Although there were hints of its existence from geophysical survey, the remains at Ness of Brodgar have provided one of the greatest archaeological surprises of recent years. No one expected the complexity of the fine monuments that lay, undiscovered at the heart of the Brodgar Peninsula for nearly five millennia.
Discovery and Excavation
In 2003 a large stone slab with notches along one side was pulled to the surface of the field during ploughing at Ness of Brodgar. This lead to a rescue excavation which suggested that a Neolithic building similar to House Two at Barnhouse Village might lie here. Further excavation in 2004 revealed well-preserved remains, the extent and sophistication of which continue to astound. Excavation by the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) continues for eight weeks every summer.
The Monument at the heart of Neolithic Orkney
The Ness of Brodgar comprises a complex of at least fourteen buildings enclosed by a massive stone wall. The wall is four metres thick and it is thought to have stood at least two metres high. The structures inside comprise a variety of buildings including stalled buildings, cruciform buildings like House Two at Barnhouse, and the great Neolithic ‘Temple’, which measures 25m x 20m. Some were roofed with local stone slates.
It is unlikely that all buildings were in use at the same time. There is clear evidence for rebuilding and alteration, and in some places the earlier buildings have been demolished and overlain by newer structures. It is likely that they served a variety of functions.
Dating Ness of Brodgar
Untangling the complex sequence of the structures at Ness of Brodgar requires sophisticated techniques. The archaeologists are employing a variety of methods including radiocarbon dating. The preliminary results indicate that the site was already in existence by 3200 BC and that activity was drawing to a close by 2300BC. This means that Ness of Brodgar spans the Neolithic in Orkney, perhaps being abandoned with the changes in culture and society that came about in the early years of the Bronze Age.
What was Ness of Brodgar?
The site at Ness of Brodgar contrasts greatly with known Neolithic settlement sites such as Skara Brae and this suggests that it was not a domestic site. The structures are very different in design and they are built to much finer standards of well dressed stone. In addition, the objects that have been found at Ness of Brodgar are generally of better quality than those from sites like Skara Brae. This evidence, in conjunction with the location of the site, suggests that it was part of the high status ceremonial complex, though the exact purpose remains to be elucidated by analysis of the excavation results.