Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Ness of Brodgar

(This article was published in Pagan Dawn – the Journal of the Pagan Federation – issue 184 Lammas-Autumn Equinox 2012 – the ending has been adapted for this blog)

In Orkney, at the Ness of Brodgar (OS Ref HY303129), archaeologists from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology are in the process of excavating one of the most significant sites from the Neolithic period which is changing how archaeologists interpret the Neolithic in northern Europe.  This site may have functioned as an important temple sanctuary and possibly as a focus for Neolithic pilgrims from around the British Isles and beyond – it is feasible that the Ness of Brodgar was the original heart of the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Site (WHS).

Orkney is one of the earliest places in the British Isles where the Neolithic transition from hunting and gathering to farming took place.  Anthropological parallels suggest that when people change their subsistence method in this way, their “religion” also changes – from shamanistic to more hierarchical beliefs.  One material expression of this ideological change in the Neolithic seems to be the appearance of new types of ritual monument such as stone circles, henges and tombs.  In Orkney, this economic transition and construction of new monumental architecture took place around 3000 BCE and, because these new structures predate other examples elsewhere in the British Isles, this suggests that Orkney may have been the epicentre of these beliefs.  It is possible, therefore, that Orkney may have been considered by all the other great Neolithic spiritual centres – such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Brú na Bóinne – as their source and hub. 

Until the discovery of Skara Brae (OS Ref HY231187) in the 1930s, Neolithic archaeology consisted of megalithic structures which were classified as either tombs or ritual sites.  Then, in the 1980s, the excavations at Barnhouse “village” (OS Ref HY307127) uncovered structures that combined the qualities of both domestic and ritual sites.  It has predominantly been Orkney sites which have led the way in providing the evidence for the domestic life of these early farmers.

The main concentration of Neolithic ritual monuments in Orkney occur around a narrow isthmus of land, called the Ness of Brodgar, which runs between the Harray and Stenness lochs in West Mainland, nearly connecting the Ring of Brodgar (OS Ref HY294133) to the north, with the Standing Stones of Stenness (OS Ref HY306125) and the tomb of Maeshowe (OS Ref HY318128) immediately to the south.  Today there is a bridge so that the B9055 runs right along, but it is conjecture as to what there was in the past although the water levels would certainly have been lower to provide a natural causeway.  Nevertheless, anyone travelling directly between these sites by land, either in the past or today, has to pass across the Ness of Brodgar: it is a pivotal and liminal site, very much central to this sacred landscape.

The topography of the Ness of Brodgar today is of a mound that is some 2 ms high.  The archaeological history of this site commences in the 1920s when antiquarian explorations found some stones with cup marks.  In 2002, the WHS Geophysics Programme examined the whole area and the narrowest area of the Ness revealed many sub-surface features, suggesting that the entire mound was not natural; excavations have since confirmed that the mound is largely comprised of a final midden dump and is indeed artificial.  Excavations started in 2003; with 2012 being the eighth year of excavations. 

Attempt at "panoramic" photo at end of excavations 2012 - Structure 10 to left, Structure 8 to foreground middle Structure 12 to beyond Structure 8 in middle, Structure 1 to right
To date archaeologists have excavated a number of stone “structures”, not all of which are contemporary, that are surrounded by a substantial stone wall.  This enclosure of the Ness site suggests that it was “set apart” in some way and that something different occurred within the walls to outside.  The site appears to have been in use for about a thousand years between c.3200-c.2300 BCE, predating the other known Neolithic sites in the vicinity, persisting beyond them and being constantly adapted, this perhaps reflecting wider changes in belief and social organisation.

The largest structure, Structure 10, was dubbed “the cathedral” in 2009, although this label has since been dropped as move evidence has been revealed.  It has been compared to Structure 8 at Barnhouse because both have characteristics from domestic and funerary structures. 

