From Stonehenge to the Ness of Brodgar…or vice versa?

Professor Mike Parker Pearson excavating the 'altar' area in Structure Ten. (ORCA)

Professor Mike Parker Pearson excavating the 'altar' area in Structure Ten. (ORCA)

Back in the 1980s, a young archaeologist took part in the excavation of a newly-discovered Neolithic settlement in Orkney – the Barnhouse Settlement.

Last week, Professor Mike Parker Pearson, from Sheffield University, was back in the county, lending a hand at the excavations on the Ness of Brodgar.

An internationally renowned expert in the archaeology of death, Mike Parker Pearson is one of the directors of the Stonehenge Riverside Project — a collaboration between five universities — which is unravelling the mystery of the landscape around that iconic prehistoric monument.

In a nutshell, their research has concluded that Stonehenge was a monument to the dead, while the nearby Woodhenge was a monument to the living.

Connecting the realms of the living, including the settlement at Durrington Walls, and the dead was the River Avon — a sacred processional route between the two circles.

In a paper presented at the Neolithic Conference in Kirkwall in 1998, Prof Parker Pearson 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 Ring of Brodgar, with its marked lack of domestic activity and surrounded by a complex of Bronze Age burial barrows, represented death or a spiritual domain of the ancestors.

As such, he suggested the procession from the Stones of Stenness to the Ring of Brodgar could be seen as a symbolic journey from life to death.

“I’d published the idea about Stonehenge, but I floated the idea here, in Kirkwall, at the Neolithic conference,” he explained.

“When I suggested the theory could apply here, with this long peninsula leading to the Ring of Brodgar, I got a lot of strange looks from folk saying ‘Stonehenge is down there and this is up here,’ and I was left thinking ‘Well, maybe . . .”

But in 2004, geophysics scans of the Ness brought Professor Parker Pearson’s theory back to the fore.

The scans showed that building to the south of the Ring of 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.

Then, three years later, in 2007, excavation confirmed that the building cut-off point was real and seemed to be defined by a massive monumental wall — the so-called “Great Wall of Brodgar.”

Prof Parker Pearson said: “On the Ness of Brodgar, there’s definitely that sense of having a place that’s separated off from the living, and with the Ring of Brodgar, that does seem to be the case — increasingly more so, now that we know there’s a stone wall out there that’s four metres thick and we’ve got other walls around the place. There’s even the possibility of another Neolithic wall on the other side of the Ring of Brodgar.

“So it may be that the Ring of Brodgar is specially, and physically, separated off so that you could control access into the area around it very carefully. I find that intriguing.

“Of course, it would be great to see more work around the Ring of Brodgar itself. I think we need to know more about what’s happening in the interior and what some of these mounds are all about around it. Are they burial mounds? If so, what date? We still don’t have a proper date for the Brodgar stones yet, although we think it’s probably around 3000BC.”

As has been said on these pages before, the Ness of Brodgar excavation site has intriguing parallels with the excavations at Durrington Walls.

Lying about three kilometres north-east of Stonehenge, Durrington Walls is a huge circular henge, approximately 480 metres in diameter.

It was linked to the River Avon by a roadway, around which clustered the largest known Neolithic settlement on the British mainland. This “city”, which perhaps housed thousands of people — the builders of Stonehenge — was also part of the larger ceremonial landscape, and the activities carried out therein.

The village was a “pilgrimage” site — a place where people gathered for the ceremonies and feasts involving Stonehenge.

And, although it has become clear that feasting was also a feature of life on the Ness of Brodgar, the scale of the structures excavated so far marks the site as different from Durrington Walls.

Prof Parker Pearson said: “The houses that we’ve excavated at Durrington so far, and we’ve only got a tiny amount — nine houses — are relatively small and were actually domestic, family households. There’s not really much that equates to the massive structures here on the Ness, except that we’ve just realised that one of the structures excavated in the 1960s is one of these big ‘houses’.

“It’s a very unusual sort of building — it’s actually D-shaped and we think that that kind of building — measuring about 11 or 12 metres across — is probably more likely to be some sort of meeting house rather than an actual private dwelling.

“In fact, it may be that D-shaped architectural form that gave them the inspiration for the horseshoe of trilithons at the centre of Stonehenge. In effect, they’re taking a public-style building and turning it into a monument.

“So its quite nice to see these so-called public buildings, which are much larger than your ordinary domestic structure, here on the Ness. Whether, of course, there are houses in other parts of Durrington Walls, we can’t say. At the moment we can say we’ve only found two styles of building — we don’t have these really big ones.

“Colin Richards has had some really interesting ideas about these large structures as being sort of lineage ‘club-houses’ for particular family groups, or people from different parts the islands. They all come to the Ness and this is your particular building.

“I think what’s intrigued me, though, is that actually they’re not all in use at the same time and that there would have been very few at any one time. There was this continuous period of building, knocking down, stealing the stones from one house and putting up another one, so it seems likely that there were only one or two very big buildings at any one time.”

Right from the day the first test trenches were cut into the Ness, it was clear how the landscape had been carefully and deliberately altered during the Neolithic.

Massive quantities of “improved” soil were found over the area of the settlement — soil enriched by the addition of midden material to a maximum depth of 2.5 metres. 

This phase of midden dumping was a deliberate, short-lived event — thought to be a deliberate attempt to “erase” the buildings from the landscape.

Why this took place is not clear, although it does seem to be some sort of ritual closure. Whatever the reason, this human alteration to the landscape resulted in a massive man-made mound.

“All of this midden is another interesting thing,” said Prof Parker Pearson.

“They were going to a lot of trouble to bury the remains of their structures when it was all over. Nick says so far that the dates he’s got for that are around 2,800BC. In effect, what they were doing was turning the whole site into a mound — a huge monument in its own right.

