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Tuesday, July 27, 2010
(Day 7)

Neolithic ‘slate’ roofs!

One of the most interesting facets of the buildings to come to light this year so far is the evidence for roof coverings.

In most reconstructions of prehistoric buildings, you’ll often see hotch-potched arrangements of turf, animal skins or perhaps thatch. However, within the side recesses along the internal walls of Structure Eight, we have discovered a much more organised method of roofing – Neolithic stone slates!

Picture ORCA
Roofing "slates" in a recess of Structure Eight.


Upon the removal of the upper layers of rubble (presumably parts of the collapsed side walls) in these recesses, a "horizon" of large, flat stone slabs, most of which would appear to be a standard thickness (or rather thinness) have been uncovered.

More surprising is that most of these thin slabs have been shaped to a rectangular form by trimming the edges so as to form regular "slates". You can still see many examples of roofs in Orkney that, to this day, utilise similar stone slates on their roofs.

Are we seeing the first evidence for a "standard" roofing system?

Mixed in with the "slates" are also some deposits of clay – was this used to calk the spaces between the slates to stop water ingress? Or possibly to bed the slates down on so as to achieve a more regular profile for the roof? (a method still employed today, with the clay being replaced by cement).

So far, we only have evidence for this in the side recesses of Structure Eight. Perhaps this advanced technique was only used to roof these recesses as the limited span across these spaces would have made it quite easy. Or will we find more evidence of this across the site?

Every "slate" is now being carefully removed in sequence, numbered, measured and recorded so that we may be able to piece together both the way these slates were used but also the way that the roof collapsed, or perhaps was deliberately demolished – an important element in the history of these structures and the site.

Picture ORCA
"New" decorated stone discovered by Chris in Structure Eleven.

 In the shadow of the Ring

This morning I arose with a sun that seems to never cease its shine. A long drive down a winding, single lane road brought me to the Rousay pier, where the steadfast ferry, the Eynhallow awaits her passengers each day. Once all of us were aboard, she departed for the Orkney Mainland - a mass of picturesque green, rolling hills.

As a third year CUNY (City University New York) anthropology student, I never expected, or ever even dreamed, that I would be part of a dig of this grand scale.

My prior archaeological experience has been gained through studying climate change on Barbuda, a wee isle in the Caribbean. It is quite a different scene from the archaeology present in Scotland; the biggest change being (besides the weather of course) the existence of actual structures in the earth. Now, that shouldn’t suggest to you that people living on Barbuda in years past did not build dwellings – after all, "absence of evidence" is not "evidence of absence" – but it does impress upon us the awesome skill of the Neolithic builder.

For me, as well as for others, that is what is so notable about the Ness of Brodgar and other sites found in the Orkney Islands; that remarkable resilience to time which has allowed these structures to remain considerably intact over the ages.

The Ness of Brodgar excavation site lies south of the Ring of Brodgar. The excavation itself comprises 16 trenches (many of which have been test pits), with a concentration this season on Trench P.

Today, that particular section has again expanded in search of a curve in an exposed wall on the southern side of the trench. This expansion of Trench P has most sensibly been dubbed the ‘new south-west extension’.

Picture ORCA
Group of young people join the team to experience excavation.


An affable group of what I presume to be local schoolchildren - though some I am told are on holiday - joined the team during the day to excavate this new south-west extension of Trench P. I personally have also spent my time at the Ness excavating in this trench, slowly and surely pulling back the earth with my trusty trowel. Though I have not found anything significant to date, my daily finds have included bits of burnt bone and pottery sherds.

The atmosphere on this dig is brilliant. There is a fit and stable team, with varying participants and volunteers of all ages and beliefs. Here, we have come together from different regions of the world - from the locals of Evie, to the Netherlands of Europe, to my own country of America – in hopes of contributing to our history as a whole. Our supervisors dig alongside us in the trenches, willing to teach, and be taught, as we work towards a common aim – to pull back the past, and share it with the world.

Picture ORCA
Tony and Mai greet a new member of the team!


There is something in the air in Orkney, some old magic that stays young in the spirit of the people and the places that exist here. The sites under excavation are in truth sights that can not be truly captured on camera. Luckily for us, the lasting masonry capacities of the Neolithic people have made the occasion to learn about, and experience, their ancient constructions possible.

If ever you find yourself up in Orkney, the Ness of Brodgar will surely be a site to see.

Andy Boyar,
Junior at Brooklyn College, USA



Maeshowe Alignments
A Neolithic focal point?
Stone Age art
The Great Wall of Brodgar
The Ness of Brodgar
Orkney's World Heritage Site
The Ring of Brodgar
Archaeology around the Ness of Brodgar
The Standing Stones of Stenness
The Barnhouse Settlement
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Orkney Archaeology Society