Located in Orkney, the Ness of Brodgar is one of the largest and most important Neolithic excavations in Europe.
As the 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 5000 years ago.
With over five thousand finds recorded this year, and over 100 archaeologists from all over the world participating in this years excavation, ranging from students from the University of the Highlands and Islands to others from the American Williamette University, one could definitely argue that the Ness has been a very busy site this season.
Archaeologists working at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research dig adjacent to 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.
The Ness of Brodgar Site Director Nick Card said, “This is an important discovery as it reinforces the complexity of the architecture in the Neolithic at this 5000 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.”
Nick continues, “This 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; a trench at the very tip of the 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 breath-taking find this year was a beautiful yet unfinished macehead found in Trench X by first time University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student Aqsa. This 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.
Site Director Nick Card said, “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.
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student Will Lowe is undertaking his work placement with us in the Marketing Department here at Orkney College.
As part of his project Will is looking at post excavation processes and the ways in which information is shared across both the academic and wider community.
Over to Will……
Hi everyone! My name is William Lowe and I’m a MSc student at the University of the Highlands and Islands and in this blog post I will be writing about the 2019 Ness of Brodgar dig and some of its discoveries. Now for those who don’t know what the Ness of Brodgar is, it is an extensive Neolithic site in the centre of an area known as the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney”, a world heritage site situated on the mainland of the Orcadian archipelago.
The aim of this blog is to show off some of the finds made this year and how by carefully examining them we can piece together the overall history of this site and the people connected to it. In order to do that I have selected 3 finds in particular.
For the first objects I will disregard the rule that I just set and discuss two objects in particular, these are a piece of bone and a piece of pot that were discovered in the new area, known as Trench T…the “mystery trench”. These may seem like mundane finds compared to some others, but sometimes it is these mundane objects that tell the best stories. They were found in Structure 27, a new structure that has no parallels on the site, let alone Scotland!
These objects were part of the “trash” from the rest of the site that was thrown in the structure after it was abandoned, but not put out of use it seems. The mound was far larger than what the diggers first envisaged, so much so that it must have been clearly visible from far away, and Cristina, the trench supervisor, believes this was done on purpose in order to show off to whomever was in the vicinity!
The second object is a macehead that was found on Friday. It is a stunning find that was never finished, which is unfortunately a mystery we don’t know the answer to. What we do know is that it’s made out of olivine basalt, which may be from another Orkney island to the south-west called Hoy. This is important because it shows that the inhabitants were being extremely selective about their rocks. Similarly other objects from previous seasons known as a “pitchstone” – a volcanic glass from the island of Arran several hundred miles to the SW of Orkney and similar to obsidian was knapped using a technique similar to that found in south Scotland, showing the links the site had and how far they spanned.
The last object is a decorated stone. A myriad of decorations have been found in the past years by Nick and his team, and although similar decorations have been found in Maeshowe, they are still a mystery. Maybe as we find more and through a little research, we will be able to discover more about their hidden histories!
If you are inspired to take the plunge and apply for an undergraduate or postgraduate course with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a ring on 01856 569229 and ask for Sean. If I’m not there then leave a message on my voicemail and I’ll get back to you.
Ness of Brodgar Site Director Nick Card was invited by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to give a lecture in Xi’an this month – the birthplace of Chinese Civilisation and home to the Terracotta Army.
The trip not only gave Nick the opportunity to take part in an international workshop on heritage management and present the Ness of Brodgar as a case study of how archaeology can contribute to local economies, but also explore the amazing archaeology in and around Xi’an including the famous Terracotta Army associated with the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang – China’s first emperor.
Nick, when showing me the photographs from his trip, talked about the sheer scale of the archaeology present in the landscape in and around the city; pointing to huge population mobilisation (reputedly 700,000 for the construction of the mausoleum alone) and highly sophisticated social organisation over 2,000 years ago.
He continued,” The archaeology is breath-taking, not only in its scale…for example the Daming Palace in Xi’an itself covers an area equivalent to 300 football pitches….but in the artefacts and monuments that are being uncovered. The local archaeologists have only uncovered a tiny percentage of the mausoleum site that overall covers several square kilometres and yet the insight into this incredible civilisation provided by the discoveries so far are nothing short of astonishing.”
