Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney – Book Review


Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context. Antonia Thomas. Archaeopress. 2016

Caroline Wickham-Jones kindly wrote a detailed review of Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney, which was subsequently published in The Orcadian newspaper this week. Caroline writes….

We are all used to reading media snippets about amazing structures and spectacular artefacts from Orkney’s Neolithic past. How refreshing therefore to have a whole book devoted to one aspect in detail. Even more exciting: a book that takes information from our newest and most enigmatic site at Ness of Brodgar, and puts it into context with information from two of our oldest sites: Skara Brae and Maeshowe. Finally, and the icing on the cake, it is readable.

img_1444Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney is a handsome volume; it is well illustrated and clearly set out. It is designed to be read from cover to cover but in fact there is a lot of detail here and it also makes for an excellent ‘dipping’ book. The main thrust, as you might guess, is to provide an overview of the amazing suite of decorated stones found within the structures of Neolithic Orkney through detailed studies of these three key sites. Within each site, particular case studies are set out.

It is a comprehensive piece of work, taking us first through a history of the archaeological study of art, and then providing a brief guide to the Neolithic art of Britain and Ireland. This helps to put Orkney art into context, though one cannot help wondering, given the thoroughness of the present research and the ephemeral nature of many of the pieces recorded, whether decorated stones might be under represented outside of Orkney. Many of the pieces here were unknown before Thomas’ research.

We are led deeper into a fascinating detailed consideration of the individual sites. With regard to Skara Brae and Ness of Brodgar a wealth of useful material is provided, including up-to-date breakdowns of the architectural remains and stratigraphy. Even for Maeshowe, a site which you might think had been well published in all its glory, Thomas finds angles and information that have not been presented before.

After this is it time for some serious discussion and analysis. In common with archaeological thought today, Thomas has moved far beyond the old-fashioned ‘Art Historical’ approach and even beyond the ‘Technological/Functional’ approach that was all the rage when I graduated. You won’t find an explanation of ‘meaning’, nor detailed discussions of manufacture, but hopefully any disappointment will be assuaged by learning new ways of thinking about the pieces. Rather than focusing on possible interpretations of Neolithic Art as a sort of code from the past, Thomas teaches us to consider the ways in which it was used and how it may have functioned as part of everyday life.

This is done through three different examinations: first, the processes of incorporating material into Neolithic structures; second, the lifespan (often brief) of art as a visible element; and third the wider context of community and identity in Neolithic Orkney. We are never going to know exactly what the makers of the ‘Brodgar Butterfly’ or the Skara Brae Lozenges meant by them, just as we don’t know what Leonardo intended to convey in the Mona Lisa’s smile, or Banksy with his graffiti. But we can start to think about the roles that these pieces of art played in relationship to their surroundings and those who frequented them.

In this way, Thomas has identified very specific and differing forms of creation and deposition. For me perhaps the most surprising elements are the ways in which design appears to be less important than creation, and existence more important than visibility. Is this indeed ‘art’ as we understand it? Only in the way in which a hidden tattoo or plasterer’s doodle might be so defined.

There is a lot to take in. There is a lot to think about. It is a book that will linger and enrich any exploration of the remains of Neolithic Orkney. The ‘art’ itself is just wonderful, it was clearly an integral part of the lives of our Neolithic ancestors. I can’t help a slight regret that I’m still so far from ‘reading’ it, but I now know so much more about those who tramped the passages and halls of the past. I’m happy.

The book is based on Antonia Thomas’ PhD thesis (itself an exemplary piece of work I am told), and she has done an impressive job, not just in completing the thesis but in producing a publication less than a year after attaining her doctorate. It marks the inauguration of the Archaeology Institute’s Research Publications, judging by the ongoing projects in the Institute one can only wait with excitement for the next volumes in the series. Meanwhile, if you have an interest in the lives of those who lived and farmed in Orkney five thousand years ago, I urge you to go out and buy it.

Caroline Wickham-Jones

For more things archaeology see Caroline’s brilliant blog at

Published by Archaeopress, this publication forms the first in a series by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and it is available in print and e-format from and is priced at £45 for the paperback and £19 for the eBook.


Dr. Antonia Thomas Book Launch and Talk


Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney-Process, Temporality and Context is now on sale online.

