Making a Ness of Brodgar Carved Stone Ball



The lives of the people who built the Ness of Brodgar are surrounded in mystery. Research can help us develop theories about how they led their lives and perhaps how they organised their society, but some things will probably defy explanation for some time to come.

There have been many theories concerning the use of this carved stone ball found at the Ness, but of course we will probably never know for certain why it was carved. However we can propose how it was carved by making one, using the same tools as the Neolithic farmers; combined with a good eye for proportion!

And so Chris Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute set out to remake a Ness of Brodgar carved stone ball using just stone tools and no complicated maths. Chipping away over a period of one week, Chris managed to make a perfect replica of a Ness carved stone ball. The pictures he took show the various stages in the process….


Chris writes….”This shows the various stages in the creation of a carved stone ball shaped only using other rocks found in Orkney. It is based on the Ness of Brodgar ball, particularly the arrangement of the six discs. Otherwise I have chosen to leave the discs fairly large with a sharper shoulders, and also chosen to include the effect of a smaller sphere which the discs sit upon. This can be seen in other carved stone balls. The rock is from an igneous trap dyke and was found on the shore near Skara Brae.”

At least one mystery is now solved….

For more information on the Ness of Brodgar click through to

Nick Card to Present at World Archaeology Congress – Kyoto, Japan


When Nick Card finishes work on one of the world’s most exciting Neolithic archaeological excavations, he is boarding a plane and flying to Japan to present to the World Archaeology Congress.

The paper is entitled The Ness of Brodgar – What can the past do for our future?…..examining the role that archaeology can play in the wider social and economic life of a community.

Nick writes…..Archaeology has always been the linchpin in Orkney’s tourism due to its range of iconic monuments. In recognition of its importance, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site was designated in 1999. This catalogue of outstanding archaeological sites was added to in 2004 with the discovery  of the site of the Ness of Brodgar. The Ness has subsequently grown to an internationally-recognised excavation, attracting thousands of visitors. The publicity generated not only benefits Orkney’s archaeology, but also Orkney’s wider economy. The Ness is used as a case study to show how the past can directly have relevance for today.

The congress paper is by invitation and is funded by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture.




Intriguing Structure Found in Trench T

Trench T
Trench T seen from South East

It is a given in archaeology, that the most perplexing finds are unearthed in the final stages of a dig. So, as the dig at Ness of Brodgar in Orkney started the final week, some of the most intriguing finds of the season started to be unearthed in a trench which goes under the title of ‘Trench T’.

This area of the site is not open to the public, but is part of a research programme to discover what lies beneath the largest Neolithic midden yet discovered in north Scotland.

The Ness of Brodgar site itself is no stranger to discoveries, with human remains, possible Neolithic seaweed, rock art and of course the structures themselves giving archaeologists many things to think about Neolithic society in the last few weeks. However, nothing prepared the site director Nick Card and supervisor Ben Chan for the discovery made this week in Trench T.

As digging progressed, the archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute became more and more excited. A structure unlike any other discovered so far at the Ness was emerging from the midden. It was huge being nearly 10 metres wide internally and of unknown length as it disappeared out of the trench, but the construction – the way it was built – seemed to be unique. Although the outer wall faces were constructed of fine, large masonry the inner wall faces were much rougher. However, these inner faces would have been hidden behind upright orthostats ‘cladding’ the interior. More amazing was the size of large prone orthostats that helped support the upright slabs and pinned them in place against the inner wall faces. The only one that has been fully exposed is over 4 metres in length, but there are others, only partially revealed that could be longer!

The excitement intensified as the archaeologists realised that this structure was probably built before the main structures present on the site and that it had been deliberately buried by the huge midden.

The mystery deepened as more questions were asked. Where do these huge stones originate? They have rounded edges that suggest they were weathered or worked in the same way that some of the standing stones at Stenness appear to be. They are smaller than the surviving nearby Watch Stone, but road widening in the 1920’s unearthed evidence for a twin for the Watch Stone. Could these two stones have been part of another stone circle that was mainly dismantled?

Trench T Close up
Close up of the orthostats in Trench T

Nick Card Site Director suggests, “The sheer size and scale of the stones unearthed are unprecedented on this site. The way the stones are built into the construction is also unique to the Ness. This all suggests that they may have been re-used and taken from elsewhere. Perhaps they may be part of a stone circle that pre-dates the main Ness site. It is all a bit of mystery and we won’t know more until we do more work.”

