Uncovering the Neolithic at Ness of Brodgar

Today I bring you an update about a place I have been wanting to go visit now for quite sometime, yet it always seems to escape me. I am talking about Ness of Brodgar, which is part of the archaeological compound found in Orkney located between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness. The site is 2.5 hectares and in combination with the other two, it forms the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. Most people would think, well okay this is just another of those cool rocky man-made formations, why such a fuss? Well the thing is that the team that has been working in this area is pretty much convinced that Ness of Brodgar is actually older than Stonehenge – around 500 years – which of course has serious implications in our understanding of the Neolithic developments in Britain, and for that purpose the entirety of Europe. The team act work on site is led by Nick Card from the Orkney Research Centre For Archaeology UH, and has been investigating the site for over a decade. The investigation started in 2005, when Nick Cord decided to explore a whaleback mound that was believed to be a natural formation. The actual dig started in 2008.

The finds here are unique. These include clay figurines with marked faces and bodies as well as painted wall designs from around 3000 BC. This is quite a remarkable part of the discovery as Nick Card and Antonia Thomas advise:

‘until recently, relatively few examples of Neolithic decorated stonework

had been found in Orkney, with even fewer from secure stratigraphic contexts. As a result

of the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar however, the number of known examples has

more than doubled.’

(Card, Nick and Thomas, Antonia Susan orcid.org/0000-0002-1959-7260 (2012) Painting a picture of Neolithic Orkney : decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar. In: Cochrane, Andrew and Jones, Andrew Meirion, (eds.) Visualising the Neolithic. Oxbow Books , Oxford , pp. 111-124).

The archaeologist have seen and identified an increased used of carved ceramic maces and axe heads too. The items found during the excavation have raised questions regarding the use and function of such place. Current theories contemplate the possibility that this could have been a great temple complex. One of the reasons behind this thought it the fact that the site contains a really high number of rooms to have been some sort of military building. Even from the point of view of the domestic sphere, the details known about human living during the Neolithic period suggest that communities would have lived in smaller singular buildings – nothing quite of the vast dimensions unearthed at Ness of Brodgar. This was further backed with the geophysics analysis of the area, suggesting that the sheer size of the complex goes beyond our current understanding of everyday Neolithic society.

The real importance of the site is due to the building site and the techniques used in its construction. 5000 tones of rocks were used to construct what looks to be a symbolic layout. The type of stone use in this site is flagstone, which is abundant in these islands. Due to its physical properties, flagstone presents itself as a material easy to work where you can obtain flat blocks for construction as well as durable tools. It has been pointed out that the extensive use of stone work in Orkney during the Neolithic may not just be related to the lack of timber, but perhaps plays a further symbolic meaning which Mike Parker Pearson advises may be related to the culture of stone circle buildings. This also seems to have some close connection with other structures of a similar type found in the Hebrides. The position of the complex is also striking as it is in the middle of a promontory. Perhaps the evidence could be indicating a Neolithic theocratic society, as perceived from the great power the site suggests priest may have held.  Another theory that relates the site to what we now know from Stonehenge is the fact that this area could well be part of a larger ceremonial promenade – similar to the one located on the Salisbury plain. The main supporter of this idea is Prof. Mike Parker Pearson, who was also involved on the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

As you can see this site is really helping us reshape our archaeological and historical knowledge of Orkney and the Neolithic, which can have serious repercussions in our general understanding of the British Isles as well as early human history. There is so much more that will come out of this, as the excavations go on. So if you want to find out more, or keep an eye out for possible new discoveries, I suggest you have a look into their website, where you can also find a lot of extra information from the archaeological record point of view, in addition to audio-visual material that is really worth while:



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