New finds in ‘cathedral’ building reignite age-old question – Stone Age dresser or altar?

“A curious feature which is found in [Skara Brae’s] chambers three and six is an arrangement of two stone shelves, erected one above the other and abutting against one of the stone walls.

“They remind one of double berths in a ship, but they were used, more probably, for storing pottery utensils in, when not in use, and Professor Childe’s descriptive term – ‘dresser’ – is probably not very wide of the mark”
Skerrabrae, by Hugh Marwick.
Kirkwall, November 8, 1928.

One of the “dressers” in Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)

Orkney’s history features a number of striking symbols  — items that most folk could identify immediately: the Maeshowe dragon, the Scar plaque and, probably, the large stone ‘dressers’ in Skara Brae.

The powerful imagery surrounding the latter remains today, so much so that it features heavily in the decoration of the Skara Brae visitor centre and guidebook – not bad for a prehistoric kitchen cupboard.

But over the years, the significance, and role, of these so-called ‘dressers’ has been questioned.

They were built to the same design and placed in the same position in certain structures – directly opposite the entrance. Were they more than mere domestic storage?

The idea that there was more to the dresser was brought to the fore following the discovery of the Barnhouse Settlement in 1984.

Among the ‘normal’ houses on site was a massive later building, which was christened Structure Eight.

This building was constructed around 2600BC, after the village had been abandoned. It was a massive hall-like structure, seven metres square, with incredibly thick outer walls. It was also built on a platform of yellow clay, a feature paralleling Maeshowe, nearby.

Structure Eight’s clay platform was then surrounded by an enclosing circular wall, creating an internal courtyard over 20 metres across.

The complex’s spatial layout closely resembles that of the Standing Stones of Stenness, and it was immediately clear that this was no domestic residence. But inside, was a stone dresser.

But why build a storage unit for domestic utensils, when archaeological excavations have shown that Structure Eight’s central fire was not used for the preparation of food?

All cooking relating to whatever was happening inside Structure Eight was carried out in the courtyard between the inner and outer walls.

So, it seemed that the dresser in Structure Eight was more than a mere item of furniture — an altar perhaps?

The idea has parallels throughout history and other cultures. For example, the traditional ‘ger’ – or ‘yurt’ as it’s more commonly known – of the Mongolian nomads has featured, for 3,000 years now, an altar directly facing the entrance. In addition, the interior organisation of a ger follows an identical pattern – the door faces the south, the men’s place is in the west part, and the north side is the place for honoured guests, or old people, as well as the place for the family altar. The east side is the women’s territory, and the stove occupies the centre.

Fast forward to the early 21st century and the discovery of the Stone Age complex on the Ness of Brodgar – in particular, Structure Ten – the massive Neolithic ‘cathedral’.

Measuring 25 metres long by 20 metres wide, the outer walls remain to a height of approximately one metre.

Its sheer size – with its five-metre-thick walls, and containing a cruciform central chamber – and the fact that it combined elements of both the chambered tombs and the domestic houses, led the archaeologist to believe this also was not a domestic structure.

Then, last year, in the inner chamber – which is a slightly larger ‘copy’ of Maeshowe’s – a dresser turned up. But where these are usually found built against the walls, as at Skara Brae, for example, in Structure Ten it was free-standing, and incorporated slabs of striking red and yellow sandstone — stone that had been brought to the site and presumably for that specific reason.

That discovery was enough to reignite the debate about dressers and whether it would be more correct to refer to them, in some contexts at least, as altars.

And this summer, Structure Ten surprised the diggers yet again. Inside the relatively small inner chamber there is not just one dresser – but possibly four.

Nick Card explained: “When we first uncovered Structure Ten we thought it might be a single-phase structure, and the term ‘cathedral’ became attached to it because of its scale, grandeur, and the red and yellow sandstones built into the dresser. But we’re now looking at something a little more complex.

“Towards the end of last year’s dig we were starting to see elements that suggested the domestic. We had a hearth and a dresser and we began to wonder whether the side recesses should be interpreted as bed  ‘chambers’, along the lines of those found at Skara Brae.

“As a result, we backed away from the ‘cathedral’ description somewhat. If it was domestic, this wasn’t your everyday house – aligned with Maeshowe, with standing stones incorporated into its build, not to mention the sheer size and complexity of its construction, we began to wonder if this was the residence of somebody important.

“This season, though, things have swung right back again, with the discovery that we may have, potentially, four dressers in the building, and the strong suggestion that they may not be dressers at all but are, in fact, something more esoteric.

“I’ve never liked the term ‘dresser’ – it is a hangover from our Victorian forefathers, who first investigated Neolithic structures in Orkney and basically saw these stone edifices as Neolithic display cabinets, where the inhabitants put their best pottery and other prized possessions on show.”

While he was visiting the Ness last year, I spoke to Professor Mike Parker Pearson and asked him whether he thought we had been downplaying the significance of these dressers in Neolithic society?

He 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.’”

If we assume that the dressers do have some connections to social status, where does that leave Structure Ten?

Built within a massive monumental structure, with coloured sandstone ‘imported’ and incorporated into its build, and with several of the stones enhanced and shaped, the Structure Ten dresser was clearly more elaborate than those found in Orkney to date.

Nick added: “If, as Professor Mike Parker Pearson has suggested, dressers may not have been a part of normal Neolithic domestic furniture, and were probably rather unusual elements in a building and only incorporated into high status structures, they may have been accessed by moving, in a controlled way, around the interior of the building — much as we have already suggested for some of the other structures on site.

“We always saw the Structure Ten dresser as special because of its coloured stone and carved stone inserts. But there was also the surprising fact that it stood out from the exterior wall. In fact, you could walk around it. But there was more…”

On the north side of the structure, the archaeologists were working to reveal the remaining elements of the robbed-out inner wall face. There, they found a beautiful, vertically-sided, robber cut, which showed that what was originally thought to be a bench against the north wall was actually separated from the wall. In fact, there was a significant gap.

Nick explained: “That’s when we realised that the ‘bench’ was nothing of the sort. It was another dresser with remarkably similar construction details to the beautiful dresser already discovered opposite the entrance, in the west recess.”

“Whether we find evidence for support stones, such as the red sandstone pillar which had to be removed from the site of the first dresser, is questionable.

“The original one was hardly set down into the earth and was probably held in place by the weight of the stones above it. Those in this second dresser may have disappeared.”

In addition, the team was to investigate the possibility that another bench, set on the south side, may also be a dresser, along with what could be a fourth on the east wall.

“A small trench extension was made, in an area where we thought the west wall might have survived.

“There, we found where stone had been robbed out and, in front of it, a series of flat slabs. Could this be another dresser? Maybe what we actually have here is four altars. If so, it’s something way beyond the domestic.

“Time, and perhaps excavation next year, will tell, but Structure Ten is maintaining its reputation for surprises. We won’t call it a cathedral, but there is a strong possibility now that it was a magnificent building, which may have had a specifically spiritual purpose.”

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