Structure Ten

Structure Ten
2019: Structure Ten. (📷 Scott Pike)
Structure Ten Location

Around 2900BC, something changed at the Ness. And probably further afield.

The herald of this change was Structure Ten – a building that represented a marked departure from the architecture had defined the complex for centuries.

A point had been reached where the importance of the piered buildings had waned and their significance eclipsed.

In their place focus was on a new structure that mirrored the architecture of later Neolithic houses, for instance at Skara Brae, but on a truly monumental scale.

Measuring over 20 metres by 19 metres externally, Structure Ten had walls over four metres-thick and a single entrance leading to a partially paved forecourt flanked by a pair of substantial standing stones.

A metre-wide, paved and revetted passageway ran around its exterior.

Structure Ten was raised on the rubble of Structure Eight’s collapsed southern end and on top of at least two other early buildings – Structures Twenty and Thirty-Three.

Structure Ten in relation to its predecessors – Structure Twenty and Thirty-Three (bottom left).

But although Structure Ten is unlike the other Ness buildings, it is not unique.

Around 400 metres to the south-east, the Barnhouse settlement had its own version – Structure Eight – which, on current evidence, pre-dates the Structure Ten by about 100 years.

Both buildings shared architectural elements with the Late Neolithic Houses One and Seven at Skara Brae. By extension, both were also spatially similar to the interiors of Maeshowe and the Stones of Stenness.

But despite their shared elements, and perhaps reflecting the competitive nature suggested for Late Neolithic Orcadian society [1], Structure Ten seems to have taken the design to new heights.

Structure Ten at the Ness (left) and Structure Eight at Barnhouse. (Not to scale)
Structure Ten at the Ness (left) and Structure Eight at Barnhouse. (Not to scale)
Structure Ten. Phase one.
Structure Ten. Phase one.

Structure Ten’s exquisite masonry, inside and out, was enhanced using decorated and dressed stone. With walls standing two metres high and a stone-tiled roof reaching skyward, the building must have been an awe-inspiring sight.

It was clearly built to leave a lasting impression. But its scale and grandeur were contrasted – at least for time – by its surroundings.

The glory of the Ness complex had waned and the grand piered buildings, erected some two centuries, had undergone significant changes: remodeling, partially abandonment, demolition and eventual burial.

Structure Ten and Structure Eight (left). (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
2014: Structure Ten and Structure Eight (centre of picture). (📷 Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Some, including Structures One, Eight and Twelve, remained in use but as shadows of their former selves. Activity within was perhaps “akin to squatting, roofs propped up on posts and activities confined to only parts of the original footprint of the building”. [2]

So, Structure Ten did not stand alone. Nor was it the last construction.

Other scrappy structures were raised among the dilapidated remains of their predecessors – sometimes incorporating structural elements into their poor-quality builds.

While some of these were clearly dwellings, others appear to have had a more specialised – even industrial – role.

The central chamber

2011: Central chamber under excavation.  (📷 ORCA)
2011: Central chamber under excavation. (📷 ORCA)

Like Barnhouse Structure Eight, Structure Ten’s single chamber was square-shaped with rounded corners. Its eight-metre-square interior was accessed by an east-facing entrance, orientated towards the site of Maeshowe and the equinoctial sunrise.

Coloured sandstone from the interior of Structure Ten. (ORCA)
The contrasting colours of two dressed sandstone blocks from the interior of Structure Ten. (📷 ORCA)

The chamber was beautifully built and made extensive use of pick-dressed and decorated stone.

Among the materials brought to site were red and yellow sandstone, the nearest source being the parish of Orphir, some four miles south of the Ness of Brodgar.

A large, stone hearth occupied the centre, while a paved recess in the west wall, directly opposite the entrance, appears to have contained a dresser-like arrangement akin to those still visible at Skara Brae.

In the north-western corner was an arrangement of orthostats enclosing a large, flat, stone slab.

Although Ten’s chamber was smaller than some of its predecessors – meaning less people were privy to activities inside – it was clearly well-used.

Intensive footfall led to repeated, and extensive, repairs to the clay floor – a process also necessitated by the subsidence plaguing the building.

We will return to this later.

