The Ness of Brodgar- Summer 2017

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The plans for the Ness of Brodgar dig season 2018 are well under way, and with the end of the year in sight, perhaps it is time to catch up with some of the highlights of the 2017 season. 

Hints at links between the Ness of Brodgar and the Stonehenge area were unearthed this summer, during a record-breaking season at the Stenness site. Over the eight-week excavation, around 21,500 visitors made their way to the Ness, where a team of international diggers were hard at work on the Stone Age complex. At the helm, as usual, was site director Nick Card, of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

Once again, the Ness lived up to its reputation of throwing up lots of new questions, but also some magnificent finds. Of particular interest this year were the two items that suggest contact between Orkney and the Stonehenge area. The first of these was a fragment of pot recovered from a trench extension over Structure Twenty-Six. This came as something of a surprise as the decoration on the sherd was very reminiscent of pottery from Durrington Walls . That said, there were also distinctly Orcadian features, which led us to wonder whether the original vessel blended decorative elements from these two world-renowned sites – but which were hundreds of miles apart.

Fragments of the 'incense' cup - only 4 others of this style are known - all from the Stonehenge-Wessex region
Fragments of the ‘Incense ‘ cup – only 4 others of this style are known – all from the Stonehenge-Wessex Region

Parallels between the Orkney and Wessex sites have been noted before — particularly when Mike Parker Pearson, who excavated at Durrington Walls, visited the Ness in 2010 and 2014 — but a second discovery in Structure Twenty-Six brought these back into the spotlight.

On the surface, it didn’t seem very significant but, thankfully, Claire Copper, who had just finished a research project on these artefacts, immediately recognised it for what it was — a beautiful little ‘incense cup’. After much checking, we were delighted when it was confirmed the cup was what we thought it was. There are only four other examples of this particular type of ‘cup’ in the UK and they all hail from the Stonehenge area.

These tiny artefacts are often highly decorated and mostly found in Early Bronze Age contexts — often associated with burials. Their use has been the subject of debate over the years. It has been suggested that they were used to carry embers to a funeral pyre, or perhaps for the burning of incense during burial ceremonies.

Tracing the walls

Elsewhere on site, it seems likely that the “Great Wall of Brodgar” was one of the first constructions on site. The four-metre-thick wall was unearthed in 2007. Shortly afterwards, the discovery of a second wall — to the south-east of the site — prompted the theory that the complex was completely enclosed.

Trench J in 2008 - red shows GWB and yellow, Structure 5
Trench J in 2008 – red shows Great Wall of Brodgar and yellow Structure 5

Last year, a trench was extended down towards the Stenness Loch looking for evidence that the wall sections were once connected. Unfortunately, nothing was found. This year, however, close examination of an aerial photograph from 2016 revealed very faint, but definite, marks on the landscape around the site. Not only did these “crop marks” clearly show the location of the two known wall sections but highlighted the layout of the enclosing side walls. The difference was that the wall running along the side of the Stenness Loch was closer to the water than originally thought.

We were disappointed last year when there were no upstanding traces of the connecting wall, but it now seems we had been digging in the wrong place. We had tried geophysics on the Stenness loch side, but overhead power lines and a fence line scrambled the results. With no scans to worth with, we had to extend the trench based on our suspicions and it now seems we did not taken the extension far enough down towards the water. Hopefully next year we’ll open a small exploratory trench over the revised location and see what comes up.

The inner face of the Great wall of Brodgar once again see the light of day

Meanwhile, the trench containing the corner of the ”Great Wall” — and the adjacent building, Structure Five — was re-opened this year for the first time since 2008. Nick suspected that Structure Five was was an early Neolithic building and this proved correct. The building is very reminiscent of the early house at the Knap of Howar (3600BC), in Papa Westray. But, in true Ness of Brodgar fashion, is much bigger.

It also became clear that the “Great Wall” not only curved to follow a path along the shore of the Harray Loch, but curled closely around Structure Five — suggesting that it, too, was a very early element in the history of the site. This was confirmed by excavation, which showed nothing lay beneath the wall section except the natural boulder clay on which it was built.

It may be possible to date the construction of the wall using Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) — a technique that could provide the last date on which the ground beneath the wall’s foundation was exposed to sunlight — something that may be explored in the future.

Frustration and delight in Trench T

While work progressed and questions answered, Trench T — to the south-east of the main site — proved particularly obstinate. Here, work to excavate a huge midden mound began in 2013. At first it was thought this was nothing more than a “monumental pile of rubbish” — a visible example of conspicuous, Stone Age consumption, and a reflection of the status and affluence of the Ness, left there for all to see. In 2014, however, the stump of a standing stone turned up at the foot of the mound, hinting there might be more to it.

In 2015, sections of walling and orthostats were found at the bottom of the trench, followed, last year, by massive stone slabs in the remains of a puzzling structure. We felt these structural remnants represented a chambered cairn, similar to the one he had excavated at Bookan, at the other end of the Ness, in 2002.

