Around the Ness: The Barnhouse Settlement – Structure Eight

“The overall impression of Structure Eight is that of a large building drawing on certain elements of the house and transforming them into monumental proportions. In architectural form it continues a general movement towards restriction and greater control over the movement of people in the later Neolithic.”

Colin Richards. The late Neolithic settlement complex at Barnhouse farm, Stenness. 1990 [1])

The reconstructed Structure Eight at Barnhouse. (Adam Stanford/www.aerial-cam.co.uk)

By Sigurd Towrie

Around 3000BC, some 200 years after the founding of the Barnhouse settlement [2], a “building of monumental proportions” [3] was erected on the site of a meeting area on the village outskirts.

Excavation evidence suggested that occupation of the village had ceased when this new construction – Structure Eight – was built, although it is possible that a settlement shift saw habitation continue away from the site [4].  Whatever was going on, Barnhouse was no longer functioning as a village and the “whole nature of habitation changed” [4].

The story of Structure Eight is inextricably linked to the history of the open-air meeting area, so we should look at it before considering its successor in more detail.

The central hearth at the Stones of Stenness. (Sigurd Towrie)

The hearth stones at the Stones of Stenness are thought to have been placed there from Barnhouse’s southern meeting area prior to the construction of Structure Eight. (Sigurd Towrie)

The meeting area was one of two at the settlement, the other located in the heart of the village, amid the dwellings. Away from the houses and outside the settlement, activity at the southern area centred around a huge, rectangular hearth.

Measuring 2.15m by 1.9m (7ft by 6.23ft) [5], the size of the hearth indicates the preparation and cooking of food on a scale beyond the norm. This, together with the quantity and trampled condition of the pottery, suggests gatherings of large numbers of people in which the consumption of food was a major element [4].

Before excavation at the Ness of Brodgar complex, Barnhouse was the only Orcadian Neolithic site to yield pitchstone [6] – a volcanic glass, similar to obsidian, whose nearest source is Arran, off the south-west coast of Scotland.

The pitchstone from Barnhouse and the Ness must have been brought to Orkney and all but a few pieces of the Barnhouse assemblage came from the two meeting areas. This, together with the evidence of feasting, prompted the suggestion that these areas were a place “for the display and exchange of particular – perhaps exotic – items” [4]. The peripheral nature of the southern meeting area may have provided a “neutral” area for formal gatherings involving visitors from other communities [4].

But something changed.

The southern meeting area’s monumental hearth was dismantled and the hearthstones transplanted to the centre of the Stones of Stenness, around 150 metres (164 yards) to the south.

Where once people had gathered and feasted on the periphery of the village, the monumental Structure Eight was raised – a square building with rounded external corners and three-metre-thick walls. It stood at the centre of a circular, raised, yellow-clay platform which was enclosed by a substantial stone wall [4].

The reconstructed Structure Eight at Barnhouse. (Sigurd Towrie)

The reconstructed Structure Eight at Barnhouse. (Sigurd Towrie)

The site chosen for this new construction was “clearly determined” by the location of the former meeting area’s hearth, which was rebuilt to form the central fireplace in Structure Eight [4].

The fact Structure Eight was built around this hearth indicates it was not only remembered but retained some symbolic significance. The scale of the new building, together with the archaeological evidence, suggests one of its roles remained a meeting place – but with stark differences. Now these gatherings and feasts, presumably with fewer participants, took place behind walls and out of sight.

Plan of Structure Eight at the Barnhouse settlement. (Hill & Richards 2005) [4]

Plan of Structure Eight at the Barnhouse settlement. (Hill & Richards 2005) [4]

Anyone comparing the plans will immediately note the similarities between Structure Eight and the Ness of Brodgar’s Structure Ten, 400 metres to the north-west. Both shared architectural elements with the Late Neolithic House Seven at Skara Brae, but on a monumental scale. By extension, both were also spatially similar to the Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe.

Access to Structure Eight’s inner building was by a cruciform, porch-like feature with three entrances. This 1.4-metre-wide antechamber led to a three-metre-long, 65cm-wide passage into the interior. [4]

Marking the north-western threshold of the entrance was yet another hearth. Although probably paved over, and therefore hidden, during the life of Structure Eight, the presence of ash confirmed the hearth had been used. Perhaps it had a role in the building’s construction or was used to mark its opening? [4] Alternatively, its inclusion may have been purely symbolic – the “presence of a fireplace at the threshold of the inner building is quite remarkable because it indicates that fire appears to have been used to formalise a boundary.” [4]

The inclusion of the hearth at the threshold meant those entering or exiting the structure had to pass over fire – a symbol of purity, transition and transformation [4]. Something similar was encountered at Skara Brae in 1929, where a hearth was noted at the entrance to House Seven. At the Stones of Stenness, excavation in the 1970s revealed the remains of “an almost square structure” [7] in the interior. This has been reinterpreted as a square hearth [8] that once lay within a “monumental porch” [7] – over which those seeking access to the stone circle’s inner area had to pass.

