Ness of Brodgar – Preliminary Phasing

The cleaning of the interior of Structure 1.

Cleaning the interior of Structure One. (ORCA)

The complexities, depth of stratigraphy (perhaps over three metres overall) and the extraordinary preservation of the Ness of Brodgar complex makes an understanding of the phasing of this remarkable site a deeply thought-provoking exercise that continually changes, and is refined, as the dig progresses.

Even to us archaeologists, it is not an easy matter and one that causes much academic debate.

However, in order for our readership to get a basic understanding of the development of the site, and how the structures relate to each other, here is a brief résumé of our present, preliminary thinking.

Phase 1

This is purely conjecture, but it is presumed that there are earlier phase(s) to the site that have yet to be fully encountered (perhaps early to middle Neolithic in date).  These may have been glimpsed with the structures discovered under the southern boundary wall of the site (the ‘Lesser Wall of Brodgar’).  These earliest phases, however, may give indications about why this site was chosen and why it developed into the monument we see in later phases.

Phase 2

A series of oval structures, as indicated by earlier walling, we are encountering under Structures Eight and Ten, and Structure Five that was excavated in Trench J adjacent to the northern boundary wall (the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’). It is perhaps during this stage of development that the massive stone enclosure was built to contain all these buildings.

Phase 3

The construction and use Structures One (in its primary form), Eight and Twelve; and also probably the earlier structure under Structure Seven that is separated from Structure One (eastern entrance) by a narrow paved passage.

They would seem to be contemporary due to very similar architecture (including almost identical distances between the ends of their piers); respect each other spatially; and their similar orientation.  This has yet to be confirmed stratigraphically but we would hope to perhaps get down to construction layers in the area between these three structures and prove (or disprove?) this.

The northern boundary wall is increased in width from four to six metres (?).

Phase 4

These buildings are decommissioned and an attempt made to deliberately obliterate them with massive amount of ashy midden enhanced soil.

Phase 5

Structure Ten is built and goes through various stages of additions and alterations, e.g. the addition of the annex/forecourt at its eastern end, and the incorporation of a pre-existing standing stone into this annex.

Was it a “temple”, as first proposed, or as now appears, with more of the internal features apparent, a house but on a truly monumental scale?

Although exhibiting many features in common with domestic buildings, such as a central hearth, side recesses and a “dresser”, the oddities of this structure, (its scale, walls up to five metres thick, its surrounding paved pathway, its alignment with Maeshowe, the use of coloured sandstone, the incorporation of standing stones in its build, the extensive use of decorated stonework, in particular cup marks etc) marks it out as something quite extraordinary!

Phase 6

Structure Ten is decommissioned and infilled with a sequence of middens and rubble deposits.

This includes infilling the outer paved area with deposits, including the very large bone assemblage that consists almost entirely of cattle tibia that represents perhaps hundreds  of individual cattle!

The walls of Structure Ten are then systematically robbed.

Phase 7

Later very ephemeral activity on site (still late Neolithic or perhaps early Bronze Age in date) represented for instance by Structures Seven, Nine and Eleven (and perhaps the reuse of Structure One).

Phase 8

Accumulation of soils on site

Phase 9

Field is brought into cultivation and an attempt made to remove the standing stone from the annex of Structure Ten, probably in the late medieval period (presumably when the stone got in the way of ploughing).

Phase 10

20th century (discovery of Brodgar Stone in 1925) and 21st century investigations of the site.

What the changes in the styles of architecture on site, from the oval shapes of  Phase Two to the linear angular, piered structures of Phase Three, to the cruciform nature of the internal space of Structure Ten signifies is most interesting.

Do they represent fundamental changes in belief systems or society?

Does the construction of Structure Ten represent the culmination of a process of “unification” within Neolithic society and the emergence of a hierarchy as compared to the community based previous incarnations of the site?

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