Around the Ness: The Barnhouse Settlement – House Two

House Two at the Barnhouse Settlement. (Sigurd Towrie)

House Two at the Barnhouse Settlement. (Sigurd Towrie)

By Sigurd Towrie

For three centuries the Barnhouse settlement was dominated by a structure unlike any of the others in the village.

Labelled House Two by Prof Colin Richards, who discovered and excavated the site, it was also unique among Neolithic buildings in Orkney until the Ness of Brodgar complex appeared on the scene in 2003.

Located on the south-western outskirts of the settlement, House Two was a substantial, beautifully constructed building that incorporated elements of passage grave architecture and which, excavation suggested, was more than just a dwelling [1].

Measuring 12.8 metres (42ft) long by ten metres (32.8ft) wide, it was over twice the size of the circular dwellings around it and, dating from 3130-3070BC, one of the first buildings constructed at the Barnhouse site [2]. It was also built to a much higher standard. “The quality of masonry,” wrote Professor Colin Richards, “would have overshadowed the stone walling or possible shabby turf-clad exteriors of the other houses within the village.” Given the quantity of dressed and decorated stone encountered at the Ness of Brodgar [3], 400 metres to the north-west, it seems highly likely that House Two was similarly embellished.

So, with exquisite stonework, perhaps decorated and coloured and with a stone “tiled” roof [4], House Two would not only have stood out among dwellings clustered in its shadow but was probably the focus of life for the duration of the settlement. While the houses around it came and went, House Two stood resolute from the founding of the village until its eventual abandonment. [1]

House Two during excavation. Pictured directly opposite the entrance (at the top right of the photograph) are the remains of House Nine. (Richards et al. 2016) 

Access to the interior was by a single, off-centre entrance on the eastern side. But House Two did not stand alone. Although not part of the reconstruction visible today, beside House Two was House Nine – their entrances facing each other and a mere 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) apart. But unlike its monumental counterpart, House Nine was similar in design and scale to the other dwellings within the village. We will return to House Nine later.

Inside, House Two was divided into two distinct halves – one used periodically for the preparation and cooking of food, the other, Prof Richards suggested, for the creation of polished stone artefacts. [1]

Plan of Quanterness chambered cairn. (After Renfrew 1979)

Plan of Quanterness chambered cairn, Orkney. (After Renfrew 1979)

Six large, rectangular recesses – an architectural feature encountered again at the Ness of Brodgar complex almost two decades later – were formed by corner buttresses and a pair of central stone piers projecting from the inner walls. The piers, together with a line of upright orthostats, created two symmetrical “chambers”, each with its own large hearth. [1]

Plan of the Quoyness chambered cairn, Sanday, Orkney.

Plan of the Quoyness chambered cairn, Sanday, Orkney. (After Childe 1951)

Spatially, House Two’s interior layout can be seen to represent two facing Neolithic houses – intriguing given its relationship with the aforementioned House Nine – but the dual-cruciform floor plan also paralleled that of the Quoyness and Quanterness chambered cairns in Orkney. The passage grave similarities continue with the quality of the internal stonework, with Prof Richards exclaiming in 2005 that House Two’s “inner wall face … displayed the most sophisticated masonry present in any late Neolithic houses yet discovered in Orkney.” [1]

After negotiating the low, narrow entrance passageway, the visitor found themselves in the north-eastern, or outer, chamber. This area served two roles. While activity centred on the hearth, where we know food was prepared and cooked, the north-eastern section also served as an antechamber to the inner, south-western, area. Standing at the entrance, even by the light of the fire, the central partition – and perhaps animal-skin -hangings or panels of woven grass – meant the inner section remained “hidden and secluded” [1].

The single entrance to House Two with the kist directly opposite, beside the north-eastern chamber hearth. (Sigurd Towrie)

The single entrance to House Two with the kist directly opposite, beside the north-eastern chamber hearth. (Sigurd Towrie)

This partition also prevented direct access to the inner chamber and was one of a series of architectural features that rigidly controlled movement around the interior. Those seeking entry to the south-western section had to move forward, past the fireplace and crossing over a stone-covered pit. Flanked by a pair of wooden posts, the pit contained fragments of poorly-preserved bone. Similar cists are known from the Quoyness and Quanterness chambered cairns – funerary structures that shared the same spatial arrangement – where they were also dug into the floors. Although these contained human skeletal remains, the bone from the House Two cist was too degraded to tell whether it was human or animal. [1]

Moving on, our Neolithic visitor must turn left and follow a passage formed by stone uprights to the inner chamber. This area was markedly different to the outer section – both in architectural features and the activities undertaken within. Excavation showed the south-western chamber had been used less frequently and its hearth, which was of a “superior construction”, remained in use until the house was finally abandoned, along with the rest of the settlement [1]. This hearth, however, had not been used for cooking. Instead, the evidence pointed to the are being used for the consumption of food.