Excavation of the occupation deposits inside Structure Ten in 2015. (ORCA)
2015: Excavation of the occupation deposits inside Structure Ten. (📷 ORCA)

The forecourt

Structure Ten annexe wall
Structure Ten’s northern forecourt wall showing the rectangular cell and the standing stone stump. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Structure Ten’s interior stonework was matched by that of the exterior. This building was clearly making a statement and was meant to look as impressive from the outside as it did inside.

Adding to the grandeur was a large forecourt, flanked by projecting walls – reminiscent of the hornwork outside Neolithic horned cairns – and a pair of standing stones.

Structure Ten's northern forecourt wall. The standing stone stump is pictured right, with the cell to the left. (Sigurd Towrie)
Another view of the forecourt’s northern wall. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
The paved floor of the forecourt wall cell. (ORCA)
The paved floor of the forecourt wall cell. (📷 ORCA)

Only the northern forecourt wall, which incorporates a rectangular side cell, and adjacent standing stone have been exposed but, given the importance of symmetry in the Neolithic, it is unlikely the southern side was any different.

The forecourt appears to have been a later addition, added after construction work on Structure Ten was either complete or well under way.

The fact its northern wall was built around the substantial megalith also suggests the stone pre-dated Structure Ten.

What we do not know is how long the stone, and its probable twin, had towered over the Ness before the construction of Ten began.

Months, decades, centuries?

Like the two Lochview megaliths a short distance to the east, Ten’s northern standing stone was square in section and fashioned from camptonite.

A carefully drilled hole in its western side brings to mind the Odin Stone, which had a larger perforation, and which stood between Structure Ten and the Stones of Stenness until December 1814.

Ten’s standing stone was also partially demolished, but in prehistory – presumably when the building was partially dismantled and abandoned at the end of its life.

The stone’s top was broken off and smashed. Some of the pieces were recovered during excavation, including the upper part of the perforation.

The forecourt walls and megaliths not only framed Structure Ten’s entrance but created a clearly defined space outside the building.

However, excavation has revealed little evidence of how this area was used.  This ties in with finds across the site, where buildings were kept scrupulously clean.

Whatever, if anything, was going on outside Structure Ten it seems they were clearing up as they went along.

Phase Two

Structure Ten after its phase two rebuild and remodelling.
Structure Ten after its phase two rebuild and remodelling.

In the centuries before the construction of Structure Ten, subsidence had been a problem at the Ness of Brodgar complex.

Its predecessors were raised on decidedly shaky foundations – usually just the midden-covered remains of earlier buildings. When this midden began to compress under the weight, walls slumped, tipped and eventually collapsed. Subsidence impacted most of the buildings on site, particularly Structures Eight and Twelve.

Structure Ten was also raised on top of earlier buildings – at least two. Undoubtedly to negate (or delay?) the impact of subsidence, huge stone slabs were used as foundations for sections of the building’s huge walls.

View across Structure Ten, towards its entrance. in 2015. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
2015: View across Structure Ten, towards its entrance. (📷 Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

But it made little difference.

Around 2800BC – perhaps less than a century after its construction – Structure Ten collapsed. Its south-western corner, in particular, was badly affected.

The building was clearly considered important enough to rebuild. The reconstruction work, however, was less than impressive.

While Structure Ten’s interior was once one of the most stunning examples of Neolithic architecture and masonry in north-western Europe, the rebuild, like that of Structure Twelve, was a decidedly scrappier affair.

One of the decorated faces on the stone underneath the south-western buttress inside Structure Ten. (📷 ORCA)

The rebuilding work maintained Ten’s outward appearance but inside there were dramatic changes.

Buttresses were added to the inner chamber’s north-eastern, south-eastern and south-western corners.

These, together with a pier inserted into the north-west corner, not only reduced the floor space but transformed the interior into a cruciform layout akin to that of Maeshowe.

Although the buttresses were perhaps added to stabilise the building, they are also very similar to the corner features inside Maeshowe

Although these are commonly referred to as buttresses, they have no structural purpose and may actually have been detrimental to the chambered cairn’s stability.

Another possibility is that just as the piered buildings drew on the architecture of orthostat-divided, domestic dwellings, Structure Ten’s new buttresses were a symbolic nod to their use in earlier houses.

Whatever their purpose, foundation deposits were deliberately placed beneath each one.