To celebrate the publication of this excellent work, the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are joining up with OAS, to hold an event in which Dr. Antonia Thomas will give an illustrated talk about the research behind her PhD.

  • Discounted copies of the book will be on sale
  • Venue: Orkney College UHI, East Road, Kirkwall, Orkney
  • Time: 7.30pm
  • Date: 2nd November 2016
  • Refreshments will be available

Published by Archaeopress, this publication forms the first in a series by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and it is available in print and e-format from and is priced at £45 for the paperback and £19 for the eBook. There will be a discount for any books bought at the event.

Archaeopress writes…..The Neolithic sites of Orkney include an impressive number of stone-built tombs, ceremonial monuments and – uniquely for northern Europe – contemporary dwellings. Many of these buildings survive in a remarkable state of preservation, allowing an understanding of the relationship between architectural space and the process of construction that is rarely achievable. Until recently, however, relatively little has been known about the decoration of these sites.

This book addresses that gap to offer a groundbreaking analysis of Neolithic art and architecture in Orkney. Focussing upon the incredible collection of hundreds of decorated stones being revealed by the current excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, it details the results of the author’s original fieldwork both there and at the contemporary sites of Maeshowe and Skara Brae, all within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

It provides the first major discussion of Orkney’s Neolithic carvings, and uses these as a springboard to challenge many of the traditional assumptions relating to Neolithic art and architecture. By foregrounding the architectural context of mark-making, this book explores how both buildings and carvings emerge though the embodied social practice of working stone, and how this relates to the wider context of life in Neolithic Orkney.

258 pages, illustrated throughout in colour and black and white.

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Research Series 1

Book available to buy online

Paperback: ISBN 9781784914332

eBook:  9781784914349


Making a Ness of Brodgar Carved Stone Ball



The lives of the people who built the Ness of Brodgar are surrounded in mystery. Research can help us develop theories about how they led their lives and perhaps how they organised their society, but some things will probably defy explanation for some time to come.

There have been many theories concerning the use of this carved stone ball found at the Ness, but of course we will probably never know for certain why it was carved. However we can propose how it was carved by making one, using the same tools as the Neolithic farmers; combined with a good eye for proportion!

And so Chris Gee of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute set out to remake a Ness of Brodgar carved stone ball using just stone tools and no complicated maths. Chipping away over a period of one week, Chris managed to make a perfect replica of a Ness carved stone ball. The pictures he took show the various stages in the process….


Chris writes….”This shows the various stages in the creation of a carved stone ball shaped only using other rocks found in Orkney. It is based on the Ness of Brodgar ball, particularly the arrangement of the six discs. Otherwise I have chosen to leave the discs fairly large with a sharper shoulders, and also chosen to include the effect of a smaller sphere which the discs sit upon. This can be seen in other carved stone balls. The rock is from an igneous trap dyke and was found on the shore near Skara Brae.”

At least one mystery is now solved….

For more information on the Ness of Brodgar click through to

Nick Card to Present at World Archaeology Congress – Kyoto, Japan


When Nick Card finishes work on one of the world’s most exciting Neolithic archaeological excavations, he is boarding a plane and flying to Japan to present to the World Archaeology Congress.

The paper is entitled The Ness of Brodgar – What can the past do for our future?…..examining the role that archaeology can play in the wider social and economic life of a community.

Nick writes…..Archaeology has always been the linchpin in Orkney’s tourism due to its range of iconic monuments. In recognition of its importance, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site was designated in 1999. This catalogue of outstanding archaeological sites was added to in 2004 with the discovery  of the site of the Ness of Brodgar. The Ness has subsequently grown to an internationally-recognised excavation, attracting thousands of visitors. The publicity generated not only benefits Orkney’s archaeology, but also Orkney’s wider economy. The Ness is used as a case study to show how the past can directly have relevance for today.

The congress paper is by invitation and is funded by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture.




Intriguing Structure Found in Trench T

Trench T
Trench T seen from South East

It is a given in archaeology, that the most perplexing finds are unearthed in the final stages of a dig. So, as the dig at Ness of Brodgar in Orkney started the final week, some of the most intriguing finds of the season started to be unearthed in a trench which goes under the title of ‘Trench T’.