Following Nicks presentation on the Ness of Brodgar, the workshop progressed onto discussions on heritage management and the innovative methods being used in China to preserve and present the past. One line of discussion centred on the Chinese creation of huge archaeology parks such as the one in Xi’an.
The few days Nick spent in the city also gave him the opportunity to sample the local cuisine, which gave him chance to think on LP Hartley’s opening line in the 1953 novel ‘The Go- Between’ “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”
The trip was fully funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – a huge thanks to them for this opportunity.
The Ness of Brodgar is a University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute research excavation and is part financed by the Scottish Government and the Leader 2014-2020 Programme.
In the fourth episode of his story detailing his experience of studying archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands, MSc student Ross Drummond tells us about his time at the world renowned Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney.
Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Reporting about Pt. 4 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, this time I was taking on the absolute monster which is The Ness of Brodgar; Orkney’s largest archaeological excavation of the summer.
A lot of you may already know about The Ness of Brodgar already through the amount of media attention it has received in recent years, featuring heavily in a 2017 3-part BBC Documentary series ‘Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney’; which attracted the attention of a remarkable 2.1 million viewers for the first episode.
For those of you not familiar with The Ness of Brodgar I shall provide a brief summary, but for more detailed info check out the website (http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/ ). The first work on the Ness involved a geophysical survey in 2002, with revealed a huge complex of anomalies, and had high archaeological potential. The following year a large notched stone was ploughed up in the field between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, which looked like it could have been part of a Bronze Age cist, with the possibility of human remains. A small trench was opened and a large rectangular wall was found, this was the revealing of structure One. In 2004 8 test-trenches were opened up uncovering more structures and Neolithic materials, and the rest they say is history… With excavation work taking place for several weeks every summer since.
The earliest evidence onsite dates as far back as 3500 BC with activity at stopping around 2300BC, and although there is a large number of buildings present, the site is not simply domestic. It is thought that The Ness was a gathering place where Neolithic people from Orkney and further afield would come together for feasting, trading and celebration of important political and celestial events.
Since Structure One first appeared in 2003, over 30 additional structures have been found since. The largest structure onsite is Structure Ten, measuring some 25m long, 19m across and has 4m thick walls. It is absolutely massive and is the last structure in use on the site, with its ‘closing’ around 2450 BC. However, the structure was not just abandoned, its ‘death’ was marked by a huge feast and large numbers of animals were slaughtered. When uncovered in 2008, the bones of around 400 cattle were found placed in the passageway surrounding the structure.
Similar to my first excavation of the summer at The Cairns, The Ness of Brodgar also accommodated some of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) archaeological students completing the ‘Excavation’ module as part of the degrees. This gives students the opportunity to learn techniques and various other components of fieldwork as a graded academic class, in the place of an in-class module in the previous college semester. In addition to students from the various UHI campuses, The Ness of Brodgar was also home to students from Willamette University, Oregon who spent a total of 5 weeks on-site; taking part in the excavations and learning a large set of archaeological processes and techniques as part of their academic curriculum.
The Excavation module was again overseen by Rick Barton, Project Officer for Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA). Students were assessed on various different skills and techniques over their time at The Ness, which were explained and demonstrated by Rick and other trench supervisors first; before students were given the opportunity to display their knowledge and abilities independently. Students were guided through group tool box talks and given further individual one-to-one training whenever the students themselves felt they wanted to tackle further skills and tasks; with staff and supervisors always on hand to accommodate and make time for everyone.
Due to my Placement with the university, I have had the pleasure and privilege of being able to take part in both The Cairns and The Ness of Brodgar excavations. They are both absolutely fantastic excavations to be a part of and no matter if it’s your very first time digging on an archaeological site or if it’s another place to add to the CV, both sites are invaluable in experience gained. The skills and training received is also something that will stand to students as they pursue a career in archaeology; and the UHI Archaeology Institute pride themselves on providing students with the best practical in-the-field training possible.
