A Neolithic focal point

A miniature pot discovered in 2009.

The diversity of pottery found on the site, including a decorated pot sherd featuring a design very similar to those found in Skara Brae, suggests that the Ness site was a focus for a number of communities — perhaps visited by people from all over Stone Age Orkney.

Nick Card explained: “Whereas excavation at other settlement sites has tended to produce a limited range of pottery, here, from the quantity of different pottery uncovered, might suggest it was brought in from a wide range of sites.”

Once again, this echoes the excavations at Durrington Walls, in England, where part of a settlement was uncovered that was not only thought to have housed the builders of Stonehenge but was also part of the larger ceremonial landscape, and the activities carried out therein.

The Durrington Walls settlement, it is suggested, became a “pilgrimage” site — a place where people stayed during the ceremonies and feasts involving Stonehenge.

Was the same happening on the Ness?

The idea dovetails nicely with Dr Colin Richards’ theory that the construction of the nearby Ring of Brodgar was a process involving many different communities, from across Orkney, who gathered at the Ness.

 

A major rethink

By 2008, site director Nick Card felt it was time for a major rethink about the landscape of Orkney’s Neolithic Heartland.

The long-held assumption that the Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stenness were the centre of activity needs looked at again, said Nick.

“For centuries people have been coming to the Ness and, because it is dominated by the two massive stone rings, it’s come to be assumed that they were the main Neolithic focus of the area.

The Ring of Brodgar, in particular, has become regarded as the ceremonial ‘centre’ of the Ness — an assumed significance that is a creation of our modern interpretation of the landscape.

“I would now question that interpretation. Instead of the notion that the Ring of Brodgar was the focus, I wonder whether the stone circles were merely on the periphery of the true ceremonial centre — a massive ceremonial complex, fragments of which are now only coming to light. It’s becoming clear to us now that this complex, in its heyday, must have completely dominated the landscape.”

Picture: Craig Taylor

The Ness of Brodgar from the air. (Craig Taylor)

The excavation site sits halfway between the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. Flanked on both sides by water, access to the Ness could only be gained from the south-east or north-west. As such, visitors had to pass through either the Ring of Brodgar, or Standing Stones of Stenness, as part of their journey.

Earlier, in 2008, Colin Richards suggested that the ring might have been built around an existing pathway along the Ness. The same could be true with the Standing Stones of Stenness at the other end.

Nick added: “Colin suggested that the rings marked stages in a journey across the Ness — a journey which had a distinct end-point.

“He wondered whether this end-point was the big mound, by Lochview, but I think, maybe, the focus was just this whole complex — a ceremonial centre comprised of several huge, imposing structures all together. The sheer scale of these structures suggests it was more than a mere settlement.

“If that was the case, were the Ring or Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stenness a ritual, or ceremonial, ‘portal’ into the Ness complex? Something you had to pass through en route to the complex and not necessarily, as has been long believed, the end-points, or sole purpose, of the journey?”

With the Brodgar complex situated between the two henge monuments, the idea fits well with other British sites where henges seem to have been established to create a “corridor” for movement and ceremony.

On the Ness of Brodgar it certainly appears that this ceremonial “corridor” could have been funnelling visitors towards an important ceremonial point — visitors from all corners of the islands.