Structure Ten

Structure Ten.

In 2008, excavation revealed “one of the largest, if not the largest, stone-built Neolithic non-funerary structures in Britain.”

Structure Ten was unlike anything else on site – a huge square building with an entrance forecourt flanked by a pair of standing stones.

Measuring over 20 metres by 19 metres externally and with five-metre-thick walls, Structure Ten was surrounded by a one-metre-wide paved pathway that was enclosed by a wall.

One of the stone dressers at Skara Brae, as seen from the house’s entrance. (Sigurd Towrie)

One of the stone dressers at Skara Brae, as seen from the house entrance. (Sigurd Towrie)

Built around 2900BC, Structure Ten was the last monumental construction in Trench P and erected shortly after the southern end of Structure Eight collapsed.

Originally its main chamber was, like Barnhouse Structure Eight, square-shaped with rounded corners covering an area eight metres square.

Accessed by a single east-facing entrance that faced the site of Maeshowe and the equinoctial sunrise, the chamber was beautifully built and made extensive use of pick-dressed and decorated stone. Among these were slabs of red and yellow sandstone, the nearest source of which is some six kilometres to the south of the site.

A hearth occupied the centre of the chamber, with a recess in the west wall that may have contained a dresser-like arrangement similar to those visible at Skara Brae.

Its yellow clay floor had been extensively patched over time, suggesting intensive footfall within the interior.

Outside, the quality of the external stonework matched that of the interior – setting Ten apart from earlier buildings where attention was focused on the interior. Structure Ten, however, was clearly meant to look impressive from the outside.

Structure Ten's northern forecourt wall. The standing stone stump is pictured right, with the cell to the left. (Sigurd Towrie)

Structure Ten’s northern forecourt wall. The standing stone stump is pictured right, with the cell to the left. (Sigurd Towrie)

Adding to the grandeur was a large forecourt, flanked by a pair of walls (reminiscent of the hornwork encountered outside Neolithic horned cairns) and standing stones. Only the northern wall and standing stone have been exposed but given the importance of symmetry in the construction of Structure Ten it is highly unlikely the southern side is any different.

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.

The forecourt stone was destroyed in prehistory, its top broken and presumably removed from site. 

Despite its different architecture, Structure Ten had something in common with its predecessors – it was built on shaky foundations and erected on top of the remains of earlier structures. Elements of these buildings are visible under the central hearth and in the north-western corner of the interior. Structure Twenty protrudes from the beneath the forecourt and the entrance.

This resulted in subsidence and, within decades, Structure Ten collapsed.


Structure Ten - phases 1 & 2

The operation to rebuild – although nowhere near the quality of the original – maintained the building’s outward appearance but saw dramatic changes to the interior. During this second phase activity within Structure Ten seem to have been more domestic in nature.

Buttresses were added to the north-eastern, south-eastern and south-western corners, perhaps in an attempt to stabilise the building. 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 those found within Maeshowe-type chambered cairns.

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

A number of votive deposits had been placed underneath each buttress, including a large, beautifully decorated stone, a carved stone ball, a human arm bone and the wing bone of a white-tailed sea eagle.

Other additions included a dresser on the west wall, opposite the entrance, and perhaps a second up against the northern wall. In the north-western corner, partially hidden by the new pier, was the “paintshop” – an area used for the production and preparation of coloured pigments.

It is not clear how long Structure Ten’s second phase lasted, but there was a period when it does not appear to have been used and possibly abandoned.

Its final use took place around 2500BC – four centuries after its construction – when the central hearth was reused. This appears to have marked the building’s decommissioning and afterwards a large cupmarked stone was placed in the centre of the hearth alongside an inverted cattle skull.

The building’s walls were partially dismantled, and the interior filled with layers of midden and rubble. The result was a cairn-like mound similar to those containing chambered cairns and found throughout Orkney.

Around 2400BC, huge numbers of animal bone – primarily cattle tibiae – were carefully placed in the outer passage and also covered in rubble and midden. These have been interpreted as the remains of a huge decommissioning feast, in which at least 400 cattle were killed and consumed.

In some sections of the passageway, the cattle bone was overlain by complete deer carcasses.

Structure Ten’s time was over. But it was not forgotten.

Structure Ten's outer wall face and paved path. (Tim Winterburn)

Structure Ten’s outer wall face and paved path. (Tim Winterburn)

After an unknown period of time, people returned to the building but to carefully remove stone. The stone-robbers knew what they were looking for and carefully located and removed specific stonework, in particular the blocks that originally faced the interior walls.

Whoever they were, they clearly knew what they were looking for and where to find it. Where did these blocks go? Presumably another building, but as yet we do not know where that is.

Structure Ten must have been spectacular in its heyday, with walls standing two metres high, and perhaps a massive roof stretching skyward. Clearly, it was meant to impress and would have been a truly incredible sight — monumental in every sense of the word.

Structure Ten from above. (Hugo Anderson Whymark)

Structure Ten from above. (Hugo Anderson Whymark)

Structure Ten: Excavation over Time