This area of the site is not open to the public, but is part of a research programme to discover what lies beneath the largest Neolithic midden yet discovered in north Scotland.

The Ness of Brodgar site itself is no stranger to discoveries, with human remains, possible Neolithic seaweed, rock art and of course the structures themselves giving archaeologists many things to think about Neolithic society in the last few weeks. However, nothing prepared the site director Nick Card and supervisor Ben Chan for the discovery made this week in Trench T.

As digging progressed, the archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute became more and more excited. A structure unlike any other discovered so far at the Ness was emerging from the midden. It was huge being nearly 10 metres wide internally and of unknown length as it disappeared out of the trench, but the construction – the way it was built – seemed to be unique. Although the outer wall faces were constructed of fine, large masonry the inner wall faces were much rougher. However, these inner faces would have been hidden behind upright orthostats ‘cladding’ the interior. More amazing was the size of large prone orthostats that helped support the upright slabs and pinned them in place against the inner wall faces. The only one that has been fully exposed is over 4 metres in length, but there are others, only partially revealed that could be longer!

The excitement intensified as the archaeologists realised that this structure was probably built before the main structures present on the site and that it had been deliberately buried by the huge midden.

The mystery deepened as more questions were asked. Where do these huge stones originate? They have rounded edges that suggest they were weathered or worked in the same way that some of the standing stones at Stenness appear to be. They are smaller than the surviving nearby Watch Stone, but road widening in the 1920’s unearthed evidence for a twin for the Watch Stone. Could these two stones have been part of another stone circle that was mainly dismantled?

Trench T Close up
Close up of the orthostats in Trench T

Nick Card Site Director suggests, “The sheer size and scale of the stones unearthed are unprecedented on this site. The way the stones are built into the construction is also unique to the Ness. This all suggests that they may have been re-used and taken from elsewhere. Perhaps they may be part of a stone circle that pre-dates the main Ness site. It is all a bit of mystery and we won’t know more until we do more work.”

Other questions also remain unanswered for the moment. Was this structure roofed? If so then how was such a space spanned. Was this indeed, the first building on the site? What was it used for? Was it a chambered tomb? In any event it was clearly a special structure to the people who built it, but why was it covered in the largest Neolithic rubbish dump in Scotland?

As the digging season comes to a close it is a fact that these questions will only be answered through more research and more hard work next year.

Many thanks are due to James Robertson at who completed the drone photography and video work for free.

The Ness of Brodgar – The Site that Keeps on Giving.

The excavation season at The Ness of Brodgar has just a few weeks to run. So it is a good time to take stock.  Site Director Nick Card talks about the findings so far….

There are usually a few minutes in the day when there is time to muse on the continuing discoveries made at The Ness of Brodgar. Nick Card, Site Director, sat on the small, battered, wooden bench next to Structure 10 and, leaning back on the tyre wall, talked about the discoveries that were emerging this season.

Nick started by saying that he is always amazed by the continued interest in this site. Despite the worst that an Orkney summer can throw at people, they still come.

Last weekend was a case in point. Over 1000 people turned up to the Ness of Brodgar Open Day on one of those Orkney summer days when the rain drives in horizontally and visibility is down to a few yards. Keep in mind that only 20,000 people actually live on Orkney (smaller than the average sized UK town) and you can see the attraction that the Ness holds for people.

We discussed the reasons behind this and came to the conclusion that the dig at the Ness of Brodgar shows archaeology in action. People from around the world can witness Neolithic society being unwrapped before their very eyes. Nick went on to talk about a visitor from the USA who stated, when viewing the site, that he had “finally made it here”. The visitor had seen the coverage in The National Geographic and had travelled over 8,000 miles to see the site. It was a destination for him and a reason to visit our small island in the North Atlantic. Nick added, “We are also very lucky because we have an experienced team of supervisors who come back year after year. We are also lucky in our volunteers. They travel here under their own expense and work hard to unearth the story of this site.”

