A look back at 2017’s excavation

With our team of international diggers due back on the Ness of Brodgar in a matter of weeks, now is a good time to catch up on some of the highlights from last year’s eight-week excavation…

Orkney-Wessex links

In 2017, the Ness lived up to its reputation of throwing up new questions as well as magnificent finds. Of particular interest were two artefacts suggesting contact between Orkney and the Stonehenge area.

The first was a pot sherd featuring decoration very reminiscent of pottery from Durrington Walls, in Wessex, England. There were also distinctly Orcadian features, which suggested the vessel blended decorative elements from both world-renowned sites – but which are hundreds of miles apart.

Parallels between Orkney and Wessex had been noted before — particularly when Mike Parker Pearson, who excavated at Durrington Walls, visited the Ness in 2010 and 2014 — and a second discovery in Structure Twenty-Six brought them back into the spotlight.

Fragments of the ‘incense’ cup. Only four others of this style are known and all are from the Stonehenge-Wessex area.

On the surface, the find didn’t seem very significant but, thankfully, Claire Copper, who had completed a research project on the artefacts recognised it for what it was — a beautiful little “incense cup”. There are only four other examples of this particular type of “cup” in the UK and they all hail from the Stonehenge area.

The tiny artefacts are often highly decorated and mostly found in Early Bronze Age contexts, often associated with burials. Their use has been the subject of debate over the years but it has been suggested that they were used to carry embers to a funeral pyre or perhaps the burning of incense during burial ceremonies.

Tracing the walls

Trench J in 2008. The ‘Great Wall’ is shown in red, with Structure Five in yellow.

Elsewhere, it seems likely the “Great Wall of Brodgar” was one of the first constructions on site. The four-metre-thick wall was unearthed in 2007 and the subsequent discovery of a second wall — to the south-east of the site — prompted the theory that the complex was completely enclosed.

In 2016, a trench was extended towards the Stenness Loch to look for evidence that the wall sections were once connected. Unfortunately, nothing was found. In 2017, however, close examination of an aerial photograph revealed faint, but definite, marks on the landscape. Not only did these clearly show the location of the two known wall sections but highlighted the layout of the enclosing side walls. The difference was that the wall running along the side of the loch was closer to the water than originally thought.

Aerial photo from Professor Scott Pike’s drone showing the location, in solid line, of Jim’s discovery.

We found no upstanding traces of the connecting wall because we had been digging in the wrong place. We had tried geophysics on the Stenness Loch side, but overhead power lines and a fence line scrambled the results. So, with no scans to work with, the trench had to be extended based on our suspicions and did take it far enough towards the water.

Hopefully in 2018 we’ll open a small exploratory trench over the revised location and see what comes up.

Meanwhile, a trench containing a corner of the ”Great Wall” — and the adjacent building, Structure Five — was re-opened in 2017 for the first time since 2008. Nick suspected that Structure Five was an early Neolithic building and this proved correct. The building is very reminiscent of the early house at the Knap of Howar (3600BC), in Papa Westray. But in true Ness of Brodgar fashion is much bigger.

It also became clear that the “Great Wall” not only curved to follow a path along the shore of the Harray Loch, but curled closely around Structure Five — suggesting that it, too, was a very early element in the history of the site. This was confirmed by excavation, which showed nothing lay beneath the wall section except the natural boulder clay on which it stood.

Frustration and delight in Trench T

Catching up with the latest thinking on Trench T. (Jo Bourne)

Trench T — to the south-east of the main site — proved particularly obstinate in 2017. Work to excavate the huge midden mound began in 2013. At first it was thought to be nothing more than a “monumental pile of rubbish” — a visible example of conspicuous consumption and a reflection of the status and affluence of the Ness left for all to see. In 2014, however, the stump of a standing stone turned up at the foot of the mound, suggesting there might be more to it.

Structure Twenty-Seven – schematic of construction.

In 2015, wall sections and orthostats were found at the bottom of the trench, followed, in 2016, by massive stone slabs in the remains of a puzzling structure. We felt these structural remnants represented a chambered cairn, similar to the one site director Nick Card had excavated at Bookan, at the other end of the Ness, in 2002.

