The complex on the Ness of Brodgar — a Neolithic tribal meeting place?

By Dr Colin Richards
University of Manchester

Why is it that archaeologists select particular sites to excavate while others are ignored?

As you all know, in Orkney, there are hundreds of sites of all periods, ranging from the Mesolithic to Medieval periods, yet only a few are ever examined by excavation.

This question is of central importance to the next site we visit — the Ness of Brodgar, directed by Nick Card, of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

Archaeologists at work on one of the Ness of Brodgar structures in the summer of 2010. (Sigurd Towrie)

As usual, Nick gave us a warm welcome and described the site and the problems of excavating buildings standing over a metre in height. This is truly an extraordinary site that is being uncovered.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to Westray and were shown around the Links of Noltland by Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson. This is a coastal settlement, or village, of the late Neolithic period (3200 – 2400BC).

As will be remembered, the preservation of bone at this site is exceptional because it is buried within sand. Unfortunately, the very sand that preserves is also relatively unstable, being prone to shifting and removal by high winds and tides. It is mainly these circumstances that have led Historic Scotland to fund the excavation of the Links of Noltland. So here is one reason why an archaeological site is excavated — to retrieve information before it is destroyed.

The Ness of Brodgar is also of late Neolithic date. Indeed, people were living on the coast of Westray, within the Links of Noltland, at exactly the same time.

Actually, it appears, from the various excavations and fieldwork over the last 100 years, that there were dozens of settlements across Orkney at that time. There may have been as many people living then as populate the county today.

Consequently, we have to visualise a late Neolithic Orcadian landscape as dotted with small and large villages, with people herding sheep and cattle within a fairly open land, punctuated by small areas of woodland.

Some folk were quite insular, kept themselves to themselves and lived very much on local produce, such as the inhabitants of Skara Brae, Stonehall and Crossiecrown on the Mainland.

In contrast, people living in other settlements, like Barnhouse, had far more extensive contacts both within and beyond Orkney.

The presence of various sized, late Neolithic settlements, exercising different influence and power, and in some situations being in direct competition, provides us with a familiar picture that readers will recognise today. However, rather than just having Neolithic equivalents of Kirkwall and Stromness, perhaps there were a number of large settlements throughout the isles.

However, as shown last week, in the context of the early Neolithic house at Green, Eday, the practices surrounding death and the treatment of the remains of the dead were very different to our own. Such differences continued into the late Neolithic, where we find that people began to live closer together, in villages.

In each village we have excavated, there appears to be a single house, or building, that, in many respects, is quite different to the others. It is this building that inevitably contains remains of the dead.

For example, House Seven, at Skara Brae, is separated from the other houses by a long narrow passage. It had two women buried within a cist beneath the right-hand bed. This was also a building displaying extensive decoration, especially in the vicinity of the burials.

The Remains of Barnhouse House Two. Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The remains of Barnhouse Structure Two, with Structure Eight in the middle distance and the Standing Stones o’ Stenness in the background. (Sigurd Towrie)

House Two, at Barnhouse, was twice the size of other dwellings and displayed a quality of masonry seen only at Maeshowe. Although they had almost completely decayed, this too contained bones of the dead, within a cist dug into the centre of the floor.

Only the basal courses of masonry survived of Barnhouse’s House Two, so we do not know the extent of decoration within this building. One thing we do know is that beautiful objects, such as polished mace-heads, were manufactured within House Two. Perhaps, by extension, these were sacred objects.

Overall, a pattern is clear, many different late Neolithic settlements existed throughout Orkney, each having a special, or different, building, which contained human remains and which was also a place where special objects were made.

This provides the background to interpret the amazing series of buildings that Nick Card, and his enthusiastic team, are unearthing on the Ness of Brodgar.

This site has a remarkable recent history.

It all began in February 1925, when ploughing revealed a series of flagstone burial cists. One of the flagstones had an extraordinary series of geometric designs on its edge. The designs are clearly late Neolithic (c3200-2400BC), but the stone was assumed to have been re-used in the Bronze Age. After the cist was examined, the decorated stone was removed to the National Museum in Edinburgh and the site was pretty much forgotten.

