Exceptional Stone Axe Discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar shed light on Neolithic Life in Orkney

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The second stone axe found last week in situ showing the natural banding in the rock reflected in the shape of the axe edge

The Ness of Brodgar is one of the largest and most important Neolithic excavations in Northern Europe.

The dig is continuing to reveal an increasingly large complex of monumental Neolithic structures together with ‘artwork’, over 30,000 pieces of pottery, large assemblages of bones and stone tools – including over 30 unique stone axes.

Last week archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the Ness of Brodgar Trust unearthed two polished stone axes in quick succession – items that give us a glimpse into the lives of the people who constructed this stone complex 5000 years ago.

The largest Neolithic stone axe unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar in situ, showing damage to the cutting edge

The first axe was discovered in the closing moments of Thursday in the new trench on the shore of Loch of Stenness. The expertly worked and polished object was the largest axe so far discovered on site and had been heavily used and damaged at the cutting edge.

Nick Card, Site Director, said, “It is nice to find pristine examples of stone axes, but the damage on this one tells us a little bit more about the history of this particular axe. The fact that the cutting edge had been heavily damaged suggests that it was a working tool rather than a ceremonial object. We know that the buildings in the complex were roofed by stone slabs so this axe was perhaps used to cut and fashion the timber joists that held up the heavy roof.”

The second axe was discovered by one of our students, Therese McCormick, from Australia who’s volunteered at the Ness of Brodgar. This stone axe astonished the archaeologists on site through its sheer quality of workmanship. The Gneiss stone had been chosen so that the natural coloured banding was reflected in the shape of the item and then expertly worked and polished to create an object of beauty.

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Archaeologist Therese McCormick excavating the second polished stone axe found last week from Structure 10

Nick Card continues, “This axe again tells us a little more about the life of the Neolithic people who built this place. There is, in common with the large axe discovered earlier, a great deal of edge damage suggesting that this axe was used extensively as a working tool, but interestingly one of the edges has been re-worked to create a new edge and also both sides are covered in peck marks suggesting that it was also re-used perhaps as a mini anvil. This axe, in common with many of the axes found on site, was also placed in a special position within one of the structures opposite the entrance that was aligned east-west to catch the equinox sunrise and in line with Maeshowe. These polished stone axes unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar were clearly multi-functional tools that were not only ‘tools of the trade’ but were also perhaps symbols of power.”

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Stone axe in situ in Structure 10

The Ness of Brodgar is an archaeological excavation covering an area of 2.5 hectares in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, in Scotland. It has revealed a well-preserved and sophisticated complex of monumental stone buildings, enclosed by walls up to six metres thick. Built and occupied by people over 5,000 years ago, the Ness has produced decorated and painted stonework unlike any other site in the UK. Its architecture is unique and it has given us evidence for stone-tiled roofing as never previously seen.

Archaeologists opening Trench Y where the large stone axe was found
Overview of Structure 10 where the second axe was found

The site is run through the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the UHI Archaeology Institute.

More information see : http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/about-the-ness-of-brodgar/

Video of discovery of the second polished stone axe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0x9BLMCi548

Join the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute to research and study the amazing Ness of Brodgar as part of your studies. See the UHI website or drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk for a chat on your options.

6 thoughts on “Exceptional Stone Axe Discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar shed light on Neolithic Life in Orkney

  1. Ann Clarke Wednesday, August 8, 2018 (12:20am) / 12:20 am

    How amazing to see working tools from so long ago looking so fresh…I’ll bet the owner of the damaged one was miffed when he broke it!

  2. Patricia Vincent Wednesday, August 8, 2018 (4:01am) / 4:01 am

    Congratulations! Two beautiful pieces of history found.

  3. norm kwallek Thursday, August 9, 2018 (2:15am) / 2:15 am

    I’ve always figured “celts” were used more for making boards or planks, something of a splitting wedge that was beat down the tree’s grain with a wooden club. We call them axes, I a little skeptical that they served well for felling timber.

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