Adrian Challands – ‘a gentle man who will be missed greatly’

The late Adrian Challands during archaeological work at the Stonehall Neolithic settlement in Firth, Orkney.

The late 1980s was a thrilling time for archaeology in Orkney. The late Adrian Challands played a key role in this archaeological revolution and continued to do so in Orkney for many years.

Sadly, Adrian passed away during the evening of Christmas Day 2020. He was a unique, irreplaceable character – a geophysicist, an archaeologist and a gentle man who will be missed greatly.

Among the notable discoveries of the 1980s, field-survey had detected a new Late Neolithic “village” at Barnhouse, which lay within a few hundred metres of the Stones of Stenness. This was an exciting time as the only other Neolithic settlement on Mainland Orkney, of similar date, was Skara Brae. In addition, Barnhouse was the first settlement to be discovered next to a stone circle in Britain.

As part of the Barnhouse investigations, a wider archaeological project was running in Stenness. Part of this was an extensive landscape geophysical survey – using an electrical current to detect buildings, pits and ditches beneath the surface – to find other Neolithic remains between Barnhouse and the Stones of Stenness. This survey was led by Adrian Challands, who had pioneered particular geophysical techniques in large surveys of areas in the Fens of eastern England.

One of the main aims of the survey around the Stones of Stenness was to locate the lost stone-hole of the famous Stone of Odin – a holed-monolith that played a major role in Orcadian folklore and tradition.

Unfortunately, the standing stone had been demolished in December 1814, by the tenant farmer, one Captain MacKay, who went on to attack the Stones of Stenness. Only by the swift action of the local Substitute Sheriff Alexander Peterkin prevented the entire destruction of the Stones of Stenness. But for the Stone of Odin, the intervention was too late.

Clipping from The Orcadian newspaper of July 14,1988, showing the socket hole of the Odin Stone, with Adrian standing at the edge of the trench.

After being broken up, the Odin Stone remains were taken to the farm of Barnhouse where the holed section served as an anchor for a later horse mill.

Adrian spent weeks carefully surveying the field in which the Barnhouse Settlement and the Stones of Stenness lie. All this work resulted in a rather unclear dot-density plot of the area showing sub-surface archaeological features. In fact, for most of us it was difficult to see anything in this plot but Adrian was convinced that some of the darker areas represented the socket holes of missing standing stones.

Working with a small team, Adrian removed the ploughsoil from one of these “dark areas” and, amazingly, revealed the tops of two large oval pits! Excavation confirmed one was clearly a stone-hole as the impression of a large stone was visible at its base – the location of the Stone of Odin had been re-discovered.

Adrian (left) carrying out a magnetic susceptibility survey at Stonehall, Firth.

After this initial work, Adrian’s specialism in geophysical survey was much in demand, both for large-scale surveys and the much smaller analysis of excavated Neolithic house floors. Consequently, he was involved in a number of important archaeological projects from the late 1980s to the present. In particular, Adrian, often accompanied by his wife Norma (an accomplished archaeologist in her own right) worked at the excavations of the Stonehall, Crossiecrown and Wideford Hill Neolithic settlements, between Finstown and Kirkwall.

His archaeological geophysical surveys also included well-known sites such as Maeshowe, where he discovered stone-holes of standing stones now removed, and the Ring of Brodgar where he was able to show the stones (many now missing) increased in number towards the two entrances. This revealed the stones that made up the stone circle were erected at a frequency to exaggerate their number towards the two entrances and impress those entering the great ring.

Reconstruction of the Ring of Brodgar, with the missing stones confirmed by Norma and Adrian Challands (pictured with Prof Jane Downes at the entrance) in 2008, restored.

At the famous Knowes of Trotty Bronze Age barrow cemetery Adrian undertook a very difficult survey – in heather and boggy ground – and discovered a number of new burials and surprisingly located an early Neolithic house which was subsequently excavated. Adrian also undertook geophysical survey on several other Bronze Age burial cemeteries, notably Linga Fiold, and these surveys have contributed greatly to our understanding of cremation in the Bronze Age.

Adrian loved Orkney and its fabulous archaeology and he not only made a huge contribution to its archaeology over the last 30 years, but also formed many friendships during the annual visits to the isles and long periods of fieldwork. Working on site he would often have his magnetic-susceptibility equipment with him – a device resembling a large hoop on a stick that was always known as “Ade’s brain scrambler”.

Adrian with his ‘brain scrambler’ at Stonehall, Firth.

He was always cheerful, charming, well-spoken, kind and a real pleasure to be around. He brought a smile to your face when he entered the room. Indeed, those who knew him will testify to his singularity and good humour – Adrian could quite easily be mistaken for a Victorian gentleman!

A favourite Adrian story revolves around a talk by Professor Colin Richards, in which a slide of a Neolithic settlement had been inserted into the projector the wrong way around. As Adrian was walking down the aisle he was stopped by Johnny Meil, who said: “Here beuy, yin’s backside-foremost.” To which Adrian replied, with a smile: “No, it’s Skara Brae.”

While his passing is immensely sad, one cannot help but smile when thinking about him. He had that effect on people.

Jane Downes, Tom Muir and Colin Richards