Excavation background

The name itself comes from Orkney’s Norse heritage Nes Brúar-gardr and  translates as ‘the headland of the farm at the bridge’. The site lies between the henge monuments of the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar in the middle of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage site and close to the Neolithic settlement at Barnhouse. 

When the site was ploughed in spring 1925 a very fine carved stone, now in the National Museums Scotland, was discovered together with stone features thought at the time to be burial cists.  There the matter rested until 2002 when a geophysical survey, as part of the Orkney World Heritage Site Geophysics Programme, revealed a huge complex of anomalies – ‘indicative of settlement’ – covering an area of 2.5 hectares.

In 2003 a notched stone slab was discovered, thought likely to be part of a Bronze Age cist or stone coffin. Work revealed however, part of a large building with angular and symmetrical architecture similar to House Two at Barnhouse.

The evidence all suggested something special, huge and different. It was under threat from modern deep ploughing and with the permission of its landowners, Arnie & Ola Tait, work began in 2004 to explore what was showing up and the following are some highlights:

2004 – a series of test-trenches over the Ness were dug and all 8 test-pits held archaeology and 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 Ness and in Trench J, a large oval structure, enclosed by a monumental wall and the first of the Ness’s stone art.

2007 – work continued on Trench J; 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 the building, Structure 1, unearthed in 2003, and began the reveal of its beautiful stonework, some of the crispest and finest at the Ness.

2008 – 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 remain to a height of approximately one metre (three feet).

2009 – the scale of human endeavour, and consumption, began really to emerge with Structures 1, 8, 10 and 7 being worked on. Around Structure 10, beautiful paving was uncovered. Parts of that passageway were infilled with massive amounts of animal bone, being 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 It became clear too that structures were roofed with stone, with Structure 8’s interior 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. Structure 12 began to be excavated. 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 at the Ness, 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 and in 2013, Structure 10 produced the object of his desire

 2014  – an excavation is not just about digging. What’s uncovered is studied extremely carefully by scientists and specialists and, among the main specialists involved in the work on the Ness in 2014, Jo Mckenzie, Bradford University began a micromorphological study of the hearths and floors of the Ness.

2015 – 8 weeks, rather than 6 weeks, of digging made possible by generous donations, including by the Anthony Cerami & 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 guide published.

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

BBC’s Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney filmed throughout the 8 weeks of digging, and three episodes in January 2017 to popular acclaim and available to view here.

2017 – As this is written, 2017 excavations are about to start and the heart beats faster at the thought of what another 8 weeks of intense effort will bring – Trench T is a major part of this year’s work and for those joining the Ness guided tours, will be a new part of those guided tours. See here for tour and site opening details.