“What I wonder is that, with Barnhouse, where you’ve got larger, unusual buildings and lots of ordinary little houses, I’ll bet that there are lots of ordinary little houses here around the edges of the Ness of Brodgar site. And I imagine it’s largely from there that this vast amount of midden and soil has come.

“I’ve been thinking about the quantities and we’re talking well over a thousand tonnes to pile up and seal the whole lot in. There’s all this beautiful soil that would have been perfect for the fields. I think probably for the upper stuff they’re mixing the rubbish midden with soil to get this sort of brown look to it and just dumping it — sackful after sackful. Why bother? Why do it?

“One thing’s for sure, well, as sure as it can get in archaeology, and that is that people are using and living in this place at the same time that the Ring of Brodgar is being built and is in use.

“I think that’s been one of the really nice things regarding this excavation — it’s building up a picture of this landscape and how the various elements relate to each other, rather than just being ancient sites of many different periods.”

During his time on the Ness, Prof Parker Pearson set to work in the central chamber of Structure Ten, where he helped confirm that the so-called “dresser” was free standing and not built into the walls – as is the case at Skara Brae, for example.

Since its discovery, it has been argued that the dresser in Structure Ten should actually be referred to as an altar.

Built within a non-domestic, massive “temple-like” structure, with coloured sandstone “imported” and incorporated into its build, and with several of the stones enhanced and shaped, the dresser was clearly more elaborate than those found elsewhere in Orkney.

But this prompts the question, have we been downplaying the significance of these “dressers” in Neolithic society?

Prof Parker Pearson commented: “We’ve always seen these ‘dressers’ as simple everyday objects; you know ‘every Neolithic house has a dresser’. But in fact, they don’t.

“This came home to me a couple of summers ago with our houses at Durrington Walls because only one house actually had the footings for a dresser. And in all the other houses there was no trace of a dresser at all.

“At Durrington, the building with the dresser was the biggest of the houses and this made me realise that we’ve likely got architectural and social differences between them.

“So, in fact, the possession of a dresser, in the south at least, is something that only certain houses have, houses belonging to people somewhere up the pecking order. That may have all sorts of connotations to do with family seniority. So it’s not simply, ‘oh we’ll put up some shelves here.’”

Comparing excavating on the Ness and around Stonehenge, Prof Parker Pearson said: “It’s very, very different because, of course, we don’t have any stone houses in the Stonehenge area.

“Our houses all have the remains of wooden furniture and walls, so, of course, you’re just looking at voids where the stakes sat to hold the wattle and daub wall, or where the beams were set into the ground for the indoor furniture.

“The big difference though, apart from the building in stone, is the nature of the midden. At Durrington Walls all the midden is contemporary with the houses. So, we were able to say that ‘this midden belongs with that house’.

“Our midden is a very thick, black material crammed with animal bones, pottery, worked flint and flint tools by the hundreds and thousands. So, digging the midden soils at the Ness is completely different because someone gets excited when they find a single piece of pottery here, whereas we’re taking it all out in bucketloads down there — much like they’re doing at the Links of Noltland, in Westray.

“The only reason the bones, for example, have survived on the Ness is generally either because they’re burned or they’re the teeth — which tend to be more robust — or where you’ve got a big concentration, or a great big mass of bone material, like a skull or all those cattle tibia, where they’ve created their own little micro-environment in the soil.”

But although the excavations on the Ness continue to produce example after example of Neolithic “artwork”, around Stonehenge, artwork has been notable by its absence.

“All we get, apart from the pottery is chalk plaques, very occasionally found complete —we didn’t get complete ones, we just got broken lumps — and that was literally it.

“Given that they’re doing some carving in chalk, and when you find this huge chalk block that they’ve heaved out while doing the ditch digging, you think ‘why haven’t they bothered to mark those?

“But if they’ve got a taboo on working stone and bone and chalk — then that could happen. But it seems a bit odd. It’s a very strange thing and it’s why the little Noltland figure [Orkney Venus] is so extraordinary because they’re really not interested in representing forms of living creatures, living beings or even dead ones, come to that. It’s all got to be highly abstract.

“We’ve got a little piece from Leceistershire, the Grooved Ware Owl, again a little scratched thing on stone, some carved chalk drums from Yorkshire and there’s not a lot else. So again, we’re seeing that there’s more innovation here than there is in the rest of Britain. A lot of this looks to me like textiles. Maybe they’re using the motifs that they do see regularly which are in the clothing they’re wearing. It’s hard otherwise to think why do they want to represent that.

“I think a lot of the Grooved Ware pottery is also imitating basketry, so there is this sense that weaving, in a very simple form, was important, to these people.”

While we’ve been comparing the discoveries at Stonehenge to those at the Ness of Brodgar, Prof. Parker Pearson wondered whether it shouldn’t be the other way around.

“To my mind, the particularly interesting thing about the Ness of Brodgar is that the structures here are, by and large, earlier than Stonehenge.

“The ‘classic’ Stonehenge, with the sarsens, the trilithons and the rest of it, are, of course, from around 2500BC, by which point [the Ness of Brodgar structures] are all out of use. It’s just a big abandoned mound.

“So, in a way, this raises big questions about where the impetus comes from — not just for Stonehenge but for the other ‘super-megalith’ buildings at places like Avebury.

“Maybe, one of the places for inspiration was Orkney and that there was something very, very special about the stretch of land where we are today.

“These days, there’s the assumption that because a place is isolated, in modern-day eyes, how could it possibly be a place of innovation and originality. But it must be remembered that we have our earliest Grooved Ware pottery dates in Orkney and eastern Scotland and I think there’s every chance that you’ve got something of a social, political, even religious revolution that began here and was adopted in different places.”

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