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

Excavations on the first building discovered on the Ness of Brodgar, in 2003. The rectangular inner walls are clearly visible in this picture along with the outline of the circular outer wall. (Sigurd Towrie)

Little happened until the field was again ploughed in 2003. Once again, flagstones were brought to the surface and archaeologists from the University of Glasgow travelled north to evaluate the site. They opened a small trench to locate what was supposed to be Bronze Age burial cists and instead revealed a corner of a massive building extremely similar to the “ceremonial House Two” at Barnhouse.

I visited the site, with Nick Card, at that time and was stunned to see something that appeared identical to the building we had unearthed at Barnhouse, some 15 years earlier.

During the several years of excavating Barnhouse, the last thing that occurred to anyone was that, little more than a stone’s throw from the shore of the Loch of Harray, on the west side of the bridge, lay a second complex of buildings on the Ness of Brodgar.

At the beginning of this article, I posed the question – why are particular sites selected for excavation as opposed to others?

Well, given the location of the Ness of Brodgar, nestling among the monuments (which have been assigned World Heritage status), it is obvious that this site was “important” during the Neolithic, and consequently, is of equal importance today.

This is because the primary goal of archaeology is to understand past societies and, clearly, this site will give us a crucial insight into the nature of Orcadian society during the late Neolithic.

Much to his great credit, Nick Card and his team have uncovered a series of extraordinary late Neolithic buildings.

To date, at least four buildings of similar striking masonry construction and architecture to House Two at Barnhouse, have been unearthed. These are situated in different areas of the site – in other words, each has its own place, rather than being built over one another. Almost certainly, several more large buildings remain buried beyond the edge of the excavation trench.

Readers will be familiar with the continuous stream of spectacular finds, including polished objects, that Nick has made at the site over the last few years, due to Sigurd’s excellent reports.

So what is the Ness of Brodgar?

Is it a large and important settlement – a Neolithic Kirkwall? I suspect not.

Nick has said, several times, that he feels this is not a settlement as such, because there is an absence of large amounts of rubbish and midden material, and the ordinary smaller houses which dominate all the other late Neolithic settlements.

Ironically, to fully appreciate the Ness of Brodgar we have to leave this fascinating excavation and look elsewhere.

From 2002 until 2008, Jane Downes, of Orkney College, and myself investigated the Ring of Brodgar. Last year, with the help of geologist, John Brown, and Tom Muir, of the Orkney Museum, we recognised that the ring of stones was composed of at least seven different types of sandstone.

Excavations at the Neolithic quarry at Vestrafiold, in Sandwick, revealed that individual quarries produced one type of sandstone. Hence, the stones within the two stone circles were coming from at least seven locations across Orkney.

So we have the stone circles at the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar being composed of stones being brought from different places, by different groups of people.

Could the Ness of Brodgar be of similar constitution?

Alongside the massive stone pillars being brought for the two stone circles, could different groups, probably of related kin, be building discrete, special family buildings on the Ness? These would correspond to the single “ceremonial” buildings within each village. Undoubtedly, these were sacred, just like the stones within the great stone circles.

Possibly, after passing through the great stone circles, Neolithic people proceeded to the Ness of Brodgar for rituals and feasts. Maybe this was the place where Neolithic Orcadians came face to face with their dead ancestors.

These are just interpretations of the past, and we will have to await further exciting discoveries from the Ness to see if they have any validity.

One thing is for sure; the evidence from the current excavations is changing the face of Neolithic archaeology — not only in Orkney but also far beyond. The Ness of Brodgar is of huge international significance, and Nick Card should be applauded for his continued investigations.

Dr Colin Richards, from the University of Manchester, specialises in Neolithic archaeology, architecture and monumentality and ethnoarchaeology.

He has directed a series of large research projects in Orkney, initially concentrating on Neolithic settlements. The first project involved the discovery and excavation of a late Neolithic ‘village’ at Barnhouse in Stenness.

The second project continued research into Neolithic settlement on Mainland Orkney and resulted in the discovery of three further habitation sites – Stonehall, Wideford and Crossiecrown.

He has also been examining the construction of late Neolithic stone circles – in particular locating the quarries from which the massive monoliths are derived and the social processes of quarrying, moving and erecting the stones. A ‘megalithic’ quarry at Vestrafiold, West Mainland, Orkney, which supplied stones for the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar, has been investigated and evidence recovered for the quarrying and moving of stones.

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