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  • Writer's pictureScience & Environment

Ness of Brodgar: Twenty Years On

A revisit to Ness of Brodgar, an extraordinary Neolithic site, after two decades of discoveries

By Georgie Burns


Photograph of the Excavation of the Ness of Brodgar by John W. Schulze via Flickr


The Ness of Brodgar, only a ferry ride away in Orkney, is one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world, with thousands visiting every year.


If you have not yet visited Orkney, these islands are rich with remnants of our prehistoric history, ranging from stone circles to ancient villages and tombs. Landmarks across the archipelago have attracted visitors for centuries, capturing their imagination with recreations of our history. Visiting Orkney was a defining moment in my life as it sparked my interest in becoming an archaeologist. I was captivated by the ancient landscape, scattered with vast standing stones and burial chambers and pounded by the wild ocean.


The Ness of Brodgar isn't just the settlement site; the title also refers to its location on a strip of land between two lochs off Harray and Steness on the West Mainland of Orkney. This peninsular nestles between surrounding hills, creating a dramatic backdrop to an abundant array of archaeological remains that command your attention from afar. It is easy to imagine our ancestors choosing this mystical landscape as the ideal home for their ceremonial monuments. The Ness of Brodgar is a Neolithic settlement - this means it dates from 4300 - 2000 BC in Britain, within the Stone Age. It is one of Western Europe's most important and unique sites, covering two and a half hectares of land. Its location is now isolated and rural; however, in its zenith, travelling by land was more difficult than by sea, and Orkney was a hub of Europe's activity.


The site’s existence was proven in 2003 when a farmer started preparing a new wildflower garden and dislodged a large, decorated stone slab. This stone's importance grew as it resembled materials used in Bronze Age cairns, mounds of stones often used to mark burials. The wildflower garden project was quickly halted for further investigation. A rescue excavation was launched, revealing a large building similar to previous Neolithic houses. Extensive surveying then attempted to uncover what could be hidden beneath the soil. The findings astonished archaeologists; they began to suspect that the entire mound was artificial. The first building in Ness was only the tip of the iceberg. The earth hid an extensive settlement complex that nobody had seen for thousands of years.


This impressive discovery led to years of excavations, disrupted only during the pandemic. The first building was soon joined by many more, currently totalling nearly forty. The settlement would have covered more ground before the loch levels grew, meaning our finds are only a portion of what exists. Materials like pitchstone - a deeply coloured volcanic glass originating outside of Orkney - found at the site show the great distances covered to visit the Ness. Hearths, midden (rubbish) deposits and various tools provide glimpses into the everyday lives of the community, allowing us to peer into the lives of those who lived here - who stayed here? What did they eat? What was crafted? Did they hunt or fish? These questions are being decoded by archaeologists through over 800 decorated stones and countless artefacts left by our ancestors as clues. 


The most unique part of this settlement, outside of the scale and quantity of the find, is the grandeur of the architecture. The elaborate designs, the size, and the quality are all remarkable. Pigments and coloured stones, paired with painted carvings and decorations, combine to make an awe-inspiring work of construction. Parts of the wall that encloses the site are four metres wide, thicker than Hadrian's Walls, and remain standing (albeit buried) today! Most typical sites are much more basic, implying that the Ness of Brodgar was important to the Neolithic people. Each dig uncovers more theories surrounding this: Was it the home of important individuals? Are these temples and halls built to house events and ceremonies? Was it a place of pilgrimage to others in Europe? Whichever is true, these monumental buildings were the product of immeasurable amounts of craftsmanship and time - they must have been special to the 75 generations of humans that lived or visited here. 


The settlement's use likely ebbed and flowed through the ages, changing the site's function to fit. It is not even clear if this was home to some people or if it was only a place to be visited for special ceremonies. However, at its peak, the Ness of Brodgar would have been a gathering place for the people of Orkney and beyond; the stunning architecture and location make it easy to see why. It was likely where ideas and artefacts changed hands between people from different communities, as many materials could only have originated from outside the island.


Many mysteries are still waiting to be solved - why was the site abandoned after over 1000 years of use? Were the inhabitants forced out? Did changes in religion render the site unnecessary? Why is a newborn Neolithic child buried here? Why is a singular human arm bone on the site? As only a tenth of the site has been uncovered, we hope to answer these questions in the future. However, as is common in archaeology, as one question is answered, many new ones arise.


Visiting these ancient sites gives a humbling sense of perspective, and it is easy to visualise the vibrant lives of people from 5,000 years ago. Time dissolves as you stand on the ground they walked and imagine our ancestors performing rituals by the moon's light. Generations of lives, beliefs, temples and homes were lost to time and forgotten until twenty years ago when we began to piece them back together. If you get a chance, visit there this summer to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors yourself.


The dig at the 'Ness' will be open to the public on weekdays, from 9.30 am-4.30 pm, between Wednesday, July 5 and Wednesday, August 16. See https://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/visit/ for more details.



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