The Neolithic ‘temple’

Picture ORCA

Structure Ten revealed. (ORCA)

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 came from geophysics scans, which had suggested there was something 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).

It is an oft-used phrase, but Structure Ten is truly like nothing found in Orkney, and perhaps Britain, before.

Its sheer size — with its five-metre-thick walls, containing a cruciform central chamber – meant the structure fits in none of the present Neolithic categories. Instead, it combines elements of both the chambered tombs and the domestic houses, such as those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae — but it has become startlingly clear that this was no domestic house.

Outside Structure Ten’s massive external wall, was a carefully paved area, lying between it and an outer wall that once enclosed the building. The paved passage has led to speculation that Structure Ten once featured a massive roof, the eaves possibly coming out as far as the outer wall and lending the outer paved area the impression of an access passage, or walkway.

Sigurd Towrie

One of the stone dressers at Skara Brae, as seen from the house’s entrance. (Sigurd Towrie)

Inside, however, despite the size of the building’s exterior, the inner, cross-shaped, chamber turned out to be comparatively small. Measuring six metres (19 feet) across, the “inner sanctum” is a slightly larger “copy” of Maeshowe’s central chamber and was clearly not meant to hold many people at any one time.

The chamber contained an example of the ubiquitous stone dresser — but where these are found built against the walls at Skara Brae, for example, in Structure Ten it was free-standing and incorporated slabs of striking red and yellow sandstone, as elsewhere in the central chamber.

The craftsmanship of the exterior stonework of Structure Ten compares starkly with the scrappy central chamber stonework. This has led to the idea that Structure Ten was meant to be viewed from the outside, with access to the ‘inner sanctum’ restricted to a privileged few.

“Standing here today, looking at these remains and the sheer scale and complexity of the architecture, it’s an awe-inspiring sight,” said Nick Card.

“Imagine it in its heyday, with walls standing two metres high, and perhaps a massive roof stretching skyward. Clearly, this was meant to impress. It would have been a truly incredible sight — monumental in every sense of the word.

“It would have been visible from miles around and as you drew nearer, it would have dominated the landscape – perhaps even more so than the nearby Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness. Without a shadow of a doubt, it must have been extremely impressive and something that most Neolithic people would have been in awe off.”