The Ness of Brodgar – The Site that Keeps on Giving.

The excavation season at The Ness of Brodgar has just a few weeks to run. So it is a good time to take stock.  Site Director Nick Card talks about the findings so far….

There are usually a few minutes in the day when there is time to muse on the continuing discoveries made at The Ness of Brodgar. Nick Card, Site Director, sat on the small, battered, wooden bench next to Structure 10 and, leaning back on the tyre wall, talked about the discoveries that were emerging this season.

Nick started by saying that he is always amazed by the continued interest in this site. Despite the worst that an Orkney summer can throw at people, they still come.

Last weekend was a case in point. Over 1000 people turned up to the Ness of Brodgar Open Day on one of those Orkney summer days when the rain drives in horizontally and visibility is down to a few yards. Keep in mind that only 20,000 people actually live on Orkney (smaller than the average sized UK town) and you can see the attraction that the Ness holds for people.

We discussed the reasons behind this and came to the conclusion that the dig at the Ness of Brodgar shows archaeology in action. People from around the world can witness Neolithic society being unwrapped before their very eyes. Nick went on to talk about a visitor from the USA who stated, when viewing the site, that he had “finally made it here”. The visitor had seen the coverage in The National Geographic and had travelled over 8,000 miles to see the site. It was a destination for him and a reason to visit our small island in the North Atlantic. Nick added, “We are also very lucky because we have an experienced team of supervisors who come back year after year. We are also lucky in our volunteers. They travel here under their own expense and work hard to unearth the story of this site.”

Nick went on to outline the salient points that for him stand out this season. The first must be the discovery of human bone under the rebuild of  Structure 10. The discovery of human remains is always tinged with emotion. At some point this bone was part of a person with the same hopes and fears that we all possess in daily lives. Their surroundings were different to ours in a way that we can only imagine, but they surely possessed those same feelings of doubt, fear and hope that we all experience on a daily basis. The remains are of course treated with care and reverence, and on initial examination we can deduce a few features about this individual’s life.

The bone formed part of a human arm and is disarticulated with no signs of injury or de-fleshing. There are no other human remains situated around the deposit. It is never certain how an individual may look from a single bone, but there is evidence of muscle attachment that indicates the person was used to hard physical labour. This was not unusual even in higher echelons of Neolithic society and so we cannot surmise on this individuals social standing by this evidence alone. However, we can suggest that this person was slender, tall, but experienced arthritis.

So where did this isolated bone come from? It was situated under re-used roof slates together with an assemblage of cattle bone under one of the corner buttresses that formed the later remodelling of Structure 10. Could it come from a possible chambered tomb in Trench T? Was the bone a revered ancestral relic that was buried here; perhaps in an attempt to resist the subsidence that was obviously evident in previous buildings? Perhaps it was the Neolithic equivalent of a lucky charm? We cannot possibly know for certain, but this discovery opens just a small window onto Neolithic society and gives us a glimpse into the minds of the people who built this site.

We concluded our discussion on the salient points of the Ness of Brodgar by talking about Trench T. This trench is not as yet open to the public, but is already full of surprises. The trench seems to be digging into a monumental midden, the size of which is unprecedented in Neolithic Britain. There appears to be a substantial (possibly 12m in width!), demolished early Neolithic structure which may pre-date the main site buildings. This in itself is worthy of further discussion, but when combined with the find of a very large animal, possibly even an auroch, makes this area all the more interesting. Has Nick and the team discovered the very earliest structures at The Ness? Structures that are even older than the main structures found so far? Only time and further research will find the answer to that question.


Donations of any amount welcome – thank you!

The Ness of Brodgar Trust (Registered Scottish Charity No: SC044890) exists to support all aspects of the excavation of the massive Neolithic ceremonial complex at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. Please help us to continue the work at this amazing site by making either a one-off single donation or a regular monthly donation (UK bank direct debit only), which helps us to budget for future season’s work. UK taxpayers please Gift Aid your donation to give us 25% more at no extra cost to you.

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