Nick went on to outline the salient points that for him stand out this season. The first must be the discovery of human bone under the rebuild of  Structure 10. The discovery of human remains is always tinged with emotion. At some point this bone was part of a person with the same hopes and fears that we all possess in daily lives. Their surroundings were different to ours in a way that we can only imagine, but they surely possessed those same feelings of doubt, fear and hope that we all experience on a daily basis. The remains are of course treated with care and reverence, and on initial examination we can deduce a few features about this individual’s life.

The bone formed part of a human arm and is disarticulated with no signs of injury or de-fleshing. There are no other human remains situated around the deposit. It is never certain how an individual may look from a single bone, but there is evidence of muscle attachment that indicates the person was used to hard physical labour. This was not unusual even in higher echelons of Neolithic society and so we cannot surmise on this individuals social standing by this evidence alone. However, we can suggest that this person was slender, tall, but experienced arthritis.

So where did this isolated bone come from? It was situated under re-used roof slates together with an assemblage of cattle bone under one of the corner buttresses that formed the later remodelling of Structure 10. Could it come from a possible chambered tomb in Trench T? Was the bone a revered ancestral relic that was buried here; perhaps in an attempt to resist the subsidence that was obviously evident in previous buildings? Perhaps it was the Neolithic equivalent of a lucky charm? We cannot possibly know for certain, but this discovery opens just a small window onto Neolithic society and gives us a glimpse into the minds of the people who built this site.

We concluded our discussion on the salient points of the Ness of Brodgar by talking about Trench T. This trench is not as yet open to the public, but is already full of surprises. The trench seems to be digging into a monumental midden, the size of which is unprecedented in Neolithic Britain. There appears to be a substantial (possibly 12m in width!), demolished early Neolithic structure which may pre-date the main site buildings. This in itself is worthy of further discussion, but when combined with the find of a very large animal, possibly even an auroch, makes this area all the more interesting. Has Nick and the team discovered the very earliest structures at The Ness? Structures that are even older than the main structures found so far? Only time and further research will find the answer to that question.

Donations of any amount welcome – thank you!

The Ness of Brodgar Trust (Registered Scottish Charity No: SC044890) exists to support all aspects of the excavation of the massive Neolithic ceremonial complex at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. Please help us to continue the work at this amazing site by making either a one-off single donation or a regular monthly donation (UK bank direct debit only), which helps us to budget for future season’s work. UK taxpayers please Gift Aid your donation to give us 25% more at no extra cost to you.

To donate please click through to


Magic Moments at The Ness Open Day

Yesterday (31st July) was the first Ness of Brodgar Open Day of 2016.There were displays in two locations that helped to tell the story of this amazing site.

The weather added something to the drama of the location by bringing in cloud at zero feet and horizontal rain for a few hours in the afternoon, but over 1000 people still braved the unique Orkney climate to sample a little of the Ness atmosphere.

And they came from all over the world. I talked to an engineer from Canada, a teacher from Wiltshire, a retired couple from Austria in addition to a man who could see the Ness from his kitchen window.

There were children of all ages engaged in activities from making seashell necklaces and pasta art to rope and willow working. There was even a chance to create a monster, create some neolithic art or rebuild Structure 10 in Duplo. And of course view the research work being undertaken by The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

In many respects the Open Day created an experience that gave everyone who visited, a few hours to soak up the atmosphere that makes the Ness a place that visitors return to day after day and year after year.

Talking to one visitor, he suggested that The Ness of Brodgar had a special atmosphere, even on a dull day….It attracted him to the place year after year. He suggested that the place, although a place of work, was also a place in which people feel something special. You only have to visit once to see for yourself.

You can’t help but talk to people who you have never seen before and will probably never see again. The volunteers themselves obviously possess a camaraderie that is hard to explain.  Visitors stand around and for a moment in a busy world start asking questions about the people who built these structures. Some visitors set up easels and paint while others start playing instruments…all take photographs, but not in a way that most people do on holiday, but in a studied way as if recording something special.

For me, what made yesterday a special day was a conversation I had with an Orcadian on a subject that in many respects was not connected to archaeology, but in a way would not have occurred anywhere else. It went something like this….

I started the conversation “Hello…Have you been up to the Ness before?”

“Yes I have and I go every few days to see how it is progressing. It is something special.”

“How long have you lived in Orkney…?”

“Oh. All my life. My family are Orcadian.Our history is here.”

