Located in Orkney, the Ness of Brodgar is one of the largest and most important Neolithic excavations in Europe.
As this year’s eight-week dig season comes to an end, the international team working at the site uncovered an incredible underground structure that sheds more light on the sophistication of the first farmers who built the stone structures 5,000 years ago.
With over 5,000 finds recorded this year, and over 100 archaeologists from all over the world participating in this year’s excavation – including students from the University of the Highlands and Islands and Willamette University in the USA – the Ness has been a very busy site this season.
Archaeologists working at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research dig in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, in Orkney, found a massive drain running underneath several of the stone buildings at the site.
The team of archaeologists including ex-students of the UHI Archaeology Institute and volunteers from across the globe uncovered this Neolithic structural gem two weeks ago while working at the rear of Structure 8, and under midden and rubbish deposited in this area.
The team initially found what appeared to be a void, but when the archaeologists removed one particularly large stone, a stone lined drain was unearthed. The drain can be traced directly for over 1.8m, but potentially extends for at least 30m across the site perhaps heading for the Loch of Stenness. It is 50cm wide and at least 70cm deep and there is nothing quite like it on site. Other drains found around the structures are significantly smaller which may highlight its importance as a main drain for the site.
Site director Nick Card explained: “This is an important discovery as it reinforces the complexity of the architecture in the Neolithic at this 5,000-year-old site and indicates the high degree of planning required in their construction. The only other drain of similar size known in Orkney is the one found at the World Heritage Site at Skara Brae – located just five miles north of the site here at the Ness of Brodgar.
“The discovery is thought-provoking as it further adds to the grandiose and complex nature of the architecture of the buildings as they are interlinked with one another. Furthermore, it displays the level of planning involved in the construction of this site. This is without even taking into consideration the work required to build and maintain such a drain!”
Nick believes that the drain was built during the primary phase of construction of the later piered structures and taking this into account, it places the construction of the drain at a very early period of the site itself, and means that it played a very important role in the more complex phases at the Ness of Brodgar which followed.
This year also saw the continuation of work in Trench T – at the very tip of the Ness of Brodgar peninsula – that has uncovered one of the most complex buildings on site: Structure 27.
This structure is extremely large compared to many other buildings on site, highlighting its importance and significance, and is unlike any other building at the complex or indeed elsewhere. The inner wall faces were built using large orthostats, both upright and on edge instead of the usual dry-stone construction.
Even the outer wall faces were exquisitely built, with fine masonry and stepped foundations. The building was abandoned as the remaining structures continued in use and covered with domestic rubbish to form a huge midden mound which could have been seen from a considerable distance – perhaps a reflection of prehistoric conspicuous consumption, and the status and affluence of the Ness!
2019 also found the archaeologists on site unearthing a great selection of incised and beautifully decorated stones that have come to be such a feature of the Ness of Brodgar. One found by Structure 12 was particularly fine with delicately made incised motifs including chevrons and opposed fan motifs.
Another breathtaking find this year was a beautiful yet unfinished macehead found in Trench X by first-time University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute student Aqsa.
The macehead is made of olivine basalt, a rock type which is believed to originate on Hoy. To add to the excitement excavators found a further axehead on the same day and seems to have been discarded before it was completed.
In true archaeology style, as the site was beginning to wind down, a truly amazing find was uncovered: a human bone. The bone is an ulna, which is part of the lower arm, and is most likely from a young adult.
The bone itself was found in a foundation deposit relating to the remodelling of Structure 10, which is the last major and grandiose construction built around 2900 B.C. This structure required reconstructing within a generation or two of its construction, which is the point at which the builders added a new internal south wall and corner buttresses.
Intriguingly, this seems to be the point when they deposited the arm bone into the structure’s foundations. It is contemporary with another human arm bone found close by in 2016, along with the leg bones of several very large cattle.
Nick Card explained: “These bone deposits all seem to be part of a votive foundation deposit associated with the rebuild of Structure 10. Other unusual finds from related foundation deposits such as a carved stone ball, one of the largest and most complex decorated stone blocks from the Ness, and unusual pottery forms, all point towards the importance of this remodelling of the largest building at the Ness.”
Further in-depth analysis of the human bone including DNA may hopefully determine if the two arm bones are from the same individual or if not, were they related?
Work on site will continue next year in order to shed light on this site and the amazing discoveries that keep on coming.
The Ness of Brodgar continues to be a major tourist attraction on the island with over 18,000 visitors to the site in the eight week dig season, 200,000 hits on the website and over 1,000 people attending each Open Day. This project is being part-financed by the Scottish government and the European Community Orkney Leader 2014 – 2020 Programme.