But, as the weeks passed, the sheer scale of the building — Structure Twenty-Seven — became clearer. The building was huge and the stone slabs so big that it was suggested they were re-purposed standing stones. These massive megaliths were used to support orthostats that clad the structure’s less-than-perfect interior wall face. Given its position, it Structure Twenty-Seven is also likely to pre-date many of the other buildings on site.

Describing the trench as a “source of frustration and delight”, Nick had hoped to reveal more of Structure Twenty-Seven last year, but progress was slowed by the discovery of pits and fragments of walling.

Structure Twenty-Seven
Structure Twenty-Seven

“Everything about Trench T is just different,” Nick said. “We extended it in 2016, hoping to quickly expose more of the structure — whatever it is — but, as usual, you should always expect the unexpected and we came down upon intermediary structural elements that had to be dealt with and recorded. Some of these may relate to Structure Twenty-Seven but I think there’s other things happening in this area and this has really muddied the waters.”

More of the building’s south end was uncovered last year and there were also hints of what might be its entrance.

Nick added: “We had thought that Structure Twenty-Seven had been substantially dismantled in the Neolithic — its stone plundered for use elsewhere and that not much of it had survived. But we found another section of nicely built drain, that may have been underneath a flagged passageway around the exterior of the building — somewhat similar to that around Structure Ten in the main trench.”

In addition, more of the building’s 2.3-metre-thick back wall was uncovered and found to be in a better state of repair, with several courses surviving. All we can hope for now is that work in 2018 will bring us a clear idea of the layout of this puzzling building.

Back to the Iron Age

More is revealed in the section through the Iron Age ditch at the top of Trench T.

At the top of Trench T, another fragment of pottery added to the evidence that the Neolithic midden mound was remodelled in the Iron Age, thousands of years after the Neolithic complex was abandoned. Not only was an Iron Age ditch cut into the mound, but a revetment wall, on the upslope side, was enhanced by a large bank, itself held at the rear by another revetment wall.

“If these structures ran right round the crest of the mound — with the ditch open and highly visible on the downslope and the bank above — the visual effect would have been striking in the extreme,” said Nick.

“Indeed, because of the height of the midden mound it was built on, the structure would have been visible for miles around. No doubt this was the intention of the Iron Age builders, as there are many other examples in Orkney of their willingness to alter the landscape and any older structures visible within it.”

Public interest soars

A close up of the arrowhead – a first for the Ness!

Over 15 years since the discovery of the Ness complex, the site continues to produce stunning artefacts and discoveries on a daily basis. But on a site where the extraordinary has become the norm — and with it the expectations of the public — is Nick concerned there is a danger interest could wane?

“We have still got stunning finds coming up on a daily basis that, ten years ago, or at any other site, would hit the headlines across the country. 2017 saw more artwork, stunning stone tools and — in a first for the Ness — a beautiful example of an Early Bronze Age barbed-and-tanged flint arrowhead, recovered from the exterior of Structure Ten.

“I think that these days people are looking beyond the initial ‘wow’ factor and are just as interested in how finds — no matter how small — fit into the story of the site as a whole. The arrowhead, for example, was a lovely find and a delight to behold, but just as important is its role in interpreting the life, and death, of the Ness.”

The first tour of the 2017 season is shepherded by site dog, Bryn.

It was found in a lump of midden filling the outer passage of Structure Ten, which overlaid the animal bone we think was the result of a decommissioning feast. Elsewhere in this passage, in the same context, we found a distinctive piece of Beaker pottery from the same period.

These finds, together with the dating evidence so far, are key to the idea that the start of the Bronze Age heralded the demise of the Ness – and perhaps more importantly shows that Bronze Age influences had made it this far north.

But it is not just the artefacts that draws people to the Ness. It is the whole package of seeing an excavation under way; the trenches; the archaeologists…

With visitor numbers for 2017 up by 63 per cent and the daily online dig diary recording a 30 per cent increase in traffic it is clear that public interest — local, national and international — continues apace.

“Since we started work, one of our main aims was to take the archaeology and share it with as many people as we can,” said Nick. “Going on the visitor figures, this seems to be working, and we’re looking at other ways to improve things, online and on-site.”

He added: “Overall, it’s heartening to see that interest continues to grow because over 75 per cent of our funding comes from the general public and without that support the Ness just wouldn’t happen.”

You can support the excavations by making a donation or buying a copy of our excellent guidebook.