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But, as the weeks passed, the sheer scale of the building — dubbed Structure Twenty-Seven by the archaeologists — became clearer. The building was huge and the stone slabs so big that it was suggested they were re-purposed standing stones. These massive megaliths were used to support orthostats that clad the structure’s less-than-perfect interior wall face.Given its position, it Structure Twenty-Seven is also likely to pre-date many of the other buildings on the Ness.

Describing the trench as a “source of frustration and delight”, Nick had hoped to reveal more of Structure Twenty-Seven this season, but progress was slowed by the discovery of pits and fragments of walling.

“Everything about Trench T is just different,” he said. “This year we extended it, hoping to quickly expose more of the structure — whatever it is — but, as usual, you should always expect the unexpected and we came down upon intermediary structural elements that had to be dealt with and recorded. Some of these may relate to Structure Twenty-Seven but I think there’s other things happening in this area and this has really muddied the waters.”

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He added that more of the building’s south end was uncovered and that there are also hints of what might be its entrance. “We had also thought that Structure Twenty-Seven had been substantially dismantled in the Neolithic — its stone plundered for use elsewhere and that not much of it had survived. But this summer, we found another section of nicely built drain, that may have been underneath a flagged passageway around the exterior of the building — somewhat similar to that around Structure Ten in the main trench.”

In addition, more of the building’s 2.3-metre-thick back wall was uncovered and found to be in a better state of repair, with several courses surviving. All we can hope for now is that work in 2018 will bring us a clear idea of the layout of this puzzling building.

Back to the Iron Age

Meanwhile, at the top of Trench T, another fragment of pottery, added to the evidence that the Neolithic midden mound was remodelled in the Iron Age, thousands of years after the site was abandoned. Not only was a ditch cut into the mound, but a revetment wall, on the upslope side, was enhanced by a large bank, itself held at the rear by another revetment wall.

“If these structures ran right round the crest of the mound — with the ditch open and highly visible on the downslope and the bank above — the visual effect would have been striking in the extreme,” said Nick. “Indeed, because of the height of the midden mound it was built on, the structure would have been visible for miles around. No doubt this was the intention of the Iron Age builders, as there are many other examples in Orkney of their willingness to alter the landscape and any older structures visible within it.”

Public Interest

Over 14 years since the discovery of the Ness complex, the site continues to produce stunning artefacts and discoveries on a daily basis. But on a site where the extraordinary has become the norm — and with it the expectations of the public — is Nick concerned there is a danger interest could wane?

The first tour of the season is shepherded by site dog Bryn

“We have still got stunning finds coming up on a daily basis that, ten years ago, or at any other site, would hit the headlines across the country. 2017 saw more artwork, stunning stone tools and — in a first for the Ness — a beautiful example of an Early Bronze Age barbed-and-tanged flint arrowhead, recovered from the exterior of Structure Ten. I think that these days people are looking beyond the initial ‘wow’ factor and are just as interested in how finds — no matter how small — fit into the story of the site as a whole. The arrowhead, for example, was a lovely find and a delight to behold, but just as important is its role in interpreting the life, and death, of the Ness.”

Close up of the arrowhead - a first for the Ness

It was found in a lump of midden filling the outer passage of Structure Ten — the so-called ‘cathedral’ — which overlaid the animal bone we think was the result of a decommissioning feast. Elsewhere in this passage, in the same context, we found a distinctive piece of Beaker pottery from the same period. These finds, together with the dating evidence so far, are key to the idea that the start of the Bronze Age heralded the demise of the Ness. And perhaps more importantly, shows that Bronze Age influences had made it this far north.

But it is not just the artefacts that draws people to the Ness. It is the whole package of seeing an excavation under way; the trenches; the archaeologists…With visitor numbers for 2017 up by 63 per cent and the daily online dig diary recording a 30 per cent increase in traffic it is clear that public interest — local, national and international — continues apace.

“Since we started work, one of our main aims was to take the archaeology and share it with as many people as we can,” said Nick. “Going on the visitor figures, this seems to be working, and we’re looking at other ways to improve things, online and on-site.”

He added: “Overall, it’s heartening to see that interest continues to grow because over 75 per cent of our funding comes from the general public and without that support the Ness just wouldn’t happen.”

You can support the excavations by making a donation or buying a copy of the excellent guidebook at www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk.


The site is supported by the Ness of Brodgar Trust (www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk), American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney Islands Council and the Orkney LEADER Programme 2014-2020.

Both undergraduate and postgraduate archaeology students at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are given the opportunity to be involved with the archaeological investigation at the Ness of Brodgar in addition to The Cairns and other archaeological excavations across Orkney and Scotland. If you want to study archaeology and be involved with the research taking place at UHI Archaeology Institute then contact us on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.