Students are exposed to a whole range of different techniques and skills which are used on sites in commercial archaeology. One of the main aims for the university is for students to be able to walk into a commercial job upon completing their degrees, with broad excavation experience behind them; and have the confidence and competency to fit right into any team. There are a large amount of techniques worked on during UHI fieldschools such as environmental sampling, artefacts processing, archaeological recording (i.e. the written record – contexts sheets, finds deposit sheets), archaeological photography skills, archaeological surveying and the drawn record (including planning and section drawing).
Most of the techniques conducted are helped by the presence of specialists in each area who guide students through the process and all supervisors are well equipped and knowledgeable in helping out with most techniques as well. The staff and volunteers at both The Ness of Brodgar and The Cairns are also very welcoming and supportive of past former students who return to help out with the excavations each summer. The UHI also highly encourage promotion from within as several of the supervisors from both sites are former Master’s students with the college themselves (as exemplified by my supervisor Andy, who completed her MSc with the UHI a few years back).
I think all students who took part in the fieldschool would testify to how great an experience it was, especially in a place like Orkney where the archaeological landscape is so rich and sites are present in abundance; it’s great to be added to the history and story of these sites (no matter how small/brief your presence on them is). I myself am probably going to have a tough time sorting out my CV once the master’s is done, after all the experience I’ve gained over the summer!
On arrival to the site, the new recruits and I were given a run through procedure and Health & Safety, followed by a tour and explanation of the site by site director Nick Card. This was followed on by a talk about finds and what to look out for while excavating by Anne Mitchell. After the morning briefing the new diggers were split up and sent to various different trenches around site. Kacey, fellow UHI student Hannah and I made our way over to Structure One, which was being excavated under the wonderful guidance of Andy (who was a former MSc graduate with the UHI Archaeology Institute herself). Also part of the Structure One team were my classmates from the Neolithic module in semester two, Fabrizio and Allessandro; as well as Giles and Marc. So we had a solid little team, with a good representation from the Institute as well which was nice.
I spent most of my time working in the midden area between Structures One and Twenty One with Hannah. The midden area was very artefact rich, containing animal bone and more pieces of prehistoric pottery than I can count. It was a constant process of cleaning and taking down the ground level in spits, as midden deposits are very rich in information; so it’s important to keep an eye out for any changes in soil or any possible finds of high importance, which could be missed if the process was just rushed through. Towards the end of the first week, our patience paid off as Hannah discovered a large vessel within the midden area. Exciting as the find was she then had the arduous and difficult task of lifting the vessel, which she did expertly and the pottery survived intact.
My own time to shine came the following week, when on my second last day on The Ness I brought the ‘Luck of the Irish’ in full force with me to site. Having only seen and heard about miniature pots found at The Ness off Anne the previous day while I was discussing finds with the ‘Digging up the Past’ workshop; I was fortunate enough to find two of these little pots in the one day!
While trowelling back in the midden area just near the exterior wall of Structure Twenty One I came across an oddly shaped piece of pot. Had there not been the discussion with Anne the previous day, the odd shape of the pot when the first glimpse of it was revealed from the ground, may not have stood out so much. I called Andy over and her excitement about the find made me realise it was fairly significant. Unfortunately the pot wasn’t fully intact when found, with the top missing. There were a few incisions on the exterior of the pot but it is difficult to judge whether these were deliberate or just random. There have been a few of these thumb pots found over the years, but as of yet their exact use and function remains a mystery. My own favourite theory about the pots is that they could be prehistoric shot glasses, although given the size of the pots, the Neolithic people would have had to be drinking some fairly strong concoctions!
One pot would have been regarded a great day anyway, but I wasn’t finished yet. As the clouds began to darken and approach, the rain began to fall, and the team began preparations for covering up the site until the morning. I was just finishing cleaning up the loose soil when I noticed the base of something sticking out of the ground around the same area where the first pot was found. This time I knew exactly what it was! With pack up for the day looming and the weather worsening, I decided to save the pot from possible damage from being left out in the elements overnight. Upon safely removing it from the ground I knew I made the right choice as this pot was in a lot better condition than the first one and possessed clear incisions. Andy couldn’t believe it when I popped up with another pot, and Nick and Anne were delighted; this time more so as there was still soil contained within it.