At the “rear” of the inner chamber, the south-western recess contained a series of pits that may have held the uprights for a typical Neolithic “dresser” [1]. These were just a few of many pits that had been dug into the chamber floor and backfilled. The majority contained artefacts “that could be regarded as deliberate deposits” [1] and perhaps used for the “purposeful burial of ‘special’ objects, perhaps including organic or skeletal material.” [1]

House Two interior. (Richards 2005) [1]

In the village’s central “meeting” area, the excavators had found a polished macehead fashioned from banded mudstone. In House Two, they found an unworked rock of the same type, together with a sandstone slab that showed evidence of polishing and grinding use. This, and the fact that worked stone from the building was “significantly different” to the rest of the village, with a higher proportion of “finely worked pieces” [5], led Prof Richards to suggest the inner chamber was used for the manufacture of “ritual objects, such as maceheads” [1]. The pits, he felt, related to the “burial and, in some cases, later removal of objects.” – including a polished stone chisel, buried in the eastern recess. [1]

To Prof Richards, House Two was a site where the realms of the living and dead converged – “a place situated within the living community [but on the periphery] but referencing the dead or ancestral community.” It was, he suggested, “a special building incorporating aspects of funerary architecture and hence can be interpreted as a cult or ceremonial house.” [1]

Excavation cast doubt that House Two was used as a permanent dwelling, pointing instead to episodic occupation or use. But what was its role within the village?

Today it is rare to have a building that serves just one purpose and it is unlikely that it was any different in prehistory. House Two probably meant different things at different times and perhaps to different people. Stone objects were perhaps being fashioned within and it was also being used for cooking and the consumption of food – something also noted at the Ness of Brodgar.

Houses Two, Nine and Three at the Barnhouse settlement, in relation to the drains that served them. (Jones and Richards 2005 [7])

Another factor that suggests House Two had some significance is its longevity. As we have seen, dwellings at Barnhouse were repeatedly dismantled and replaced throughout the life of the settlement. House Two, however, was left untouched and remained in use for most of the village’s life. There was no evidence of demolition and reconstruction and the structure was “kept in a state of cleanliness exceeding that seen in the other dwellings”, excavation suggesting that it was cleaned periodically after bouts of activity [1].

“Such careful attention to the upkeep of this building perhaps betrays [its] special character … and its role as a possible domain for ritual practices,” wrote Prof Richards. [1]

It may have been a meeting place – a secluded site for discourse or activities restricted to a select few. Did it also play a part in the funerary traditions of the villagers? A place, perhaps, were the dead were laid out and prepared for disposal? Here it is interesting to note not only the building’s passage grave parallels but its peripheral position in the settlement.

As Prof Richards has highlighted, House Two’s western position may relate to the notion that west symbolised death [5]. The deepest, darkest recess in the structure is to the south-west – the direction of the setting, or dying, sun around midwinter. It is notable that access to this area required the visitor to pass over a threshold marked by a burial cist [5].

It may be purely coincidental but House Two’s entrance faces the area where the midwinter sun finally rises above the hills around 9.45am. But before we start talking about the passage being aligned to allow the light of the new day to penetrate the dark interior, it must be remembered that House Nine stood directly opposite the entrance, blocking not just the view but the light.

Until 2003, House Two was considered unique in the Orcadian Neolithic.

That all changed with the discovery of the Ness of Brodgar complex. Now we have a cluster of monumental structures that share the same architecture and are contemporary with House Two. Of these, Structure Fourteen is almost identical [6]. Not only was it divided into two sections, each containing a hearth, but directly opposite its southern entrance stood a smaller building, Structure Sixteen. [6]

August 19, 2012. (ORCA)

Structure Fourteen at the Ness of Brodgar during excavation in 2012. (ORCA)

This mirrors the arrangement between Houses Two and Nine at Barnhouse. As we have seen, House Nine was a small, circular building whose entrance faced that of House Two. Little of House Nine remained – but enough to confirm the entrance alignment and the presence of a hearth, which suggested the structure was a dwelling. Whether it was ever occupied, and if so, how often, is not clear. [1]

At the Ness of Brodgar complex, Structure Sixteen also contained a hearth, but there evidence suggests it served as “an annex or outbuilding associated with the use of Structure Fourteen” [6]. The same may be true for House Nine.

House Two was one of the first structures built at Barnhouse around 3100BC and remained in use until shortly before the abandonment of the settlement around 2900BC [6]. A similar picture has emerged at the Ness of Brodgar, where the piered structures went out of use around 2900BC and a square, wall-enclosed building – Structure Ten – erected on top of some.

Around the same time, or perhaps slightly earlier, House Nine was demolished to make room the construction of the monumental Structure Eight – a building raised on the site of the village’s southern, peripheral meeting area [6]. It is to this building we will turn to next.


  • [1] Richards, C. (2005) The Ceremonial House Two. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research: Cambridge.
  • [2] Richards, C., Jones, A.M., MacSween, A., Sheridan, A., Dunbar, E., Reimer, P., Bayliss, A., Griffiths, S. and Whittle, A. (2016) Settlement duration and materiality: formal chronological models for the development of Barnhouse, a Grooved Ware settlement in Orkney. In Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (Vol. 82, pp. 193–225). Cambridge University Press.
  • [3] Thomas, A. (2016) Art and architecture in Neolithic Orkney: process, temporality and context.
  • [4] Although there was no evidence for roof tiles at Barnhouse, the site had been badly damaged by centuries of agricultural work. Given the fact that House Two was identical to Structure Fourteen at the Ness of Brodgar, where we know the monumental buildings had stone roofs, it is not impossible that it did too.
  • [5] Richards, C. (1993) An archaeological study of Neolithic Orkney: architecture, order and social classification (Doctoral dissertation, University of Glasgow).
  • [6] Card, N., Edmonds, M. and Mitchell, A. (eds) (2020) The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [7] Jones, A.M. and Richards, C. (2005) Living in Barnhouse. 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. 23-56.

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