Another six weeks in Orkney’s Neolithic heartland…

(Picture: Adam Stanford/

With this summer’s excavation season well and truly over, the Ness of Brodgar dig site has been returned to the earth.

The six-week dig, which began in July and came to an end last week, saw over 100 diggers from across the world descend upon the Stenness site — a number that could have been more than doubled due to the BBC documentary A History of Ancient Britain, aired earlier this year.

In charge again for this, the eighth season of excavation, was Nick Card, from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

“This year we had a number of objectives, all of which were fulfilled,” said Nick.  “For example, we wanted to further explore the floor deposits of the structures uncovered so far, resolve the sequence of construction between the main buildings and clarify the remodeling of several of the buildings.

“The excavations this year really confirmed what we suspected all along — that the complexities of the site, and the different phases of use, were much more ‘organic’ than we’d previously put forward.

“The relationships between all the major structures were hypothetical until this year, but now these relationships have been clarified. Although it has left us with a whole new set of questions, the potential evolution of the site is much more exciting than the very simplified version of events we’d previously put forward.

“One of the linchpins of our whole initial phasing was the relationship between Structures Eight and Ten [the Neolithic ‘temple’].

“What I now believe is that Structure Eight suffered a catastrophic collapse but wasn’t dismantled, and that’s the reason the roof slates we excavated previously survived. I don’t think we’re going to find them elsewhere just because they’ve been robbed out.

“So, we now can see that after Structure Eight collapsed Structure Ten was built over its remains, while some of the other structures potentially remained in use.”

Some of the 2012 excavation team on site. (Picture: Adam Stanford/

One of the main focuses this season was the removal of the rubble and midden infill from Structure Twelve — a massive building, adjacent to the Neolithic ‘temple’, first discovered in 2010.

“The quality of the stonework we found in Structure Twelve has me wondering whether it is perhaps quite late in the sequence and was actually contemporary with Structure Ten.

“There’s just nothing else quite like it: the scale of it, the stonework — which is on a par with Maeshowe — and the amount of pecked, dressed stone. Inside, there seems to be a whole series of orthstats creating alignments with the very narrow entranceway.

“What you see with Structure Twelve, in particular, is that although each one of those buildings on the Ness is way beyond what you’d expect in a domestic, everyday setting, Structure Twelve takes that up to a whole new level.

“It really is the next stage — or probably actually several magnitudes above that — what with the quality of the stonework and precise construction. But this has also been reflected by what we’ve been finding inside, even in the infill, where the pottery is again more spectacular than the other examples on site — lots of big, beautiful pots, and again we found more evidence for the use of colour and a very wide range of decorative techniques.

“It’s really exciting to think that next year, hopefully, we’ll be down at the floor layers and who knows what we may find there.”

In Structure Ten, the extent of some later, but rather scrappy, modifications became clear.

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

This summer it was confirmed that the tiny cross-shaped chamber, which parallels Maeshowe’s central chamber, was a later insertion into the the interior of Structure Ten.

The excavators discovered that the building’s original chamber was much like Structure Eight at the Barnhouse Settlement — large, square and with rounded corners.

“Again, what we’re seeing confirms that Structure Ten, in its primary phase, was probably the finest piece of Neolithic architecture in north-west Europe — just absolutely superb. Then, in its final phase, the builders moved in and made a bit of a botch-job to alter the interior.

“The more you look at it the more you realise what a poor job the later builders did to this beautiful building. All aspects of the later remodeling were very, very poor. This includes the ‘dressers’, which were made from beautifully pecked, dressed sandstone. I’m sure they were from the earlier phase and were being reused — but reused in such a shoddy, cowboy-builder’s style. The interior wall faces were just backed by wall cores of midden, clay and haphazard stone.

“Whatever the reason for this rebuild, the whole function of Structure Ten changed, and next year, hopefully, we might get down on to the primary floor layers to see if we can find out how, and maybe why.”

An extension of the main trench allowed the excavators to reveal the full extent of Structure Fourteen — a building partially uncovered last year.

“At the end of last season we’d only uncovered about a third of Structure Fourteen, but this year, despite the fact that substantial stone robbing had removed large sections of the structure wall, the wall line could be traced by the remaining stones, and the floor deposits were intact. As such, we were able to obtain a plan for the whole building, and it turned out to be almost exactly as predicted. It just shows how symmetrical some of these buildings were and that they were laid out with considerable precision.”