A bone deposit beneath one of Structure Ten's corner buttresses. (ORCA)
A bone deposit beneath one of Structure Ten’s corner buttresses. (📷 ORCA)
Human arm bone from Structure Ten.
The only human bone – an adult humerus – among the animal remains under Structure Ten’s buttresses. The arm bone was radiocarbon dated to c2800BC – the same period that saw the interior of the building remodelled. (📷 ORCA)
One of the stone dressers at Skara Brae, as seen from the house’s entrance. (Sigurd Towrie)
A stone ‘dresser’ at Skara Brae, as seen from the house entrance. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

As well as cattle bones, these deposits included a large, highly decorated stone, a carved stone ball, an unusually decorated pottery vessel, a human arm bone and the wing bone of a sea eagle.

Were these to help ensure the stability of the reconstructed building?

Other additions included a new dresser directly opposite the entrance.

We have all seen the so-called “dressers” in Skara Brae, but the indications are that Structure Ten’s was a real work of art.

Decorated stone. (Antonia Thomas)
The pick-dressed sandstone block used in Structure Ten’s ‘dresser’. (📷 Antonia Thomas)

The surviving elements suggest it was highly decorated and incorporated dressed red sandstone in its construction.

The right-hand support, for example, was a red sandstone block, the surface of which had been carefully pick-dressed to leave two bas-relief triangles on its outer edge.

While the artistry, patience and skill of the stoneworkers is clear, it is likely these sandstone elements were reused from the Ten’s primary phase.

Unlike Skara Brae’s dressers, which were built against the entrance-facing walls, Structure Ten’s grand example was freestanding. Because it stood some distance from the building’s west wall, its rear was formed by drystone masonry.

A bench-like feature in the Structure Ten’s northern recess may relate to a second dresser.

In the north-western corner, partially hidden by the addition of a new pier, was a “paintshop” – an area used to produce coloured pigments.

Evidence of this came in the form of deposits of ochre, galena and haematite and the mortars used to grind these minerals.

Section of the paved passagway behind Structure Ten. (Jo Bourne)
Section of the paved passageway behind Structure Ten. (📷 Jo Bourne)

Abandoned and decommissioned

Although Structure Ten’s second-phase activity seems to have been more domestic in nature, it remained on a grand scale. The building’s use also seems to have become more episodic and it is not clear how long it lasted.

What we can say is that around 2500BC – some four centuries after Structure Ten’s construction – a fire was kindled in its hearth for the last time.

This event heralded the careful and complete decommissioning of the building.

Excavation of Structure Ten's hearth revealing an upturned cattle skull and multi-cupmarked stone. (ORCA)
Excavation of Structure Ten’s hearth revealing an upturned cattle skull and multi-cupmarked stone. (📷 ORCA)
The cupmarked stone deposited in Structure Ten's hearth. (ORCA)
Another cupmarked stone, this time from the north side of the entrance. (📷 ORCA)

A large, multi-cupmarked stone was placed at the centre of the hearth alongside an inverted cattle skull.  A complete Grooved Ware pot was also placed in a pit dug into the floor of the southern recess.

Animal bone is frequently found in structured deposits at the Ness and appears to relate to the foundation and decommissioning of buildings.

Although the upturned skull marked the demise of Structure Ten, a similar deposit at the Links of Noltland Neolithic settlement, in Westray, seems to relate to a construction of a new building.

There, 30 inverted cattle skulls, their horns interlocked, were carefully placed within the wall core of Structure Nine.

This was interpreted as a foundation deposit perhaps connected to a feast marking “the start of that house’s life”. [4]

Back at the Ness, however, there is no doubt that Structure Ten was finished.

The building’s walls were partially dismantled and the interior filled with layers of midden and rubble.

Eventually Structure Ten was transformed into a monumental mound.

Although other mounds throughout Orkney – the chambered and stalled cairns – contained (and perhaps constrained) the remains of the ancestral dead, the new mound at the south-eastern end of the Ness of Brodgar covered the remains of a “dead” building and all it once represented.

The final feast

Structure Ten's outer wall face and paved path. (Tim Winterburn)
Structure Ten’s outer wall face and paved passageway. (📷 Tim Winterburn)
Excavating a small section of the animal bone deposit surrounding Structure Ten. (ORCA)
Excavating a small section of the animal bone deposit surrounding Structure Ten. (📷 ORCA)

It may have been abandoned and buried, but Structure Ten was clearly not forgotten.

By around 2400BC, it is unlikely that anyone had witnessed its final days, let alone its former glory. But people came back. Memories of the building must have endured, perhaps slipping into the realm of myth or folklore.

