Structure Five

2023: Structure Five and the 'Great Wall of Brodgar'.  (📷 Tom O'Brien)
2023: Structure Five and the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’. (📷 Tom O’Brien)

Lying within Trench J, at the northwestern end of the site, Structure Five holds the distinction of being both the earliest excavated building at the Ness and the largest non-funerary Early Neolithic construction found in Orkney to date.

Built around 3300 BC, it predates the large piered structures in Trench P (Structures One, Eight and Twelve) by approximately 200 years. Four centuries lie between it and Structure Ten – the last major building, raised around 2900BC.

The excavated section of Structure Five is sub-rectangular with an oval north-eastern end. Orientated north-east to south-west, the building stood beside, and is probably contemporary with, the northern boundary wall, or “Great Wall of Brodgar”.

It measures 16 metres long and 7.5 metres at its widest point. Geophysical survey suggests another 4.5 metres lie beyond the south-western trench edge, making the building over 20 metres long.

Structure Five was first revealed in 2005 and excavated until 2008. The trench was reopened in 2017, when work in and around the building resumed.

Initially, Five’s early date was based on its architecture, which is very similar to other known early Neolithic buildings, namely the Knap of Howar, in Papa Westray, and the Braes of Ha’Breck, in Wyre – both of which date from around 3300-3000BC.

This was confirmed in 2021, following the discovery of round-bottomed pottery in the building’s south-western end. This ceramic style generally preceded the appearance of Grooved Ware pottery around 3200BC.

The original, rectangular building

Structure Five's primary phase.
Structure Five’s primary phase.
2023: Structure Five's central hearth.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
2023: Structure Five’s central hearth. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Like all the Ness of Brodgar buildings, Structure Five saw multiple phases of use.

It began life as a rectangular building, measuring over 14 metres long and 7.5 metres wide. While the later Ness buildings used midden for wall core, Structure Five had small stones and redeposited boulder clay in its double-skinned walls.

At this stage, the interior was not divided by orthostats or piers.

It had a single entrance in the south-eastern side wall and a large rectangular hearth aligned perfectly to the building’s northeast-southwest axis. Initially around 1.4 metres long, the hearth was later extended to 1.95 metres, retaining its rectangular form but leaving it slightly off-centre.


The absence of stone tiles among its remains suggests that Structure Five was also roofed differently, possibly explaining the series of post-holes discovered at the base of its inner walls.

In 2022, two depressions on either side of the entrance were found to be large, well-built post-holes. These showed the doorway was flanked by a pair of substantial timber posts.

Another four were subsequently discovered, forming a rectangle approximately seven metres by four metres. The stone-lined holes held large posts, measuring up to 0.55 metres in diameter.

Their location along the bottom of the interior wall strongly suggests they were integral to the building and presumably supported its roof.

If that were the case, it is a feature unique to Structure Five. Where evidence of post use has been found elsewhere on site it is for hasty structural repairs, such as that encountered in Structures Eight and Twelve due to subsidence.

The location of the Structure Five post-holes. (📷 Tom O'Brien)
The location of the Structure Five post-holes. (📷 Tom O’Brien)

The post-holes’ discovery led to the suggestion that they represented the remains of a timber building that preceded Five.

The post-hole excavated at Structure Five's original entrance (highlighted bottom) and the supected location (highlighted top) of its twin. (Sigurd Towrie)
The two post-holes flanking Structure Five’s original entrance. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The posts were similar in size to those encountered in the much-smaller Timber Structure One at the Wideford Hill Early Neolithic settlement. There, excavation in 2002 and 2003, not only revealed evidence of early timber buildings but a switch from wooden construction to stone around 3300BC.

The 3300BC date proposed for Five fits the timber-stone transition period suggested for other Orcadian sites. After the 2023 season, however, it seems more likely that the post-holes relate to the construction of Five.