So, with another season of excavations under his belt, does Nick feel we’re getting any closer to unraveling the mysteries of the Ness?

“Although we still need to see what the earlier phases are like, in the major phases we’ve seen so far it’s definitely not domestic, and it would be fantastic next year to maybe open up a trench over this huge oval structure just to the north of where we’ve been digging, still within the walled enclosure, because it just screams ‘non domestic’.

“But that will have to wait. The cost of excavation is high and times are tough for everyone, but hopefully we’ll get back next year, funding permitting.”


An emerging elite

For decades now, it has been suggested that the Neolithic period of Orkney’s prehistory saw the emergence of a ruling elite.

This idea ties in with the increasing complexity of the architecture, and the grandness of scale of sites such as Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar.

The labour required to build Maeshowe, for example, is not proportional to the number of bodies housed within the tomb. In other words, Maeshowe was built by a large number of people, labouring longer, but for the benefit of a few — and hence the idea that an individual, or small group of people, had the power to command and control the labour of others.

The idea has its followers and detractors.

But the results from the latest season at the Ness of Brodgar have left site director Nick Card in no doubt.

Something happened. Society changed.

“I think undoubtedly what we’re seeing on the Ness is the emergence of an elite element of Neolithic society towards the end of the life of the Ness.

“This has been hypothesised for some time now – the emergence of a hierarchy, not necessarily a theocracy as has been suggested, but I think a social hierarchy. Evidence of this elite class, in whatever form it took, is seen in structures on site — massive, exquisitely built monumental buildings like Structure Ten, but also in the construction of Maeshowe itself.

“I think this is also reflected in what we’re seeing elsewhere, with Structure Eight at the nearby Barnhouse Settlement, and possibly even what I think was happening at the Ring of Bookan, at the top of the Ness. Although the Ring of Bookan is very ‘henge-like today, with its massive ditch, I think that what lies beneath is another one of these very large house-type structures, like our Structure Ten.”

Nick added: “Colin Richards has theorised, in the past, about there being a house underneath the Stones of Stenness. In fact, all the dates we’ve got for the Stones of Stenness relate to the ditch and not the erection of any of the stones. I wonder if the standing stones were a very late addition, and that what you originally had at the site parallels what I suspect may be up at the Ring of Bookan. A big structure.

“The Maeshowe that you see today is not a communal tomb as has been stated for so many other chambered tombs. This is something where the elite would have been interred or even uninterred, taken from the structure for actual burial elsewhere.”

During excavations at the Ring of Brodgar in 2008, Professor Colin Richards was of the opinion that the idea that one elite individual, or group, was responsible for the construction of the ring could be discounted.

“There’s long been this idea that a chief said, ‘do this’,” he said. “It was nothing like that at all.”

Instead, Professor Richards’ theory was that it wasn’t the completed stone circle that was significant, but rather the physical act of constructing it.

The prestige of erecting a fine megalith, he suggested, may have been the driving force behind the development of the monuments.

A geological examination of the Ring of Brodgar megaliths confirmed that the stones had been brought from different sources and quarries across Orkney. These quarries, and the different type of stone obtained from them, may, therefore, represent the different people, or communities, involved in the construction of the stone circle.

This construction, he suggested, may have seen competition between villages and communities of the time.

“My suggestion is that these communities were quite fiercely competitive. The ring, rather than being this ‘harmonious temple structure’, that was a joint-effort between different communities, was maybe the site of some really quite competitive behaviour, with the various groups attempting to outdo the other with visible shows of prestige and power. Labour, and the deployment of labour, was a visible mark of prestige.”

When it comes to the stone circle, Nick Card is in complete agreement, but he thinks this “fiercely competitive” behaviour was instrumental to the emergence of an elite class in Neolithic Orcadian society.

“The competition between groups is evident in such constructions, and possibly the various piered buildings at Ness of Brodgar, and this, I believe,  led to the emergence of a social hierarchy in the later Neolithic, as evidenced by Structure Eight at Barnhouse, Structure Ten at the Ness of Brodgar and Structure Eight at Pool, in Sanday.”

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