Other questions also remain unanswered for the moment. Was this structure roofed? If so then how was such a space spanned. Was this indeed, the first building on the site? What was it used for? Was it a chambered tomb? In any event it was clearly a special structure to the people who built it, but why was it covered in the largest Neolithic rubbish dump in Scotland?

As the digging season comes to a close it is a fact that these questions will only be answered through more research and more hard work next year.

Many thanks are due to James Robertson at who completed the drone photography and video work for free.

The Enigmatic Structure at Smerquoy

The excavation at Smerquoy had advanced a great deal since my last visit. A whole new trench had been completed. But before Colin Richards and Christopher Gee talked me through this enigmatic area, they guided me over to the back of the site. To an area where the earliest houses in Orkney were built during the Neolithic.

Standing in a deepening fog that was not being cleared by a high wind (Orkney is the only place I have lived where fog and high wind live quite happily together!) Colin pointed out the outline of a substantial house that had been built using clearly worked stone. There were two parts to the wall making up the house with a thicker wall appearing on the downslope side of the structure. To the back of the house there was a single wall which formed the wall cut into the hillside. These houses as discussed before were built on terraces cut into the hillside.

Close up of the worked stone present in one of the houses

The shape of the house was rectangular and was divided by a line of standing stones or orthostats. A dark patch of earth set within the house clearly showed the position of a domestic hearth; the damp conditions aiding our view of the different colours of the floor. However before we moved on, Colin and Chris explained that the house area had at one point been deliberately covered in glacial till, levelled and then re-used for non domestic purposes.

And then we examined the structure that is being a little difficult to interpret. One thing is for sure, it was not a house. It was also built later than the other early Neolithic houses on the site. The walls were oval in shape and very thick with an infill of clay, ash, stone debris and early Neolithic pottery. The structure could have a burial function, but until further work is completed it’s use will remain a mystery.

The mystery structure at Smerquoy

And finally…..The location of this site is quite dramatic; set on a hillside above the sea, but it is even more dramatic to my eyes when the weather is perhaps not as kind as it could be to the hard working archaeologists! A video clip showing the location of the site……on a foggy and windy  August day.

New Research – Trading Identities & Viking Horse Burials in Scotland

Sands of Gill and Pierowall Westray
Aerial photograph of Sands of Gill and Pierowall village, Westray, Orkney

New research by University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute PhD student Siobhan Cooke, explores the use of animals, particularly horses, in Viking funerary rituals across Scotland. And how these rituals were used to help develop a cultural identity in the rapidly expanding Viking realm.

Trading Identities Alternative Interpretations of Viking Horse Remains in Scotland
Distribution map of pagan Viking burials containing horse remains

There are over 130 known Viking pagan burials in Scotland. Approximately seven per cent of the pagan Viking graves known in Scotland contained horse remains. This research presents a brief summary of the traditional interpretations of horse remains in burials of this period and presents an alternative interpretation of these remains with particular reference to the Viking cemetery at Pierowall, Westray, Orkney Islands which is dated c. AD 850–950.

It is argued that the act of horse deposition at Pierowall should be understood in the wider social context of the Scandinavian Peninsula and Scottish Islands during the initial period of west-ward expansion and social and political upheaval. It is in this context that the act of horse burial performed a specific communication function which served to create and strengthen cultural allegiances with trading groups travelling from the Scandinavian Peninsula towards the western seaboard of Scotland, and into the Irish Sea.

Identities are fluid; rather than seeing identity as something people are
born with, it is now being considered as an aspect of social relations, something that is
learnt, that is adaptable and that can change over time depending on the ways and contexts
in which people interact (Jones 1997;2000; Lucy 2005: 86–87). It is through identity
that we perceive ourselves, and how others see us, as belonging to a particular group
and not another and being part of a group involves active engagement (Diaz Andreu &
Lucy 2005: 2). Animals can also be actors in social relationships, playing an active role in
the depiction of identity.

The full research paper can be downloaded from Trading Identities: Trading Identities Alternative Interpretations of Viking Horse Remains in Scotland. A Pierowall Perspective


Smerquoy – Early Neolithic Settlement Finds

Ali’s Hoose showing the scoop hearth as a darker patch.

Talking with archaeologist Chris Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the significance of the excavation at Smerquoy on the mainland of Orkney easily becomes apparent.