Structure 10’s size is monumental and it may have functioned as a “temple” or as a focus point for ritual; it certainly would have dominated the landscape in the Neolithic and it seems to have been built with the deliberate intention to impress.  Structure 10 is aligned to face Maeshowe to its east, as is one of the entrances to Barnhouse’s Structure 8, it is on an east-west alignment which may link to the position of the sunrise and sunset at the equinoxes.
Structure 10 is one of the largest stone-built structures known from the British Neolithic period, being 25 ms by 20 ms in size.  It has outer walls which are 5 ms thick and which still stand to a height of 1 m.  Outside the eastern end was a paved “forecourt” area which incorporated a standing stone with a hole and may originally have been roofed.  The central “inner sanctum” area in Structure 10 was originally square with rounded corners (like Structure 8 at Barnhouse) but was subsequently remodelled to be similar in size and layout to the inside of Maeshowe, being 6 ms across and cruciform in shape.  Inside there is at least one Skara Brae style “dresser”, possibly several, built from slabs of red and yellow sandstone, and labelled by archaeologists as an “altar”.

The Ness of Brodgar site has yielded vast amounts of pottery in a range of different styles and sizes.  This pottery is of a type known as “Grooved Ware” and some of it is very highly decorated.  Pottery in prehistory is usually made in a domestic context and is a cultural indicator; this diversity may suggest that representatives of many different communities attended the Ness of Brodgar.  Other finds include polished stone axes, broken mace-heads, and stone “toolkits” – although flint is rare as it does not occur naturally in Orkney.

There are many areas of masonry on this site which are constructed with superb levels of skill and very many stones have been found which are decorated with incisions, peckings and carvings (probably second in quantity only to Brú na Bóinne), however, the most exciting discovery is the evidence for painted walls: the earliest known examples from northern Europe and unique to the British Neolithic.  Some of the walls are decorated with chevrons and different coloured pigments.  The pigments are derived from iron and lead ores which occur naturally in Orkney, particularly haematite and galena.  Some of the smaller pottery vessels have been interpreted as “paint pots”.  Naturally coloured red and yellow sandstone also seems to have been used for decorative effect.

There are also huge quantities of cattle bone, most of which are the tibia.  This may indicate feasting on a large scale, although the tibia yields very little meat.  However, the tibia does contain a lot of bone marrow and this is apparently an ideal fixing medium for pigments.  These bones may therefore be evidence for the production of paint at this site.  It is possible that, together with the tiny “paint pots”, this paint was produced to be used in a ritual context to mark the human body, perhaps in a similar manner to the Hindu Bindi.

In 1977, Euan MacKie suggested that Skara Brae may have been an unusual settlement, not for the farmers but for the ritual specialists: a village for magicians, wise folk and “astronomer priests”.  This theory lost favour in archaeological circles but, with the discovery of the structures at Barnhouse and the Ness of Brodgar, it is regaining ground because these structures have architectural characteristics that are a fusion of both the domestic and the funerary / ritual, as well as being in close proximity to the ritual sites of Brodgar, Stenness and Maeshowe.  It is likely that the Ness of Brodgar was not a domestic “village” but rather a special ritual complex with each of the structures functioning as a “meeting house” for a particular grouping of people during one of its later phases.  The site may not have been a permanently inhabited one but could have been one at which groups of people periodically came together to perform rituals under the guidance of a “class” of trained priests, possibly as part of an act of pilgrimage.

Given the many solar alignments that are possible, those rituals may have been linked with the solar year, particularly midwinter, and the “processing” of the dead.  Parallels have been drawn with Durrington Walls (part of the Stonehenge landscape) which has recently been interpreted as a pilgrimage site where the living met at midwinter to prepare their dead for their journey along the River Avon to Stonehenge and the land of the ancestors. 

At the Ness of Brodgar, it has been suggested by Parker-Pearson that the land of the living was associated with the Standing Stones of Stenness and the land of the dead with the Ring of Brodgar, the rationale being that the Standing Stones of Stenness has a central hearth and evidence of feasting (symbols of life), whilst the Ring of Brodgar is surrounded by later Bronze Age round barrows (symbols of death).  In addition, the geophysics results suggest that there is little sub-surface archaeology between the Ness of Brodgar and the Ring of Brodgar – this may indicate an area that was being kept ritually “clean”.  It could, of course, equally be the other way around as it is downhill from the Ring of Brodgar to the Standing Stones of Stenness (physical descent being a metaphorical allusion in many cultures to death) and Maeshowe (the great chambered tomb and symbol of death) is close to the Standing Stones of Stenness.  Either way, however, the Ness of Brodgar would have been at the centre of this ceremonial landscape.

