A millennium of activity

The central midden area bustling with activity.

The central midden area, bustling with activity. (ORCA)

In 2011, it became clear that the site of the prehistoric complex on the Ness of Brodgar was in use for around 1,000 years.

Radiocarbon dates from two areas of the ongoing excavations showed that the area was occupied from at least 3200BC to 2300BC.

The earliest date came from deposits under the “Lesser Wall of Brodgar” — the southern boundary that was one of two prehistoric walls that enclosed the site. The second came from a huge deposit of cattle bone filling the upper levels of the paved “passage” surrounding Structure Ten – the massive “cathedral” building.

Both dates came as something of a surprise to site director Nick Card, from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

“The material under the lesser wall dates from circa 3200-3100BC. As such, this is probably the earliest material we have so far encountered. The bone spread around Structure Ten yielded a date of around 2300BC. This was much later than expected, so the two dates give us a much longer sequence than anticipated – almost a millennium of activity!”

But, because there are still layers of archaeology beneath the wall, the excavators have not yet reached the earliest layers of the site.

Nick Card explained: “The samples that produced the 3200-3100BC dates came from material from structures that were on the site before the ‘Lesser Wall’ was built. But this material wasn’t even down on to the natural, so we could still be looking at earlier dates from the archaeology further down. Who knows how far down it goes?

These preliminary dates give us a period of 800 years, but we can fairly safely extend that at either end of the timescale because we know the dating samples did not come from the earliest or latest phases of the site.

“So, I’d say we’re easily looking at a millennium of activity on the Ness – from the construction of the Standing Stones of Stenness, around 3000BC, through to the Ring of Brodgar and into the Bronze Age.”

The early Bronze Age in Britain is linked to the appearance of Beaker pottery – a style that has been found at a number of sites in Orkney, most recently at Crossiecrown, in St Ola.

“At the end of the Ness of Brodgar site’s life, we’ve got these later, ephemeral traces of later buildings, dating to 2200-2100BC. Some elements of these buildings share architectural elements from Bronze Age structures elsewhere – a 2200BC building at Crossiecrown, in St Ola, for example.

“But on the Ness of Brodgar,” Nick explained, “there’s not a hint of any classic Bronze Age Beaker pottery — even in the upper, most recent levels, it was all Neolithic Grooved Ware. There’s something very odd going on here.”

It has been suggested in the past that the existing power base in the late Neolithic prevented the adoption of new ideas, such as beakers and metalworking, in order to maintain their authority.

Although this idea has been questioned over the past few years, are we seeing an example of this on the Ness? Or was it simply that the significance, status and importance of the Ness persisted right through to the Bronze Age?

The late date of the cattle bones outside Structure Ten is particularly interesting as it has parallels with Bronze Age funerary practice on mainland Britain.

The Ness of Brodgar bone assemblage was made up of cattle bones, particularly tibia – all deposited at the same time, perhaps indicating a major feasting event associated with the “decommissioning” of Structure Ten.

Did the closing down of Structure Ten mark the end of a chapter in the Ness’s history, as Orkney moved into the Bronze Age?

Nick said: “I wouldn’t be surprised. We’re looking at the introduction of metal and with that there would have been major shifts in society – changes most obvious in areas such as burial practice.”