The structures at Smerquoy were built before the well known structures at the Ness of Brodgar, which in itself is impressive, but Chris, together with his team from the University of Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire, are progressing towards establishing whether all the houses visible in the geophysics were contemporary with each other or built over time with some buildings being abandoned as others were built.

In archaeological terms they are working towards establishing a sequence of construction. However if it is the case that all these structures were contemporary then this settlement would have been very impressive indeed for any person arriving in the Bay of Firth or approaching along the small coastal plain….which is now followed by the main road from Finstown to Kirkwall. Also keep in mind that this settlement was brought into being when the first farmers were carving out a presence in Orkney. Sometimes it is easy to forget this fact when considering the finds and the structures present here.

Looking out across The Bay of Firth from the site on rather a cloudy day!

Rubble and redeposited glacial till has largely been removed now from the south end of Ali’s Hoose – the end which was terraced into the hillside – to reveal, in some places, two courses of the inside wall face, the rest having been robbed out prior to infilling.

It appears that the thick glacial till was placed directly upon occupation floor deposits making it relatively simple to excavate.The slots for opposing upright stones, which would have divided the interior of the house in half, are visible in the floor, as well as a scoop hearth set within the south half.

So far there is no evidence of a stone-set hearth, like that encountered in the Smerquoy Hoose of 2013. It had an earlier scoop hearth, which had been packed over with clay when the stone-set hearth was added. Does this imply that Ali’s Hoose went out of use at an earlier phase than the Smerquoy Hoose? We will hopefully find out as the investigation proceeds.

IMG_5982An increasing number of finds are being discovered which begin to paint a picture of life in early Neolithic Orkney. A rather large, water-worn, egg-shaped stone was found partly pressed into the floor, up against the wall within the south end of Ali’s Hoose today. We should be able to examine it further once it has been lifted.

Other finds included several more shards of round-based early Neolithic pottery, including a second shard with Unstan Ware style decoration. A large stone dish was also unearthed and is the fourth to be found at Smerquoy. Furthermore several Knap o’ Howar borers have also been found at the site. IMG_5972The end scratches present of these tools look as if they have been used in a circular motion. The smaller borer has a shoulder which shows that it was used to create a deeper hole than the others recovered.

What they were used to bore, however, remains a mystery for now.

For more information on the Smerquoy site, click through to

Thanks as ever to Sigurd Towrie.

Marine Archaeology Side Scan Sonar Course

NAS SSS small ad Full Colour

The NAS MAC Introduction to Side Scan Sonar course is now open for professionals working in the maritime industry and students of marine archaeology . The 2 day course is held in Stromness, Orkney on the 24th and 25th September 2016.

Course Aims and Objectives
This introductory two-day course will provide an insight into the equipment, survey
strategies, processing and interpretation of side scan sonar data in maritime
archaeology. During the two-day course, students will learn how to plan and execute a
side scan sonar survey, determining which survey methods are most appropriate in
different situations. They will gain practical experience processing and interpreting the
resulting data and will be made aware of protocols for disseminating the results.
Throughout the course side scan surveys will be considered in light of other survey
strategies available. Practical exercises will take place during the afternoon on both days and will include survey mobilisation, demobilisation, GPS positioning, data collection, data processing and reporting. During the two-day course students will be introduced to:
• Introduction to site types, targets and anomalies –which sites are best suited to
side scan surveys
• Designing a side scan sonar survey project: considerations and survey strategies
• Types of side scan mounts and devices
• Positioning: locating your sites
• Practical: completing a side scan survey
• Overview of other survey data processing packages, focussing in particular on
Sonar Wiz 5 and Max View
• Post processing and interpretation– guidance and recommendations
• Practical: process ing and interpreting survey data
• Reporting and dissemination
Learning Outcomes
• Participants will complete the course with an understanding of the principles and
practice of side scan sonar surveys
• The students will be able to identify the most suitable equipment and survey
strategy appropriate to specific site types and conditions
• The students will have participated in the design and execution of a small side
scan sonar survey
• The student will have undertaken some basic data processing and will be aware of
national guidance for the processing and interpretation of side scan sonar data.
NAS Credit Allocation
10 credits will be awarded to NAS members under the module Fieldwork National Occupational Standards for Archaeology Units:Unit code CU2099: Contribute to non
-intrusive investigations
CIfA Endorsement
This course has been endorsed by the Charted Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) to
count towards the required hours of continual professional development. Please note this timetable is provisional and subject to change
08:45– 09:00 – Welcome and Introductions (15 mins)
09:00– 09:45- Theory 1: What is Side Scan Sonar
09:45– 11:00- Theory 2: How do you interpret what you see?
11:00– 11:15 – Coffee
11:15– 12:15- Theory 3: Survey strategies/designing the survey
12:15– 13:30- Theory 4: Survey Constraints and Considerations
13:30– 14:30- Lunch
14:30– 17:30 – Practical (weather dependent)**
** Students will be divided into 3 groups –while one group is on the boat there will
be 2 other activities
Case Study
– How Side Scan has been used to identify sites in Scapa Flow
– Side Scan Sonar surveys
09:00– 09:30- Theory 5: Post processing– guidance and legislation
09:30– 10:30- Theory 6: Post processing– programmes and practices
10:30– 11:15- Sonar Wiz 5 Demonstration
11:15– 11:30- Coffee
11:30– 13:00- Practical Session: Interpreting the data (Part 1)
13:00– 14:00- Lunch
14:00– 15:00- Practical Session: Interpreting the data (Part 2)
15:00– 15:15- Coffee Break
15:15– 16:15- Theory 7: Reporting
16:15– 17:00- Theory 8: What’s next?