Personally, I don’t favour the imposition of Parker-Pearson’s Land of the Living / Land of the Dead for the Stonehenge landscape upon the Brodgar one, I don’t think it is appropriate and it leads to selecting evidence that supports that theory whilst ignoring other evidence.  I would also suggest that the modern dichotomy of living/dead may not have been quite so relevant to the Neolithic psyche anyway, where there may have been far more blurring between the stages of life and the process of becoming ancestral. 

A further monument of interest in the Brodgar complex is a very large mound called Salt Knowe Mound which is very near to the Ring of Brodgar – like at Stonehenge and Avebury, the Neolithic ceremonial centres are surrounded by latter Bronze Age tumuli.  Only Salt Knowe Mound is not a Bronze Age tumuli but more likely to be a Neolithic cairn, possibly like Maeshowe and certainly on the same scale.  Salt Knowe Mound has not been excavated but recent rabbit activity on the top of the mound has revealed evidence for a massive capstone, a characteristic more associated with Neolithic architecture than Bronze Age tumuli.  If this is a monument similar to Maeshowe, then it could suggest a twinned ritual landscape with the Standing Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and the “village” of Barnhouse to the south, and the Ring of Brodgar, Salt Knowe Mound and the “village” of the Ness of Brodgar to the north.

As I have written before, Orkney exerts a strange emotional pull on so many people who choose to come and live here – some prosaically refer to this as the “magnetic north” – I cannot help but wonder if this tugging is connected with ancestral memories of Orkney once being an epicentre for Neolithic religion, that priests came here for training, and everyone longed to visit this holy land – perhaps the same effect on the psyche as exerted by Jerusalem, Mecca and the Ganges today?  I have excavated at this site and find it a very odd place; although I do find it more difficult to “connect” whilst also trowelling, I did find it a very grounding site, as if I had somehow arrived.

View from top of Wasdale, water in foreground is Wasdale loch, water in middle distance is crossed by a thin isthmus of land which is the Ness of Brodgar
However, only a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to walk up right into the hills of Wasdale; I followed the burn right up until I reached the top and could see over onto the Bay of Firth and back into the basin of land that is West Mainland.  There, in the middle, was the Ness of Brodgar.  West Mainland is fringed by a ridge of hills forming a natural cauldron around the plateau of land in the middle, in the centre are the lochs of Stenness and Harray, and in the centre of those is the Ness and Ring of Brodgar.  And as I looked I remembered all those memories of mysterious and sacred lands, of heroes travelling to islands in the middle of which is a lake, in the middle of which is another island, and I realised that what I was gazing down upon was the physical embodiment of an archetypal folk-memory, lodged firmly in my collective unconsciousness and screaming at me that it had been woken up!  Could this site be the original catalyst for Avalon, Atlantis, Lyonness?


  1. Yes,I also had a deep feeling that I had 'returned home' the first time I visited Orkney and eventually came to live here (a feeling I've never felt for anywhere else I've visited/lived.)
    I was interested in your comments about alignments of the monuments,and note you did not mention the ring of Bookan - which in fact aligns better to the Ness of Brodgar than its larger neighbour and for some reason tends to be 'left out' both on the tourist circuit and by the archaeologists (although I understand there is some renewed interest by the latter recently).Personally I get a much deeper spiritual feeling at Bookan than I do at Brodgar - perhaps because it is less 'contaminated'at the moment because of its 'obscurity'?

  2. Dear Wild Wullie
    This article was adapted from one published in Pagan Dawn so I purposely restricted myself to the Ness of Brodgar because of word length BUT I have blogged about the Ring of Bookan back in November 2011
    I also love the Ring of Bookan - amazing atmosphere and it is ignored BUT I am not convinced it is a henge: in Wessex it would be called a disc barrow because it matches those characteristics.
    Please have a read of my other blogs - and suggest other sites for me to experience too!