A monumental complex

An aerial view of the complex of structures uncovered on the Ness.

When the present excavation site was ploughed in the spring of 1925 a very fine carved stone – now in the National Museums Scotland – was discovered, together with stone features thought to be burial cists.

There the matter rested until the geophysical survey of 2002 and the discovery of the notched stone in 2003.

The evidence all suggested something special, huge and different.

It was under threat from modern deep ploughing and, with the permission of  landowners Arnie and Ola Tait, work began in 2004 to explore what was showing up.

The following are some highlights:

2004: A series of test-trenches were dug over the site and, as all eight test-pits held archaeology, they confirmed that much of the mounded ridge is artificial, comprising structures and middens, all dating from the Neolithic.

2005 & 2006: More exploration, confirming the scale and remarkable nature of the site and in Trench J, a large oval structure, enclosed by a monumental wall was uncovered along with the first example of stone art.

2007: Work continued on Trench J and further test trenches revealed that its wall extended for a considerable distance across the width of the peninsula, and may have formed a barrier, dubbed ‘The Great Wall of Brodgar’

More artwork was uncovered and work began on Trench P – the largest area open on site.

It opened up the area around Structure One, unearthed in 2003, and began the reveal of its beautiful stonework, some of the crispest and finest at the Ness.

2008: The excavators uncovered “one of the largest, if not the largest, stone-built Neolithic non-funerary structures in Britain.”

Structure Ten had shown up in geophysics scans, which suggested there was something very large under the turf. But it took excavation to reveal the sheer scale of what lay beneath.

Measuring 25 metres (82 feet) long by 20 metres (65 feet) wide, the five-metre-thick outer walls remained to a height of approximately one metre (three feet).

2009:  The scale of human endeavour, and consumption, began really to emerge with Structures One, Eight, Ten and Seven worked on.

Around Structure Ten, beautiful paving was uncovered and parts of that passageway was found to be infilled with massive amounts of animal bone – the remains of hundreds of cattle plus some red deer.

Curiously, the cattle bones are largely tibia, the lower leg bone, not a joint which is a great source of meat, but does yield marrow.

2010: The archaeologists discovered painted stones – red, yellow and black painted on areas of wall face – and it became clear that structures were also roofed with stone. Structure Eight’s interior was covered by broken roof “slates”, fallen in, thousands of years ago.

2011: Fine dating of the Ness was made, showing a millennium of activity from at least 3200 BC through to around 2300BC.

Excavation began on Structure Twelve. More and more incised stone was being uncovered and to mark the importance of its continued discovery, Antonia Thomas began work on her study of the art, which culminated in the publication of her doctoral thesis in 2016

2013: Throughout the preceding years of excavation, site director Nick Card let it be known that of all the treasures of Neolithic Orkney, the one he coveted most was a carved stone ball. In 2013, Structure Ten produced the object of his desire

2014:  An excavation is not just about digging. What is uncovered is studied extremely carefully by scientists and specialists and, among the main specialists involved in 2014 was Jo Mckenzie, when Bradford University began a micromorphological study of the hearths and floors of the Ness.

2015: Eight weeks, rather than six weeks, of digging made possible by generous donations, including by the Anthony Cerami and Ann Dunne Foundation for World Health.

The discovery of one of the finest decorated stones from the Ness. First edition of the Ness of Brodgar guidebook published.

2016:  Trench T, opened up in 2013, became increasingly interesting with structures starting to appear.

The BBC’s Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney filmed throughout the eight weeks of digging, and three episodes airing in January 2017.

2017: It 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. 

Trench T continued to be particularly obstinate. Work to excavate a huge midden mound began in 2013 and, at first, it was thought this was nothing more than a “monumental pile of rubbish” — a visible example of conspicuous, Stone Age consumption.

In 2014, however, the stump of a standing stone turned up at the foot of the mound, hinting there might be more to it.

In 2015, sections of walling and orthostats were found at the bottom of the trench, followed, in 2016, by massive stone slabs in the remains of a puzzling structure. It was suggested these structural remnants represented a chambered cairn, similar to the one excavated at Bookan, at the other end of the Ness, in 2002.

But in 2017, the sheer scale of the building — dubbed 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 the Ness.