The Ness of Brodgar is the name of the thin strip of land, in the West Mainland of Orkney, that separates the lochs of Harray and Stenness. Part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, the Ness is covered in, and surrounded by, archaeology and, until the beginning of the 21st century, was best-known as the site of the Ring of Brodgar.
The dig site lies between the henge monuments of the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar and close to the Neolithic settlement at Barnhouse. Any visitor to the Ness will see why the peninsula was considered an ideal place to construct great ceremonial monuments. It lies in the centre of a massive natural “cauldron” formed by the hills of the surrounding landscape.
In 2002, a geophysical survey — part of a programme to survey the entire Orkney World Heritage Site — revealed a cluster of sub-soil anomalies, “indicative of settlement”, covering an area of 2.5 hectares on the south-eastern end of the Ness of Brodgar.
The sheer concentration of anomalies, and the variation, astonished the archaeologists.
Then, in April 2003, a large, notched, stone slab was ploughed up.
Initially thought to be part of a Bronze Age burial cist, the possibility that human remains had been disturbed led to a rescue excavation by Beverley Ballin-Smith and Gert Petersen, from the Glasgow University Research Division.
There was no cist but what was revealed was part of a large, rectangular building, similar in style to House Two at the nearby Barnhouse Neolithic settlement.
Following the discovery of what we now refer to as Structure One, a resistivity survey was carried out to try to define the extent of the built archaeology and complement the initial gradiometer survey. The results confirmed that something large and complex lay under the soil, so further investigations began.
To examine the nature, depth and extent of these suspected archaeological deposits, eight test-trenches were placed across the site in 2004. They confirmed that much of the mounded ridge on the south-eastern end of the Ness is artificial – made up of structures and middens all dating from the Neolithic.
The Ness of Brodgar excavations, now managed by the UHI Archaeology Institute and the Ness of Brodgar Trust, confirmed what was already suspected — that there was a mass of archaeology on the tip of the Ness of Brodgar. Little did we know then that this structure was just a fragment of a massive Neolithic complex on the Ness — a prehistoric site that is turning our understanding of Neolithic Orkney on its head.
At its zenith, in the main phase that we are currently exploring (dating from c.3100BC), the Ness was dominated by huge freestanding buildings enclosed by a massive stone wall.
This was much more than a domestic settlement: the size, quality, and architecture of these structures, together with evidence for tiled roofs, coloured walls, and hundreds of 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.
Although the site’s function no doubt changed over time, during this peak period we can see that it was a place of meeting, of coming together for people from all over Orkney and probably from outside the archipelago too.
Why? The archaeology suggests that they were feasting and exchanging ideas and objects, while the site may have also hosted rituals and celebrations of the important “political” and celestial events that were important to this evidently vibrant society.