Onsite pottery specialist Roy Towers judged the second pot to be different than the previous thumb pot, his thinking is that this was an imitation pot and would have mimicked a large vessel. The material that fills it will have to be examined carefully and possibly analysed for pot residue, but the expectation is that the base of the imitation pot will be flat on the interior, just like a full-size pot and in contrast with the often-rounded base interior of thumb pots.
When the second pot was found Roy was in the middle of a tour and in astonishment had to pause briefly while examining the pot. I ended up getting a round of applause off the 50 strong tour group, so it was an unexpected and added bonus to go with the finds I guess haha. I even got the blog for the day called after me ‘Luck of the Irish’ and as fate would have it, it would have to be Day 33 and all! Rick thought it was hilarious due to the ‘th’ coupled with the ‘r’ sound, which has already been discussed in my previous blog about the Skaill excavations (see blog at archaeologyorkney.com for inside on joke); but Rick is probably just jealous it wasn’t him who found the pots.
The following evening was the end of site party, and marked the departure of many of the Ness of Brodgar team who had been working on the site over the summer. Nick graciously had the whole team over to his house, and everyone celebrated the season’s great work and progress made over the few weeks. As we all sat around the fire pit Nick thanked all the team for their hard work over the summer, and reiterated how The Ness was like a family, and how great it was to see faces again who had been there previous summers. Everyone had a great time, with a fire spinning show (provided by Andy), singalongs, laughter, fake tattoos and maybe a beverage or two consumed; but it was a lovely way to bring official excavation proceedings to an end, and a good note to mark my end of involvement with the excavations.
My final day of involvement with The Ness would be at the Open Day. As the majority of the lecturers from the Skaill excavation were away at the time and on Anne’s suggestion; I was given the task of running a stall and communicating some of our findings from the season to the public. Having played such a major role in the Skaill excavations myself and having only recently completed the blog post on the experience this was a great opportunity and the day went off really successfully. I discussed the history of the site, the team’s findings from the season and even had a few finds with me to show visitors on the day. The Stenness Hall had a constant flow of visitors throughout the day, who came for a look having already been to see the magnificence of the Ness of Brodgar in the flesh. On site however, The Ness proved its importance and wide appeal yet again with over 1,100 people visiting the site on the Open Day.
As part of my Work Placement focusing on outreach and social media use in archaeology, I also had the pleasure of taking part lending a hand with two ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops as well as helping out my supervisor and Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist Dan Lee in hosting a group from Connect. These were fantastic opportunities to be a part of and it was great to introduce archaeology to people who have never dug before. As well as getting tours of the site and talks about finds, participants were able to get an insight into the archaeological process as a whole and having a go at specialist workshops with Chris Gee (stone working) and Dr Ingrid Mainland (animal bones). It was also particularly great to see the joy and excitement on the faces of the participants when they uncovered finds from the ground (all of which were added to the site’s find collection as a whole). I even surprised myself in how much I had learned about The Ness in a week, when I was conducting the site tours for ‘Digging up the Past’ in Dan’s absence the second week.
My experience at The Ness is one I won’t forget quickly. Besides my luck with finding the two miniature pots, it was great to meet up with people again who I had been working with at The Cairns such as Rick and Gary (A Team for life!). It was a very worthwhile and enriching experience also to be a part of the two ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops while on site, and great to see the fantastic work HES Rangers and UHI staff conduct as part of those activities. It was also a brilliant experience just to be a part of an excavation on that scale, having been on smaller projects the previous weeks on Rousay and Sanday; the first few days were a bit of an adjustment, but it was a great comparison and shows the potential that archaeological sites have up here in Orkney to capture the public’s attention.
I would like to express my thanks to site director Nick Card, for not only allowing me the chance to take part in the excavations on The Ness of Brodgar, but who also kindly offered some time out of his ridiculously busy schedule on-site to sit down with me and talk about how The Ness has developed and expanded over time; not only in a physical sense with the trenches but also in terms of outreach and media attention. It was a great insight into the excavation itself and also very helpful in relation to my own placement aims with the institute.
