Ness dig ending in 2024 when focus shifts to post-excavation work

Site tour under way. (📷 Jo Bourne)

If you want to see the site while excavation is in progress, there is just one more season to visit.

Diggers will be back on site from Monday, June 24, until Friday, August 23, 2024.

The nine-week excavation will be open to the public on weekdays between Wednesday, June 26 and Friday, August 16. Full details on visiting are available here.

It has been decided that fieldwork at the Ness of Brodgar will end after the 2024 excavation season.

Although digging could continue for decades, our work on the major structures uncovered so far will be complete and we feel we have reached a logical place to pause.

However, although on-site excavation will end, the Ness of Brodgar research project continues.

It is simply moving into a new and exciting phase of intensive post-excavation work, with the focus shifting to the scientific analysis of the recovered material – pottery, stone tools, bone and much more.

All of this must be fully catalogued and carefully examined by specialists.

Since excavation began we have welcomed – and are indebted to – hundreds of volunteers who have helped with the work.

However, 2024’s dig team is already in place and we will not be taking new volunteers in 2024.

Anyone who has already excavated on site should contact Nick Card.

Cleaning Trench J. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The post-excavation results, along with those from the environmental samples, will help unpick the story of the people who built, used and ultimately abandoned the complex in the centuries around 2500BC.

Excavation is the most visible aspect of archaeology and is perhaps seen as the most exciting.

But the post-excavation process is just as vital. It often leads to new and exciting revelations when science and expert know-how come to the fore to help us understand the life of a place.

And at the Ness, the many hundreds of thousands strands of evidence will refine what we know already about the Neolithic site.

Often the complete picture does not come together until all the data is considered and woven together – a monumental task! This in turn will lead to full publication – probably necessitating several volumes, with much more available online.

Tom O'Brien
Trench P in August 2023. (📷 Tom O’Brien)

What happens to the site?

At the end of the 2024 dig season, the trenches will be filled in and the site returned to being a green field.

That ensures the structures are protected for future generations of archaeologists to continue the work we started – undoubtedly using even better scientific techniques than available now.

Why infill?

Structure Twenty-Seven external paved area. (Sigurd Towrie)
2022: Structure Twenty-Seven’s external paved area. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

We are regularly asked why the site cannot be left open for viewing.

The reason is quite simple. The stone used in the monumental buildings degrades very quickly if left exposed to the elements.

Left uncovered the structures would quickly disintegrate and we cannot allow that to happen.

Skara Brae could be left open because its buildings were constructed from tough beach-stone.

The quarried stone used at the Ness will simply not last. Its fragility is the main reason we have carefully covered the trenches at the end of every season since we began work.

The long-term survival of the Ness complex is paramount. It is our duty to protect the site for future generations, armed with new techniques and technology, who will be able to pick up where we left off.

Re-covering is the best way to preserve it – returning the site to the conditions that kept it safe for 5,000 years.

It has been regularly suggested that the buildings could be enclosed within a custom-built structure, such as that seen at Midhowe, Rousay, but the costs are prohibitive. Not to mention that foundations for any building that could withstand the Orcadian weather would disturb the unexposed archaeology that covers the south-eastern tip of the Ness peninsula.

The future

Although the excavation site will no longer be open to the public, we are looking to set up virtual tours via our website.

Groups wishing to visit after excavation finishes can do still do so by prior arrangement, guided by one of the Ness team. For private tours we ask for a minimum donation to project funds of £250 or £12 per head, whichever is the larger. Click here for full details.

The website will also continue to be the source of updates and news.

In addition, the new project phase includes major plans for additional online content covering even more about the Ness and what we are discovering during post-excavation..

The Ness team gather for a group picture. (📷 Scott Pike)
August 2023. The Ness team gather for a group picture. (📷 Scott Pike)


Pippa excavating her bone spread in Trench J this afternoon. (Sigurd Towrie)
2022: Pippa excavating a bone spread in Trench J. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Although the excavation phase is drawing to a close, the Ness of Brodgar Trust will still rely on public donation.

Post-excavation, like digging, needs funding and a team to carry out the work. Donations will continue to help ensure that we can learn all we can from the excavated material and get that knowledge published and shared.

Donations so far, for example, have funded the course fees for four Masters by Research (MRes) students and a PhD student, all of whom are looking at different aspects of the Ness of Brodgar complex.

Public donation has largely brought us this far and while we are always looking to secure other funding, we hope the help of individuals across the world will continue make Ness archaeology happen.

So, although 2024 will be final opportunity to see the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, it will not be the last chance to support this extraordinary project. Rest assured we will continue closely examine all the evidence from the last 20 years and bring together a detailed narrative for this outstanding Neolithic site.

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