We know people returned because animal bone was carefully deposited in Ten’s outer passageway. The bone was placed in layers with each layer covered by rubble and soil.

The final, and therefore uppermost, layer consisted of a huge deposit in which bone – primarily cattle tibiae – was carefully and deliberately arranged around Structure Ten. Such was the quantity found that we estimate the final deposit represents at least 400 cattle – all of which, radiocarbon dating suggests, were slaughtered at about the same time, around 2400BC. [5]

The sheer number of cattle, and the fact that the tibiae had been broken to extract the marrow, leads us to believe that the bone deposit represented a huge, communal feasting event.

The quantity of meat produced by 400 cattle suggests this was more than a simple gathering.

Were they commemorating the end of the Ness, or celebrating the start of something new?

These deposition episodes perhaps relate to a radically changing world, coinciding with the appearance of the beaker culture in Britain and its package of new ideas and materials.

Robbing the past

Time passed.

After an unknown period, Structure Ten, like many of the Ness buildings before it, was targeted by stone robbers.

However, this operation was far from crude plundering for building material. Stone was extracted from its ruins in a highly systematic manner, by people who clearly knew what they were looking for and where to find it.

Like the robbing of Structures Twenty-Seven and Twelve, the retrieval of stone from Ten was precise – an operation “better understood as excavation, rather than as robbing”. [1]

In this case they were after quality stone, particularly the blocks that had once faced the interior wall.

The sought-after stone was clearly considered significant – either due to its quality or its association with the building. The targeted nature of its removal suggests the perpetrators had some knowledge of the Ten’s interior – despite the fact it had been buried at least 150 years previously:

“…those engaged in the enterprise were evidently well aware of what lay beneath [and] where the favoured stone was likely to be. That required a sense of history, a sustained memory of how the building had been put together and what it contained.” [3]

Where did the robbed stone go? Presumably it was reused elsewhere.

Although Structure Ten was the last monumental construction in Trench P, there may well be others outside the excavation area – including a candidate a few hundred metres to the north-west of the site.

Remember, we have excavated a mere ten per cent of a site covering an area of over 2.5 hectares.

Contenders further afield include the Ring of Bookan, at the opposite end of the Ness, where geophysical survey has hinted at a large, sub-rectangular building at its centre, akin to Structure Ten.

Or perhaps the recovered stone was destined for another substantial prehistoric complex north of the Bookan earthwork.

Into the Bronze Age

The articulated remains of a young red deer placed on top of the earlier bone deposit. (ORCA)
The articulated remains of a young red deer placed on top of the earlier bone deposit. (📷 ORCA)
The Bronze Age barbed-and-tanged arrowhead, (📷 ORCA)

The story of Structure Ten does not end there.

Our last evidence of activity around the building dates to c2290-2120BC, when the articulated remains of at least three red deer were laid on the bone layer surrounding its remains. [5]

Around the same time, a single sherd of early Bronze Age Beaker pottery and a classic barbed-and-tanged arrowhead were placed on top.

Although this suggests that Structure Ten was still remembered, and perhaps retained some significance, it also highlights that the glory days of the Ness were long gone.

Times were changing and the era of obsessive monumental Neolithic construction were long gone.

3d models

2023: Struture Ten. (📷 Jim Rylatt)


  • [1] Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of History: The Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), pp. 1171–1188.
  • [2] Card, N. and Edmonds, M. (2020) Late Buildings. In Card, N., Edmonds, M. and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [3] Challands, A., Muir, T. and Richards, C. (2005) The Great Passage Grave of Maeshowe. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 229–248.
  • [4] Clarke, D.V., Sheridan, A., Shepherd, A., Sharples, N., Armour-Chelu, M., Hamlet, L., Bronk Ramsey, C., Dunbar, E., Reimer, P.J., Marshall, P. and Whittle, A. (2016). The end of the world, or just’goodbye to all that’? Contextualising the red deer heap from Links of Noltland, Westray, within late 3rd-millennium cal BC Orkney. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 146, pp. 57-89). Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
  • [5] Mainland. I, Blanz. M, Ayres. J and Webster. C (2020). Cattle and Other Animals: Human-Animal Relationships at the Ness of Brodgar. In Card. N, Edmonds. M and Mitchell. A (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As It Stands. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
Structure Ten: Excavation over Time