Excavation Neolithic Ness of Brodgar

Archaeologists returning to the Ness of Brodgar for penultimate dig season

The penultimate season of excavation at the Ness of Brodgar gets under way tomorrow, with the site open to the public from Wednesday.
Visitors at Ness of Brodgar (Jim Richardson)
Visitors at Ness of Brodgar (Jim Richardson)

Excavation resumes at the Ness of Brodgar tomorrow, Monday, July 3, with the dig running until August 18.

This is the penultimate season of excavation, with fieldwork ending after the 2024 dig and the site backfilled.

The Ness Neolithic complex occupies a central position within the Orkney archipelago, lying between the Lochs of Stenness and Harray, in the middle of the county’s best known prehistoric monuments.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the site’s discovery – in a field half-way between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. Since then, archaeological research has uncovered an astonishing array of Neolithic structures (3700-2500BC) and a biography spanning millennia – from traces of Mesolithic (9000-4000BC) activity to the site’s Neolithic heyday, through to the early Bronze Age (2500-800BC) and a later episode of use in the Iron Age (800BC-AD800).

At its zenith, in the main phase currently under investigation (around 3100BC), the Ness was dominated by huge, free-standing buildings flanked by massive stone walls.

This was much more than a domestic settlement: the size, quality, and architecture of the structures, together with evidence for tiled roofs, coloured walls, and over 900 examples of decorated stone – not to mention the rich assemblages of artefacts recovered from them – all add to an overall sense of the Ness being special in some way.

Structure Twenty-Seven’s north-western wall. (Sigurd Towrie)

This summer all eyes will be on a decidedly enigmatic building that lay buried beneath tonnes of deliberately deposited domestic refuse.

Christened Structure Twenty-Seven, the building is as big as it is perplexing. Whatever it was, it is unlike any other examples of Neolithic architecture excavated in Orkney to date and was robbed of most of its stone and partially dismantled in the late Neolithic.

Excavation under way outside Structure Twenty-Seven in 2022. (Sigurd Towrie)
Excavation under way outside Structure Twenty-Seven in 2022. (Sigurd Towrie)

First encountered in 2015, this sub-rectangular structure is approximately 17 metres long by 11 metres wide, with walls over two metres thick. Its internal space is defined by enormous stone slabs – looking for all the world like recumbent standing stones – set horizontally along the interior walls.  

Large, rectangular slabs were inserted in the gap between these prone orthostats and the wall, cladding the internal faces.

Unfortunately, after it went out of use, Structure Twenty-Seven fell victim to major episodes of stone robbing that saw most of its south-eastern and south-western walls removed. It had long been hoped that more of the north-western wall had survived, and, in 2022, that was confirmed.

As the overlying midden and rubble layers were removed the stunning quality of the surviving wall’s stonework shone through. It was, quite simply, exquisite.

Ness of Brodgar Open Day 2023

Arguably the finest masonry uncovered on site to date, the wall was formed by regular courses of perfectly fitted stone, the precision of their placement unsurpassed. On top of that, the Neolithic builders had also incorporated a deliberate, but very subtle, curve into the length of the wall.  The outer face was also supported on massive projecting, or stepped, foundation slabs, some over two metres long.

But the good news doesn’t end there. Judging by the floor level of the building’s interior in 2022, the stunning north-western wall could survive to almost one metre in height!

Although elements of Structure Twenty-Seven’s impressive architecture have become clearer, the question of its age and role has not. Was it another variant of the monumental buildings elsewhere on site? Or something totally different?

And will 2023 see it give up some of its secrets?

The Ness of Brodgar excavation site is open to the public from Wednesday, July 5, until Wednesday, August 16. Free site tours take place at 11am, 1pm and 3pm on weekdays, with an open day on Sunday, July 30.