For more information and to apply e-mail:

Uncovering the Early Neolithic at Smerquoy

DSCN1051Work is progressing well at the site of Smerquoy, on the Orkney Mainland. A team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute, the University of Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire, in addition to  local volunteers are beginning to uncover the sequence of early Neolithic house construction at the site.

Christopher Gee and Dr Vicki Cummings write…..

Excavations in previous years uncovered the remains of early Neolithic houses, alongside other remains and structures. In this final year we hope to understand the sequence of house construction across the site and definitively date the different phases of use.

Progress has been slowed by some mixed weather in the first week, including heavy rain, thick mist and strong gales. Nevertheless there have been some very exciting finds.

Upon cleaning the site at the start of the week a new house (“Ali’s Hoose”) was immediately apparent underneath a large scoop in the hillside identified the previous year. The remarkable thing about this house was that it had been extensively robbed of its stone walls and then buried with a c30cm thick layer of redeposited glacial till. This house is stratigraphically low down and will be the last structure examined this year.


There was further excitement a few days later when the walls of another badly robbed house were found towards the bottom of another large scoop in the hillside identified last year and known as Structure Two, or “Hoose o Brodie”.

All but the very bottom layer of this house has been robbed away, and is, in some places, completely missing, destroyed by later Neolithic activity in the same location. Yet more new structural remains were found as the team worked in gale-force winds.

A third structure (“Billy’s Hoose”) partly disappearing underneath the north-western edge of the trench during last year’s campaign has hopefully been completely uncovered with this season’s trench extension; an extension executed to the usual high standards we are accustomed to from Ali Miller.

The structure now revealed partly overlies the clay which was packed down over the remains of “Ali’s Hoose”. From the small amount visible of Billy’s Hoose last year the provisional thinking was that it may have been the remains of yet another early Neolithic stone house.

However, from what has been revealed so far during cleaning it seems we may have a late Neolithic “rounded square” house, possibly similar in form to the larger second phase houses at Skara Brae. However it must be stressed that this is a provisional interpretation which may change over the next few days.

The quartz mace fragment

The recovery of a fragment of a polished-quartz mace, probably among one of the most spectacular maces in Neolithic Orkney, in the layer of overlying topsoil may also add weight to our interpretation of the structure as Late Neolithic.

Large amounts of pottery have been found, along with some stone tools including Skaill knives and finger stones. We are familiar with these finger stones from previous years and they are known from Neolithic sites in Orkney, for example Braes of Habreck.

One particularly fine example of a finger stone/fine Knap o’ Howar borer was recovered on Tuesday. It seems to show traces of usage in the form of circular striations on its end. A lovely paint pot stone dish was also found.

It is clear that Smerquoy was the focus for intense early Neolithic and possibly later Neolithic activity and the race is now on to find out as much as possible about this remarkable site by the end of the digging season this month.

