, barely marking the stone but producing designs that would have stood out so much more clearly through the thick layers of pigment.
“It’s not hard to imagine how these designs would have been transformed if they had been incised through a layer of colour. The contrast between the lines and the surrounding colour would have really made these designs stand out.
Although it has been suggested that incised motifs inside Orkney’s chambered tombs were once painted, aside from hints in Maeshowe, there’s no other Neolithic structure where there’s definite evidence of the application of colour.
At Newgrange, in Ireland, and in Structure Ten, on the Ness of Brodgar, for example, there are examples of coloured stone being used for decorative purposes, but, to date, said Nick, “this is the first time we’ve got actual proof of painted decoration within a Neolithic structure.”
“It adds a whole new dimension to the Neolithic. It’s like some of the ephemeral bits of Neolithic life that we would never really expect to pick up – the noise, the music, the colour — but now we know that these people were not living in a drab, monochrome world but one in which colour seems to have played a major part.
“For years, the story of Neolithic Orkney has been like a black-and-white film but now we can start bringing colour into the picture.
“We’ve suspected it for a while – at Rinyo, in Rousay, Skara Brae and Crossiecrown, in St Ola, we’ve had these ‘paint pots’ that were thought to be specifically for personal adornment. Maeshowe was the only location where traces of pigment have been hinted at by work carried out there by Professor Richard Bradley.
“But it may well be that interior decoration was much more widespread that we’ve assumed.”
There are no Neolithic sites in Orkney where haematite has not been found and when you look at the options available, mineral-wise — manganese, haematite and copper ore, all could have been used to create these pigments. Was the painting of buildings a common practice right across Neolithic societies? Or was it limited to specific places in monumental, non-domestic structures, such as entrances?
Nick added: “It could be that the practice of decorating buildings was actually more common but until now the signs have not been recognised by excavators.
“It’s on a par with when we began to find the first faintly incised stones on the Ness of Brodgar – within a short time we began to find more and more because we knew what we were actually looking for. Evidence of pigment use could be the same. Time will tell.”
But, according to Nick, the possibility remains that not all Neolithic structures were decorated and it was the special nature of the Ness of Brodgar site that necessitated, or allowed, the use of colour to further emphasis the site’s importance.
On the Ness, the painted panels seem to complement the use of red and yellow sandstone found in the interior of Structure Ten.
“Even without decoration, the structures at the Ness are impressive enough,” said Nick. “But imagine what they would have looked like painted. Awe-inspiring!”
The fragile paintwork has been covered over for protection as the archaeologists wait for advice on how to conserve, sample, analyse and record the unique discoveries.
As for the next four weeks on the Ness, Nick said only one thing was clear: “We can only imagine what else this site may hold in store.”