I would also like to thank Anne Mitchell, who was very helpful onsite and also instrumental in pinning down my role in The Ness Open Day. Anne’s role in the excavations in general is absolutely crucial and Nick described her as an ‘indispensable’ part of the team, especially behind the scenes. I also want to thank Sigurd Towrie who I liaised with every day, discussing social media agendas and was very helpful in finding a role for myself in using material for the UHI social media accounts.
Also a massive shout out to all the volunteers and students who endured long days and early mornings of tiring work, I think all would agree it was worth it in the end! I was only onsite for 2 weeks myself due to my involvement in other excavations, but some of the team members were working at The Ness from start to finish all summer; so a massive admiration and appreciation must go their way, which was reiterated by Nick at the end of site party. A large amount of gratitude also goes to all those who work behind the scenes not only during the excavation period, but throughout the year cataloguing finds, etc. There’s too many people to name but Nick holds you all in the highest regards and The Ness ‘machine’ would not be able to run without your continued hard work and effort.
As massive and globally known as The Ness of Brodgar is, only 10% of the site has been uncovered so far, and unfortunately there is no real constant source of funding coming into the site. The only way the site keeps going and excavations continue each summer is from the kind donations given by the public. If this has peaked your interest in the site or if you have already been, and want to keep The Ness of Brodgar going for not only future generations to enjoy, but for the team to come back again next summer, donations big and small are very welcome, information can be found on the website. Your continued support and interest in the site is very much appreciated by all!
Also can’t sign off without giving another shout out to Kirkwall Accies (last time I promise). I may have turned up to The Ness Open Day with a slight sporting injury from a football final the day before, but as they say ‘No pain, no gain, we won the final and completed the Double! Hon Accies!
Well this blog officially brings an end to my Placement with the institute this summer. I will have one more blog to come out in the near future about my experience at the newly formed Islay Heritage Project, run by the University of Reading and UHI, but for the next few weeks I’ll be putting the head in the books and attempt to transfer my crazy summer of digging into an academic paper. Thanks for all the support and interest shown in my blogs and social media posts over the summer! I’ll see ye all on the other side (hopefully)!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill, Ross Drummond. UHI MSc Archaeological Practice student
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 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.
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.”
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.
The site is run through the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the UHI Archaeology Institute.
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 email@example.com for a chat on your options.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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?
“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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or see our website.
The time of year is upon us again when hundreds of people migrate to Orkney for two months in the summer to take part in one of the most exciting Neolithic archaeological excavations in Europe.
Volunteers and students from around the world are starting to arrive in Orkney to take part in the 2017 Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig which starts 5th July 2017 and continues until 23rd August 2017.
Under the direction of Nick Card, Site Director, the volunteers are preparing themselves for the arduous task of removing the coverings that protect the four-thousand-year-old structures. Only then can the archaeological work begin.
The ongoing excavations at the Ness turn up new discoveries on an almost daily basis, many without parallel and they are changing our perceptions of the past. This year will be particularly exciting as we dig deeper into the past and uncover new insights into the world of Orcadian Neolithic society….New questions remain to be answered – What is the purpose of the structure discovered under the midden at the very end of last year? It is currently wide open to interpretation, but as far as we can tell it is unique. What new discoveries will be unearthed in Trench X that leads down to the Loch of Stenness? What will the detailed analysis of the floor layers in Trench P tell us about the use of these enigmatic stone structures and the people who used them?
It is now becoming clearer just how complex and in many ways, puzzling Neolithic society was in Orkney. The new trenches have brought archaeologists face to face with the utterly unknown. As the excavation develops we will continue to tell the world about the remarkable Neolithic discoveries through the new website (http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/), our social media, the dig diary and video reporting – something totally new this year as Simon Gray, one of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc students, creates a video diary of the whole summer dig.
The dig is open to the public from 5th July until 23rd August and Open Days are being held on Sunday 16th July and Sunday 20th August when everyone is welcome to take part in activities across the site and at Stenness Community Centre.
