Report: The Ness of Brodgar – a Millennium of Prehistory in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site

On the 10th October the regular Department of Archaeology postgraduate seminar had a special guest – Nick Card from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA). Nick was magnanimous enough to talk to the department while he was here in Australia on holidays, the joys of academia! (It was also a novelty for us to hear a Scottish accent, half of our department are English, but Scottish is so much more fun). His talk focussed on the exciting new finds from the Ness of Brodgar site which is part of the wider World Heritage Site of “the Heart of Neolithic Orkney” on the Orkney mainland. This World Heritage Site includes Neolithic sites such as Maes Howe, Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.  The site lies on a very thin stretch of land between two lochs – the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness. As I write this Neil Oliver has eerily popped up on my TV in his programme “Sacred Wonders of Britain” talking about the Ness in episode 1 – well worth a look.

Nick Card talking to Neil Oliver on the program (dodgy snap of my tv sorry!)

Nick Card talking to Neil Oliver on the program (dodgy snap of my tv sorry!)

The Ness and these other sites form part of a highly dynamic and, I found, surprisingly densely populated (5-10,000 people!) landscape in the Neolithic period. Before I go on with the rest of the report about Nick’s seasons at the Ness, I am sure many of the readers are wondering why something about Neolithic Orkney is on a Medieval blog? Well firstly this landscape of Orkney is amazing and awe-inspiring no matter what academic background you come from, and secondly the Orkneys were a major Viking focal point. Many of the ancient stones have Norse graffiti, it is a landscape with near continuous settlement for over 5000 years. Many of the folk tales surrounding these monuments can be traced back to the early medieval period and the Vikings.

The Ness of Brodgar site between the two lochs

The Ness of Brodgar site between the two lochs

At the beginning of the project they used good old geophysics, Lidar and aerial photography. The last two aerial techniques have covered over 300Ha of the island, uncovering an amazing amount of new archaeology. A famous saying Nick kept reminding us of is “if you scratch the surface of Orkney it bleeds archaeology,” and this certainly appears very true. The site is just one of many new archaeological sites found on the island. The first round of geophys saw John from Time Team come up and survey the area, however now they have their own dedicated unit. The geophys results turned up a lot of targets for excavation, which have yielded some extremely interesting finds.

There have been a variety of techniques applied to the site:

  • C14 Dating
  • Magnetometry
  • RHX
  • OLS Dating
  • Flotation
  • Pollen cores
  • Micromorphology
  • PXRF
  • ‘Smart Fauna’ (this is really intriguing and I’ll mention it later)

IMG_2747            IMG_2746

I won’t recount everything Nick covered in his talk, it was very detailed, fantastically so, but I’ll highlight some of what I found was the most interesting points brought up.

Firstly the structures 

I could go on and on about all of the amazing structures they have uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar site. Even though I’m a medieval archaeologist I still have a special soft spot for the Neolithic – maybe its a product of being trained in Australia by mostly prehistorians, or maybe its because I did a high-school ancient history project on Newgrange and the Bru na Boinne complex, but the structures with their magnitude and exceptional stone working and engineering are enough for any archaeologist to marvel at. There is evidence of multiple stages of buildings at the site with up to 150 buildings over the 1000 year span – for instance Structure 1 has over 14 floor layers. Many of them are what we might term lozenge shaped and include piers and buttresses, with everything made of stone, including the roofs. All the stone is local to Orkney, however each structure is made of a different type of stone from separate sites around the island chain. Neil Oliver, in his documentary, noted this same phenomena in the stone circles on Orkney and proposed that this may be a way of uniting the communities across the island – each stone representing a tribe or family group in an important monument. It is certainly an interesting thought. These buildings have a very similar structure to the chamber tombs, yet they tend to have hearths and the ‘stone dressers’ of domestic houses. Structure 10 is truly monumental, replacing the lozenge shaped interiors with a cruciform internal chamber. This is very like Maes Howe, and like the Howe it incorporates standing stones into the structure and is in fact aligned with the tomb. It is most decidedly NOT a tomb, featuring a hearth and ‘dresser’ as mentioned before. According to Card it is likely to be more esoteric in function and he made lots of allusions to similar structures in Central Asia and the Near East.

a cgi reconstruction on Neil Oliver's program with Neil and Nick standing next to it - note the stone roof

A CGI reconstruction on Neil Oliver’s program with Neil and Nick standing next to it – note the stone roof

Secondly the art

The trademark of the Ness is the sheer amount of Neolithic art. Some of it is obvious, and some is very ephemeral. Many of the stones either incorporated into the buildings or standing stones had pecking tool refinement to dress the slabs. There is also plenty of geometric art similar to the patterns found at sites in Ireland like Newgrange (I’ve been there, amazing and well worth the trip!). There were several gorgeous polished stone artefacts uncovered – mostly axes and the like. However the best of all, and here Nick got very passionate, was a carved and polished stone ball. It has 6 knobs asymmetrically placed around the sphere. There are hundreds of such objects from over Scotland but only 2-3 of them have ever been found in context – this was an exceptional find (so much so that Nick had offered a very good bottle of single malt whiskey for anyone who found one on the site – sadly the student who found it doesn’t like whiskey – such a waste!)

the amazing stone ball find - picture from

The amazing stone ball find – picture from

Thirdly the “Crack of Doom” and the World’s Largest BBQ

The giant crack that the team were worried about actually pointed to a large midden. In that deposit they found a huge Neolithic cattle skull – possibly related to an auroch – and it’s the largest ever found in Neolithic Britain. There was a lot of animal bones around the site with what appears to be a deliberate laying out of fauna remains numbering 400-600 animals right at the end of the period of use of the Ness. This is where the ‘smart fauna’ analysis was used. This giant animal slaughtering event coincides with the arrival of new pottery styles in the Iron Age. It was Neil Oliver who called this event possibly the “world’s largest BBQ”. Card seemed to suggest the Iron Age brought about some kind of very abrupt and significant end for this major Neolithic site, but why exactly is left up to the imagination.

So what is this site all about?

Nick Card provided lots of different hypotheses for what is happening on this site. It is not a totally “religious” or “sacred” site like Maes Howe or the standing stones, nor does it have a solidly domestic signature like Skara Brae. It does not appear to be occupied all year round and Nick describes it as a “monumentalised domestic” signature. It has a massive wall surrounding it and as mentioned above the buildings are all bigger than most other sites; there is also a lot of artwork. Clearly this site had some special significance to be so monumental and used for over a thousand years, but just what that is, we may never know. Check out the National Geographic interpretation of the site for a potential reconstruction.

It was a fascinating talk and I would like to thank Nick Card for giving up his time to speak to us during his holiday and over a lunchtime (it’s a brutal time-slot).

For more information about the project and the site click here and here. For those of you around Sydney Uni, Nick Card will be speaking again for the Celtic Foundation on the 23rd of October – further information and RSVPs through Jonathan Wooding.


  1. Pingback: Rolling Across The Atlantic | MalagaBay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s