Meeting Report: The Ness of Brodgar — the true Heart of Neolithic Orkney

15 March 2013
Nic Card (Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology)

Nic Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology addressed a joint meeting of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which numbered 73 people altogether. Delivered by an expert in his field, it proved to be a very special talk.

Nic's career in archaeology has been served with the National Museum of Scotland, Bradford University and for the last 15 years in Orkney. It was punctuated by a period in the building trade, which equipped him well when interpreting building forms in the field.

His talk was entitled The Ness of Brodgar — the True Heart of Neolithic Orkney? He began by quoting a saying about Orkney: "If you scratch its surface it will bleed archaeology."

Up to 1989 the various sites, such as Maes Howe, Skara Brae, Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, Watch Stone and Barnhouse Stone seemed to stand in isolation. After the Barnhouse itself was revealed and the status of World Heritage Site was conferred in 1989, new archaeological finds were made, associated for instance with Historic Scotland's laser scanning, the Rising Tide Project set up in 2005 and the Royal Commission's aerial surveying, which brought to light the New Bookan enclosure on the Ring of Bookan site. The Banks Chambered Tomb on South Ronaldsay was discovered by a chap making a new car park. On the Links of Noltland, Westray, a figurine called "The Westray Wife" was uncovered.

In 2002 a series of geophysical surveys was undertaken. Magnetometry was used in the Inner Buffer Zones of the World Heritage Site, namely The Ring of Brodgar and the Ness of Brodgar. When geophysics was applied to pleasant green fields in the area round the Stones of Stenness a wealth of revelations showed up, such as Big Bowe, and proved that there was still much to be investigated. Study of the area round Skara Brae revealed a new and unsuspected Broch site, much bigger than the one under guardianship.

Against this promising background, the tip of Brodgar, having thrown up a wealth of linear, rectangular and oval anomalies, was deemed worthy of excavation. Looking from the Watch Stone to the Ness of Brodgar it should have been obvious that, with the two standing stones on site, there was more to uncover on a stretch of land 150 metres long and 100 metres wide.

The history of discovery at Brodgar began with finding a decorated slab, now in the National Museum of Scotland, on the Ness of Brodgar in 1925. Two fields, ploughed in March 2003 revealed an unusual notched stone slab with a rebated back edge. Glasgow University was called in. Instead of the expected kist being uncovered, a structure similar to what Professor Colin Richards had uncovered at Barnhouse came to light. Test trenches were opened up 2004–2007 to determine whether all the finds were Neolithic and in all but one they were. More and more sites were opened up but still perhaps only 2–3% of the site was uncovered to reveal at least seven major structures. It was only the tip of the iceberg.

Radiocarbon dating has revealed 1000 years of activity at the Ness. In all there are fourteen structures. The state of preservation of Structure 1 is superb with its six recesses, two hearths at either end, two central squares and an enigmatic oval anomaly. Walls up to 1 metre in height were found. Such great areas of underground preservation take years to uncover. To uncover the remains of one such building would keep any archaeologist happy but more was to come...

The collapse of Structure 8, which is about 20 metres long, revealed an earlier underlying structure. Some might even have more than one underlying structure, which proves that remodelling and re-using of sites took place over time. Here random rubble with trimmed stone of a uniform thickness suggested to Nic the possibility of a collapsed roof. Once down at floor level it is easier to understand how the building was organised. Much more analysis is yet to be undertaken.

At Structure 14 an artefact initially called the "Brodgar Babe" was unearthed until the other half was found and the "Wine Bottle Stopper Theory" emerged! Beautifully-shaped and polished stones are being found. One exquisite axe head was the best Nic has ever handled. This coming summer they hope to reach floor level.

Each structure, although bearing similarities to others, has its idiosyncracies and all seem to be contemporary. Different types of stone such as lumps of igneous rock are contained within the walls. It could be that different communities were coming together to interact on the site. Everything appears to have been contained within a massive walled enclosure 4 metres wide, later widened to 6 metres, around which there is an external ditch.

On the other side of the Ring of Brodgar there is the Dyke of Sean, thought previously to be a mediaeval boundary until cows revealed beautiful foundation stonework. These two walls contain the Ring of Brodgar. In 2009 another linear anomaly, known as the lesser Wall of Brodgar, emerged to be a stupendous wall 1.8 metres high. There were in fact two parallel walls, one on either side which proved to be a Neolithic walled precinct from 5000 years ago.

Structure 10, uncovered at the start of 2009, was a rectangular and outstanding anomaly, 25 metres long and 20 metres wide and labelled by the press as a "Neolithic Cathedral". There were no walls where expected. Most of the walling, which is double-skinned, has been robbed out. There is pavement all the way round. The cruciform shape has a central chamber like the one at Maes Howe. Another similarity with Maes Howe is a chambered tomb. There is a partially-reassembled standing stone, incorporated into buttresses, with a hole through it and taking a line down a central axis, there is another standing stone a few metres away.

However, unlike Maes Howe which is seen as a monument to the dead, this Brodgar structure is more for the living, like Skara Brae, as there are four 'dressers', one on each wall: it may be that the word 'altar' will prove to be more applicable. In places the walling is fantastically beautiful with extensive use of contrasting colours of pink, yellow and blue-grey stone. Structure 10 when first built must have been one of the most outstanding structures in Britain and even beyond.

Art work is to be found right across the site. The number now stands at 350 examples. Colour — reds, yellows, browns — is not limited to the walls, but it also extends to pottery and brings the Neolithic to life. Coloured grooved ware was also found. A tiny percentage of exotica, such as polished axe heads of pitchstone — a type of obsidian — from Arran, complemented by flint from the East coast was present.

Ingrid Mainland studied bone deposits found round Structure 10 in only 1 metre square. She identified the tibias of 40 animals, mainly of cattle.

What does the scene represent? Was it a temple precinct, a pilgrimage site, or a tribal meeting place? These are the sane suggestions. Was it a hospital, a brothel or an abattoir. Perhaps during 1000 years of its life it served all these functions and more. Whatever its purpose, the Ness of Brodgar ceased to function about 1000 years BC. It is tempting to link its downfall with the arrival of bronze.

Barely 10% of the site has been excavated. Keyhole surgery might continue. As archaeological investigation is costly, donations are welcomed via the website.

Last summer the site had 7,500 visitors. In 2013 there will be daily guided tours from 17th July to 21st August. Neil Oliver's television documentary reached an audience of 3 million viewers and led to a 200% increase in visits. The website has received 12,500 hits. The suggestion that the Ness of Brodgar might be The True Heart of Neolithic Orkney was very convincing.

John Gair, a member since 1945 when his father introduced him as a boy to the Society, gave a very appreciative vote of thanks in which he called the Ness of Brodgar "an extraordinary treasure-house".