“Oh yes there are many famous Orcadians. Did you know that the first man back on the Mary Celeste was an Orcadian?”

(Pause)….”He was my great grandfather and he told me the story when I was 4 or 5.”

There is another Open Day on the 21st August.

1607310821 Ness open days

Ness of Brodgar Open Day

1607310821 Ness open daysThe Open Day at The Ness of Brodgar are now finalised:

  • Venue: The Ness of Brodgar Archaeological Excavation and Stenness School
  • Date:Sunday 21st August
  • Time: 11am – 4pm. Last tour at 3.30pm.
  • Continuous tours and demonstrations
  • Refreshments available in Stenness Hall

Activities at the Ness site itself include:

  • Dry-stone walling
  • Stone and colour
  • Pot making
  • Flint knapping
  • Wood working
  • The new Ness of Brodgar jewellery range from Ola Gorie
  • Big Raffle with the main prize of a pendant from the Ola Gorie new jewellery range
  • Orkney Archaeology Society shop
  • Guides and finds

Activities at Stenness School include:

  • Stone tools and rocks
  • Animal bones including “Invent an animal”
  • Willow work
  • Stone felting
  • Wash off Neolithic tattoos
  • Shell jewellery extravaganza for all ages!
  • Community Cafe

Parking is available in the field and at the school as usual. The car park now has a covering of hard core which makes parking a lot easier. Signposting will guide you from the Ness of Brodgar to Stenness School.

I’m sorry, but we can’t cater for coach and mini bus parties and any groups larger than 8 people.


Location, Location, Location

One of the attractions of The Ness of Brodgar is the location. Situated on an isthmus between the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray, with the Ring of Brodgar to the north west and the Stones of Stenness to the south east, there are few archaeological sites in the UK that are more beautiful.

It is tempting to get drawn into an examination of the structures and the intricacies of the buildings and wonder at the craftsmanship at the Ness of Brodgar, but it is equally important to view the site within a landscape. This, in many respects, is a central feature of our teaching and work at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute….that the archaeology is seen as part of a past, present and future landscape.

Standing at the Ness, if you raise your eyes from the dig itself, get accustomed to the light, the big sky and the lack of trees, you will notice that the whole area is one huge amphitheatre. To the north, east and west, undulating hills rise up to form a bowl. But to the south the large distant hills possess a different character. The valley sides, that seem to mirror the angle of the Stones of Stenness, are actually on the Island of Hoy – the island that is unlike anywhere else in Orkney. These hills of Hoy draw your eye. Especially on wild weather days in winter when clouds erupt off the summit.

There is little doubt that visitors today think this is a special place -you just have to be there for a few hours to see that .We can also summise that Neolithic people thought the same. Perhaps it is because the area is surrounded by water which is surrounded by land and then by sea – a large model of the wider world?

We will never know, but it is evident that visitors today still think the place is special….and if you need written evidence then just take a few minutes to look at the map completed a few months ago by volunteers surveying the surrounding World Heritage Site.


The finished map. Design & layout: Iain Ashman

Download the map from Community map of the Orkney World Heritage Sites

For more information on the Ness of Brodgar go to

The Amazing Ness of Brodgar

IMG_0632It is easy to become immersed in the archaeology of the Ness of Brodgar….

The sheer scale of the Neolithic archaeology concentrated in one small area, the amazing stonework, the stunning location and of course the incredible artefacts that are continually coming out of the site. Just yesterday the first decorated stone emerged from the ground.

But as I was reminded today, the site as it exists, represents a very small proportion of the whole site; perhaps 10% or even less. This means that this site was huge in terms of the neolithic and if extant today would still be a sizeable settlement (if that is the right word) on Orkney!

The craftmanship involved in the creation of the stonework itself is stunning in several areas across the site. In fact it is the first thing you notice – once you get your eye in. This is not a rough assemblage of stones, piled one on top of another, but a carefully crafted building project that required skill and knowledge to assemble. In many respects the stone looks as if it was set in place last week and is just waiting for the builders to return from their lunch break!


Hopefully this will be the first in a series of blog posts concerning The Ness of Brodgar in which I will explore various themes.

If you want to explore the Ness in full then I recommend clicking through to