Thoughts on Ness of Brodgar

My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passage way running between the two.
My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passageway running between the two.

I’m often asked about the site at Ness of Brodgar. It is an amazing place, and a fascinating excavation to visit. But I have to say that I am quite glad not to be a part of the project team. Ness is clearly very, very complex and exploring the history of a site like that is not an easy task. I can remember visiting Lionel Masters when he was excavating the long cairn at Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness and feeling quite overwhelmed by all the stone work there. I have the same feeling at Ness of Brodgar. I don’t envy Nick Card and his colleagues the work that lies ahead as they follow and unravel the threads of human activity that have gone to make up the site.

It is a rare and exciting opportunity, however, to see a side of Neolithic life that we have only just begun to explore in Scotland: we have some detail of the houses and communities in which people lived; we have information on the great chambered tombs they built to house at least some of their dead and where we think people may have gathered as part of the cementing of local identities; we even have the great stone circles and henge sites where a wider expression of society is likely to have taken place. Ness shows us that there was more to life than that. Whatever it was, and we have yet to see the interpretations founded on painstaking analysis that will no doubt arise in years to come, it was clearly an important part of life in Neolithic Orkney.

One thing that fascinates me is the way in which (at a superficial level) Ness takes everything we know about Neolithic Scotland and magnifies it. It is deeply rooted in Neolithic building traditions across Scotland. Structure One, the earliest to be recorded, is similar to house two at nearby Barnhouse village. Both incorporate structural features seen in the houses at Skara Brae and, curiously, research suggests that ‘Skara Brae’ type structures may have been a common form of Neolithic house, built in timber elsewhere in Britain (at Durrington Walls for example).  Structure Ten, the great ‘temple’ building, has some resemblance to structure eight at Barnhouse, but is a much more complex building and incorporates an angularity in its outer wall that sets it aside from this. I’ve written earlier about the way in which movement inside these structures is mimicked in the arrangements elsewhere, at sites like Stonehenge.

Structure Ten aside, perhaps the most notable buildings at Ness of Brodgar are Structures Eight and Twelve, both beautifully built, both divided internally by stone piers which separate the space into bays, and both with curious ‘porches’ at one end. The obvious parallel to draw here would be to the Stalled Cairns, built in Early Neolithic Orkney to house the dead and provide a focal centre for individual communities. There is also a parallel to the Early Neolithic houses in Orkney, perhaps evidenced best at recently excavated sites like Braes of Ha’Breck on Wyre. But there is another striking parallel and that lies in the great timber halls of Early Neolithic Scotland, examples of which have recently been excavated from Aberdeenshire (eg at Crathes and Balbridie), to the southwest (eg Lockerbie).  Indeed, many of them are almost the same size as the structures at Ness, though the dates suggest that they may have been built as early as 3800 BC.

Perhaps there is actually more unity to the range of Neolithic buildings across the UK than we realise. I wonder whether the durability of the stone building materials used in Orkney have resulted in us ascribing more sophistication to them in relation to buildings elsewhere than we perhaps should. The function of the timber halls is, after all, hotly debated: were they straightforward houses? Or something more complex? Kirsty Millican has provided an interesting discussion of the available evidence in a new publication on Neolithic Scotland edited by Kenny Brophy, Gavin MacGregor and Ian Ralston. And it must be the case, surely, that other sites like Ness of Brodgar await discovery? Ness, itself, took over 150 years to be revealed amongst the well-known Orcadian monuments; other sites, made of timber would be far harder to expose.

Of course, Ness, as we know it so far, is merely the most recent manifestation of the buildings on site. You will know, if you have visited, that the excavation today sits atop a substantial mound of anthropogenic material that has built-up; excavation this year uncovered stonework well down in the stratigraphy, and every year it seems that there are new dates from lower samples that push activity on site back and back.  It does make one wonder what glories have yet to be discovered. If this was the finale – what can the origins have been like?

Ness of Brodgar is a remarkable site, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that it was rooted within the community of Neolithic Orkney, and perhaps further afield across the UK. It no doubt played a pivotal role for the early farmers of Orkney, but when they built here they were clearly drawing on their expertise and experience. The architects took the familiar and created something unfamiliar – that was their skill and out of that they were able to create an exceptional place. Now it is our turn (or rather the turn of Nick and his team), to work backwards and re-create the stories of life there and the way in which it came into being.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Ness of Brodgar and its role in the world of Neolithic Britain it would be worth setting your television to record the new series on BBC Two starting next Monday at 9pm. It gives you a fabulous overview of Neolithic Orkney and current theories regarding its place in the world.