That work in 2023 also revealed evidence of earlier activity beneath Structure Five. Whether this was also Neolithic – perhaps a timber structure, or even earlier, remains to be seen.

The incorporation of substantial wooden posts into Structure Five may have been more than just structural, perhaps enhancing its grandeur as well as emphasising the builders’ status.

If a dwindling supply led to the transition from wood to stone, that would have seen timber become a more valuable resource. This may have contributed significantly to the prestige of procuring, transporting and using the large posts within a structure.

That impact may also have been enhanced if they were brought to site from an earlier significant building. With this in mind, and given the quantity of stone artwork across the Ness site, it is worth pondering whether the posts were decorated or carved.

The two substantial post-holes flanking Structure Five's primary entrance. (Jo Bourne)
The two substantial post-holes flanking Structure Five’s primary entrance. (📷 Jo Bourne)

If the posts were to support Structure Five’s roof, the absence of stone tiles within its remains is interesting. If stone were not being used what was?

Excavated in 2023, a layer of black material on top of floor deposits in the building’s primary section may represent the vestiges of a dismantled or collapsed turf roof. Turf has also been suggested as the roofing material used at the nearby Barnhouse settlement.

Furniture features

Also flanking Structure Five’s entrance was a pair of stone furniture features. Another three were directly opposite, on the north-western wall, while a sixth was against the north-eastern interior wall. In 2023, another two were found, bringing the total to eight.

The upper sections are long gone, making interpretation difficult but in 2022 it was suggested at least some of these might be variants Skara Brae-type “dressers”.

The location of the stone furniture in Structure Five. (📷 Tom O’Brien)

“Dressers” have been encountered at the Ness before and have become iconic symbols of Skara Brae, where the visitor can still see complete examples.

There they were built to the same design and placed in the same position — directly opposite the entrance.

Typical Skara Brae 'dresser'.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Typical Skara Brae ‘dresser’. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The term “dresser” is a hangover from the 19th century antiquarians, who basically saw the stone edifices as simple display cabinets – a place to put your best pottery and other prized possessions on show.

But the significance and role of these so-called “dressers” has been questioned over the years. Were they more than just a set of shelves? Their presence in Structure Ten, reignited the debate.

Skara Brae’s “dressers” were built against the walls but, like those in Structure Five, Ten’s primary dresser was free-standing and incorporated slabs of striking red and yellow sandstone — stone that had been brought to the site and presumably for that specific reason.

The stone features along the interior of Structure Five's original north wall. (Sigurd Towrie)
2022: The remains of one of Structure Five’s ‘dressers’ – this one positioned against the interior of the original north-eastern wall. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Considering the non-domestic role of Structure Ten, it is possible that these “dressers” had a function beyond storage or display.

However, this raises the question of why Structure Five had at least eight.

Further excavation in 2023 cast doubt on the dresser interpretation. But what these features represent is still open to question.

The north-eastern feature (pictured right), for example, was found to extend across most of the width of the building. Do we have a bench-like feature akin to those encountered in stalled cairns? But for the living?

Despite its scale and grand architecture, however, it seems Five’s primary phase was short-lived. Inside, the occupation deposits were found to be extremely shallow, suggesting the building was not in use for long.

This fits with structural features found beneath Structures Ten and Twelve in 2023, which may represent multiple early buildings used for very short periods and replaced in very quick succession.

Structure Five, however, was not succeeded by another monumental building.

Structure Five extended

Structure Five phase two - the addition of the north-eastern annexe.
Structure Five phase two – the addition of the north-eastern annexe.

During the primary section’s apparently short life, an oval extension was tacked on to its north-eastern end.

The outer paving and curving walls of Structure Five's blocked entrance. (Sigurd Towrie)
2022: The outer paving and curving walls of the ‘porch’ outside Structure Five’s original entrance. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

This five-metre-long addition was probably separated from the primary occupation area by its original north-eastern end wall, which now partitioned Structure Five into two “rooms”.

