May 30, 2024

In a few weeks, archaeologists will gather at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney and spend the next two months excavating one of Europe’s largest prehistoric sites.

For the past 20 summers, scientists and volunteers have dug here, reveal wonders which includes 5,000-year-old remains of temples, hearths, a ceramic figurine and elegant pottery.

Then, on August 16, the team will unload their trowels and brushes for the last time. Earth will be turned over the ancient walls they have been trying to uncover for the past two decades, the land opposite the Ness will be returned and the site will be forever returned to its former status: an anonymous green field.

It seems like an extraordinary decision, one akin to tipping piles of earth over Stonehenge to hide it from future generations. Nevertheless, archaeologists are determined that this year’s digging at the Ness will be their last excavation there for the foreseeable future.

“What we’ve discovered is just the tip of a huge archaeological iceberg,” says Nick Card, who has directed excavations at the Ness since the site was unveiled in 2003. “There are more than 100 buildings here. Beneath the most recent lie countless older buildings.

“We want to leave these later buildings intact. We want to avoid destroying them to get to those that lie below. So we are going to leave that task to future archaeologists who will have the benefit, we hope, of new technologies. As it is now, we have amassed a large collection of finds from the Ness which we must now study in laboratories and museums.”

Ring of Brodgar. Photo: Wayne Hutchinson/Alamy

The Ness lies on a promontory that separates Orkney’s two largest inland bodies of water, the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray. It contains a large mound originally made of glacial debris until a geophysical survey in 2002 suggested a much more complex composition.

Excavations have begun and have shown that the mound is mostly man-made. The six-hectare site was found to contain dozens of buildings connected to outhouses and kitchens by stone walkways. The bones of hundreds of cattle, elegantly crafted pottery and pieces of painted ceramics were found scattered over the site, remains of a neolithic civilization who began erecting buildings there more than 5,000 years ago.

In size and sophistication the Ness rivals the wonders of Sutton Hoo and Hadrian’s Wall. Yet the Ness complex is thousands of years older, with excavations suggesting that the site – now managed by the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute – was primarily a place of gathering.

For hundreds of years, Neolithic people from all over Orkney and surrounding islands came here to worship, exchange produce and socialize. It was a place to pray, trade and party.

It was also a site of considerable influence. In the late Neolithic period, the final stage of the Stone Age, around 3200 to 2500 BC, a new type of pottery called grooved ware was adopted across the British Isles. “It was the first pan-British cultural phenomenon that we know of – originating in Orkney and then spreading to the rest of the country,” Card said.

“At this time the Ness would just not have been known in Orkney, but right across Britain. It was inhabited for something like 60 to 70 generations. It’s the same kind of time scale that separates us today from people who lived through the Battle of Hastings. So you can see it was a place of lasting cultural importance.”

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Card added that another important factor involved in the decision to rebury the Ness lay in the stones used to construct its buildings. “Unlike the resilient beach stones used to build other ancient sites on Orkney, such as Skara Brae, those at the Ness were quarried and begin to laminate and crumble when exposed to the air. So we cannot leave them exposed. We have to rebury them.”

Nick Card supervises the digging at the Ness. Photo: Jim Richardson

Regarding the prospect of future technologies revolutionizing the study of prehistoric artifacts and thus one day reopening the Ness, Card pointed to techniques such as analysis of ancient DNA, which have developed significantly since 2003 and are already in a variety of different ways. It reveals, for example, how pottery was used from the food scraps it absorbed.

“Drones have also changed aerial surveys of the site – we used to fly our cameras with kites. And there is hope that in the future new types of radar and other systems can tell us what lies beneath the upper layers of buildings at the Ness.”

Other work suggests that the people who built the Ness were very similar to people today – although life back then was certainly not utopian: there are signs that they suffered from scurvy.

“The Ness has been my life for the last 20 years,” Card added. “It was an all-encompassing experience. I was very lucky to have been with it from the beginning and see it through to the end – although it won’t be for a very long time. To catalog and publish the large amount of finds we have discovered will keep our teams busy for years to come.”

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