You can visit the site, but please keep in mind that parking is very limited and the path requires good walking shoes or Wellington boots. The site itself is located about 5km along he Old Finstown Road heading out of Kirkwall towards Finstown. If you are travelling from Kirkwall to Finstown, go past the entrance to Smerquoy Farm and turn into the track on the right. Park up on the verge past the house and walk along the base of the hill. You should see the excavation to your right. Zoom out on the map below to get directions.


The Smerquoy Excavation 2016


The excavation at Smerquoy on the north west facing slope of Wideford Hill near Kirkwall, Orkney got under way last week.

The site itself is an ongoing investigation by students and staff from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the University of Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire.

It is an important site and shows evidence of settlement by some of Orkney’s earliest farmers and dates from around 3500BC. Discovered by land owner Billy Sinclair and confirmed as an important site by Christopher Gee of UHI Archaeology Institute, Smerquoy has yielded numerous finds including a Neolithic axe, a flint knife, flint scrapers in addition to the settlement structures themselves.

Only this month the site featured prominently on the front page of Current Archaeology where Professor Colin Richards added to the story of Orkney’s first farmers by using evidence from the site.

Standing on the slopes of windswept Wideford Hill, I spent a few minutes with Professor Richards as he described and explained the features of the site. As he was talking, I began to see the outline of early Neolithic houses emerging from the soil. The thick stone, infill walls were evident in some detail, curving away and under the topsoil. Colin also confirmed that these structures were built before the main complex at The Ness of Brodgar
and represent some of the earliest structure known on Orkney….so far! However, the archaeology of Neolithic Orkney is so exciting that further early settlements could come to light as more research is undertaken.

Colin further added that the sophistication of these structures is further enhanced by the knowledge that the houses were built onto terraces. These terraces were scooped out of the hillside and the spoil thrown forward to create a flat and level building surface….perhaps in an effort to aid drainage.

Pointing around the hill and the valley, Colin suggested that the whole area possessed a wealth of early Neolithic settlements which would be very prominent to anyone travelling from west to east.

You can visit the site, but please keep in mind that parking is very limited and the path requires good walking shoes or Wellington boots. The site itself is located about 5km along he Old Finstown Road heading out of Kirkwall towards Finstown. If you are travelling from Kirkwall to Finstown, go past the entrance to Smerquoy Farm and turn into the track on the right. Park up on the verge past the house and walk along the base of the hill. You should see the excavation to your right.

The track leading to the excavation site which is located on the side of Wideford Hill

Kirkwall Garden Dig Success

The Kirkwall Garden Dig held over the weekend was a great success. Over 300 people visited the BBC site and residents learned the basics about archaeological investigation.

The project was a collaborative community archaeology programme in which Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Scotland’s Urban Past worked together to bring an archaeological extravaganza to Kirkwall. The Kirkwall Garden Dig project is part of The Kirkwall Townscape Heritage Initiative Archaeology Programme ‘Discover Hidden Kirkwall’. This community archaeology initiative has already uncovered parts of the medieval shoreline of the town in a previous excavation held in May 2016.

The project included BBC Radio Orkney together with 4 other residents of Kirkwall town centre who invited archaeologists to dig small exploratory test pits in their gardens. The public saw archaeology in action in the BBC Radio Orkney garden by visiting in person or linking through to a live stream on their Facebook page. Updates were also broadcast on BBC radio throughout the fieldwork.

The excavations were accompanied by workshops in which members of the public tried archaeological techniques such as sieving, finds washing, digging and surveying. Scotland’s Urban Past team also helped budding ‘Urban Detectives’ record their built environment, focusing on the areas around each of the trenches, contributing to the national record.


An astonishing number of finds were unearthed, ranging from prehistoric flint to artefacts from the last few hundred years. Finds included large numbers of animal bones, including a huge pig’s jaw bone discovered in the BBC Radio Orkney garden – probably dating back to when the area was part of the Flesh Market in the 17th and 18th centuries. Remains relating to the former Kirkwall Castle were not reached, however sherds of medieval pottery were recovered. Test pits along the west side of the street relieved deep sequences of layers and evidence for the old shoreline. Other finds included a bone chess piece, a decorated clay pipe bowl and a rather intriguing loom or fishing weight. These finds will be be further analysed, adding to the evolving story of ‘Hidden Kirkwall’.

To become an ‘Urban Detective’ and help record some of your local heritage visit

Many thanks to BBC Radio Orkney for their help and local residents for taking part.

The Kirkwall Garden Dig is supported by: