Excavation background

 

The Ness of Brodgar

The Ness of Brodgar is a thin strip of land, in the West Mainland of Orkney, separating the Harray and Stenness lochs.

Until recently, the Ness was best-known for being the site of the Ring of Brodgar. But in 2002 all that changed.

Archaeological excavations have subsequently revealed a large complex of ‘monumental’ Neolithic buildings, ‘artwork’, pottery, bones and stone tools.

 

The discovery. . .

In 2002, a geophysical survey, as part of the Orkney World Heritage Site Geophysics Programme, revealed a huge complex of anomalies –  ‘indicative of settlement’ – covering an area of 2.5 hectares. The sheer concentration of anomalies, and the variation, astonished the archaeologists.

Then, in April 2003, a large, notched stone slab was ploughed up in a field on the south-east of the Ness, on the low ridge between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.

As it was thought the stone was part of a Bronze Age Burial cist, and therefore there was the possibility that human remains had been disturbed, a rescue excavation was undertaken by Beverley Ballin-Smith and Gert Petersen, from the Glasgow University Research Division. Their trench, however, revealed part of a large rectangular building (Structure One), similar to House Two at the nearby Barnhouse Neolithic Village.

Brodgar Geophysics. Picture Sigurd Towrie

Excavation director, Nick Card, examines the geophysics scan results during the initial excavations on the Ness of Brodgar.

The discovery led to a resistivity survey to try to define the extent of the built archaeology and complement the initial gradiometer survey.

In light of the results of the two geophysical surveys, and the exploratory work, further investigations began.

In 2004, a series of eight test-trenches was placed over the Ness of Brodgar settlement site to examine the nature, depth and extent of the archaeological deposits. This confirmed that much of the mounded ridge is artificial, comprising structures and middens, all dating from the Neolithic.

A large linear grouping of anomalies was investigated in 2005 and 2006. This revealed a stratigraphic sequence of Neolithic structures and, in 2006, a large oval structure, enclosed by a monumental wall, was uncovered.

In 2007, work continued on the oval structure and monumental wall. Test trenches revealed that the wall extended for a considerable distance across the width of the peninsula, and may have formed a barrier, restricting access to the neighbouring Ring of Brodgar.

A large trench covering the location of the 2003 excavations was also opened up, revealing a symmetrical building (Structure Eight)  similar in shape to Houses Two and Eight at the Barnhouse Neolithic village.

Then, in 2008, the excavators uncovered “one of the largest, if not the largest, stone-built Neolithic non-funerary structures in Britain.”

Going by the name of Structure Ten, the first hint of the building had come from the geophysics scans, which suggested there was something very large under the turf. But it took excavation to reveal the sheer scale of what lay beneath. Measuring 25 metres (82 feet) long by 20 metres (65 feet) wide, the five-metre-thick outer walls remain to a height of approximately one metre (three feet).

In 2010, the archaeologists found proof that Neolithic people were using paint to decorate their buildings as well as using stone “slates” as roofing material.

In 2011, radiocarbon dates from two areas of the site showed that the prehistoric complex on the Ness was in use for around 1,000 years — from at least 3200BC to 2300BC. In addition, the interior of Structure Ten, in 2010, was found to contain not just one “dresser” – but possibly four.