Dates: open to the public from Wednesday 5th July to Wednesday 23rd August
Standing Stone at the Ness of Brodgar-Painting by Jeanne
Stromness High Street
Support for the Ness comes in many forms, but strolling through Stromness with my family I came across, quite unexpectedly, someone who has boundless enthusiasm for the place…a native of New York, Jeanne Bouza Rose.
The Ness of Brodgar not only attracts attention from archaeologists but, possibly due to the location and presence of Neolithic art, has developed a following amongst artists around the world.
Jeanne Bouza Rose is an artist who has made her home in Orkney and, despite running a successful art and studio and teaching gallery, finds time to support the Ness. Among the incredible pictures of the Orkney monuments, landscape and buildings, Jeanne has found time to produce artworks that help support the work at the Ness.
Jeanne adds, “Colour, light, clouds, wind, standing stones…all things that inspire me to reach beyond my normal life…..Orkney has been a constant source of joy for my art. It is a land strewn with history from the Neolithic World Heritage sites, through the World Wars and now it is making history by drawing world-class culture to the magnetic north of Scotland.”
The Ness of Brodgar has quite rightly attracted a great deal of attention over the last few months, especially with the new BBC2 documentary series, Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney hitting the screen.
Nick Card and the team can now confirm the schedule for this season’s introductory talk, the excavation itself and Open Days.
The Orkney Archaeology Society Ness of Brodgar talk will take place on 15th June at 19.00 in the Orkney Theatre.
The excavation will be open from Wednesday 5th July to Wednesday 23rd August.
Tours are available and will be conducted by team members at 11 and 1 Mon-Fri and by Historic Environment Scotland Rangers at 3 pm each day. Archaeologists will be on site most weekdays. However please check the Ness of Brodgar Trust website for up to date information as the weather has a habit of intervening at times!
Tours are also conducted at 1100 & 1500 on Saturday and Sunday during the dig season, but there will be no archaeologists on site during the weekend.
Open Days are being held on Sunday 16th July and Sunday 20th August. Last year over 1200 people attended each event and we are hoping for more this year. All are welcome…and there will be activities for the whole family, so bring along the children for a Neolithic Day out!
On seeing the sheer scale of the excavation visitors to the site frequently ask,”Who pays for all this?” We do not charge for admission and the tours are also free. You can stay as long as you wish. You can ask the archaeologists questions. You can even bring along activities and spend all day there. You will be made most welcome.
So who funds all the work?? Well, the answer is that the project is mainly supported by public donation through the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar with support from a plethora of other people who give their money or their time or both to help. This includes Orkney Islands Council (who recognise the economic and cultural importance of archaeology in Orkney), Orkney Archaeology Society (who amongst other things organise the running of the massively important on-site shop), and the UHI Archaeology Institute.
However, the whole project could not happen without donations from the public….from you reading this, all the other people who visit the website and donate a few pounds or indeed on some occasions thousands of pounds, the people who visit the site and buy a few items from the shop or sponsor a square. This funding is what makes it happen.
Nick and the team would also like to thank all the volunteers who give up their time to work on the site and make the whole project work like clockwork.
If you wish to help support the project then please go to the Ness of Brodgar website and if you can, donate a few quid. Many thanks from the Ness of Brodgar team.
Nick Card, Site Director Ness of Brodgar, looks forward to presenting the exciting story of the Neolithic site to members of the Archaeological Institute of America.
A series of lectures have been arranged to detail the secrets of the spectacular Ness of Brodgar Neolithic complex to members of The Archaeological Institute of America in February and March 2017.
Public engagement in archaeology is integrated into the work we do at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute – whether that is through digital media, public involvement in community archaeology, open days at our sites or presenting research findings directly through lectures.
This lecture tour in the United States and Canada now gives us an additional opportunity to engage people on the North American continent face to face and in many cases thank them for their continued support and interest over the last 14 years.
Due to the level of interest generated in the Ness of Brodgar, lectures are being added as I write this, but to date, the tour takes in 16 locations and starts on 16th February and finishes on April 2nd. Nick will travel over 12,000 km in the process!
The lecture tour has been made possible by the generous award of the Samuel H Kress Lectureship for 2016-17 by the Archaeological Institute of America. Nick would like to express his gratitude for this award.