Again, it is difficult to tell because of stone-robbing, but it seems likely that a doorway was inserted into the dividing wall’s eastern end to provide access between the two sections.

The new area was divided internally by radial upright slabs and, given the volume of ashy material encountered, probably had a central hearth.

Around the same time, a stone porch-like feature was added outside Five’s entrance as part of an operation to rebuild the south-eastern wall.

2023: Structure Five's oval north-eastern extension.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
2023: Structure Five’s oval north-eastern extension. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Dismantled and decommissioned

Not long after the addition of the extension, however, Five’s original, rectangular section may have suffered a collapse, resulting in its decommissioning and partial dismantling.

The timber posts were carefully removed, suggesting the building’s roof had already gone. Artefacts were placed at the bottom of the empty post-holes, which were then backfilled.

Each “dresser” was dismantled and the stone taken away – apart from the one against the south-east wall, where the “shelf” was broken.

A new doorway was inserted in the rebuilt north-eastern extension after the original entrance, a few metres to the south-west, was blocked.

2021 drone shot of the original entrance to Structure Five with the blocking material still in place. Note the circular wall in the interior, inserted to separate the former doorway from the rest of the interior. (Jim Rylatt)
2021: The original entrance to Structure Five with the blocking material in place. Note the remains of the arc-shaped wall in the interior, inserted to separate the former doorway from the rest of the building. (📷 Jim Rylatt)

An arc-shaped wall, constructed from large boulders and flagstones, was built to contain this blocking material and to separate the former doorway from the rest of the building’s remains.

The demise of Five’s primary section may be related to the demolition of the northern boundary wall. [1]

Occupation continues

With the primary section dismantled, occupation continued within the former north-eastern extension.

Although the north-eastern end remained in use, it saw some poor-quality rebuilding and remodelling. Some of this later reconstruction sat on top of the detritus associated with the destruction/robbing of the “Great Wall”.

At the northern end, a large drain was also inserted into the wall.

Structure Five had been raised on natural glacial till – the original ground surface 5,000 years ago. As a result, the building’s floor was lower than the surrounding ground level, which meant there were problems with water ingress.

This accounts for the clay sealing found on the lower courses of Five’s external walls – a feature also encountered at the Early Neolithic settlement site at Smerquoy, at the base of Wideford Hill.

The clay barrier replaced a drainage gully cut into the till outside the original building’s walls. How well it worked is open to question given the later addition of the drain at the north-eastern tip.

2023: The substantial drain added to the end of the north-eastern extension. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

In the area of the original building, amid the rubble, sections of walling still stood. These were robbed to provide building material for Structure Thirty-Two, which also incorporated part of Five’s still-standing north-western wall into its fabric.

Structure Thirty-Two cleaned and ready for photography/3d modelling. (Sigurd Towrie)
2022: Structure Thirty-Two – a later building raised on the rubble of Structure Five’s collapsed south-western end. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Occupation deposits in the north-eastern end are much deeper and complex than those in Five’s primary section, suggesting it remained in use for a much longer period of time. The presence of Grooved Ware pottery in the later phases of occupation suggests activity continued here until at least 3200BC.

At the end of its life, Structure Five’s sole entrance was deliberately blocked, suggesting a deliberate act of closure/decommissioning.

Where this final abandonment fits into the Ness of Brodgar’s timeline is unclear, but it may be that the building was still in use after the construction of the final phase of piered buildings in Trench P (c3100BC).

This may also go some way to explain why no major buildings were constructed on top of Structure Five. The area continued to be used, however, as shown by the multiple hearths and features encountered within the midden that accumulated over its remains. [2]

Structure Five and the 'Great Wall of Brodgar' from the air in 2022. (Scott Pike)
2022: Structure Five and the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’ from the air. (📷 Scott Pike)

3d models

2022: Structure Five and the ‘Great Wall’. (📷 Scott Pike)
2023: Trench J. (📷 Jim Rylatt)


Structure Five 3D Model