The interior of House One at Skara Brae, showing the internal furnishings similar to that encountered at Structure Eight. (Adam Stanford/www.aerial-cam.co.uk)

The interior of House One at Skara Brae, showing the internal furnishings similar to that encountered at Structure Eight. (Adam Stanford/www.aerial-cam.co.uk)

After negotiating the entrance passage, the visitor found themselves in an eight-metre-square room with a central hearth and a “dresser” against the wall directly opposite. Two stone boxes projected from the side walls, reminiscent of the so-called “beds” at Skara Brae. [4]

Like House Two, pits had been dug into the clay floor, one of which was found to contain a cache of 14 large flint nodules. In the north-eastern quadrant, adjacent to the eastern wall, was a complete Grooved Ware pot buried up to its neck. The vessel was undecorated, apart from two horizontal grooves directly below the rim – the only portion of the pot projecting above the floor surface [4]. Analysis of the residue from the interior of the pot revealed traces of barley that may represent “some form of liquid brew” [4].

The inner building of Structure Eight. (Hill & Richards 2005) [4]

The inner building of Structure Eight. (Hill & Richards 2005) [4]

The interior of Structure Eight saw numerous episodes of refurbishment and remodelling. The floor was resurfaced, the hearth altered and the “dresser” replaced by a large, box-like structure or cist [4]. Not enough of the inner building had survived to indicate how it was roofed. From what we have learned at the Ness of Brodgar, and given the parallels with Structure Ten, it is not impossible that it too was stone-roofed.

The severity of the plough damage encountered during excavation, together with a lack of artefactual evidence, means it is difficult to suggest what occurred within Structure Eight’s inner chamber [4]. Outside, however, the enclosed platform featured hearths, pits and stone boxes and excavation revealed pottery and flint. Sooting on the exterior of the large clay vessels that dominated the pottery assemblage confirmed they had been placed in fires – suggesting cooking on a large scale occurred outside the inner building and the food consumed inside, where the pottery was smaller [4].

From other artefacts found – pumice and flint tools – we know cooking was but one of the activities occurring on the platform [4], but which were kept away from prying eyes by an enclosing 1.4-metre-thick (4.6 ft) wall. The wall separated what was going on within from the “outside world”, lending the structure an “impression of restriction and seclusion” [4]. Whatever was going on behind the wall was meant for a select few. Who and why, we can only speculate.

Structure Eight at Barnhouse with the Stones of Stenness in the background. (Sigurd Towrie)

Structure Eight at Barnhouse with the Stones of Stenness in the background. (Sigurd Towrie)

Only one course of the well-built wall had survived, but given its width and the fact it was made from substantial sandstone blocks, it could have stood over two metres (6.6ft) high [4]. Excavation confirmed a narrow, 70cm-wide entrance to the east, facing the site of Maeshowe [9]. Although the western and north-western sections were ploughed out, the absence of other sockets for “doorway” orthostats suggested the eastern entrance was the only one [4].

While it is interesting to note that the entrance to Structure Eight is oriented towards the area of the setting sun at midsummer, the presence of the wall would have blocked not just the light but any view. Was the wall as high as we think? Or was it much lower and more symbolic – enclosing, or containing, the building and activities within? To my mind, the fact an entrance was incorporated suggests this was not the case.

Structure Eight was the last of the known Barnhouse buildings in use, until its eventual abandonment between 2905-2880BC [2]. However, it may not have stood at the village site alone.

The rear of Structure Eight, looking across to the site of the Ness of Brodgar complex. (Sigurd Towrie)

The rear of Structure Eight, looking across to the site of the Ness of Brodgar complex. (Sigurd Towrie)

Elsewhere we have Structure Ten at the Ness, but survey work over the years suggests these buildings may not have been as unique as once thought. There is another potential candidate a few hundred metres to the north-west of the Ness excavation site, one at the centre of the Ring of Bookan, at the Sandwick end of the isthmus, and what appears to be another large conglomeration of buildings a short distance to the north-east of that [10].

At Barnhouse, a second clay platform to the south of Structure Eight, featuring large stone slabs, may represent another monumental building and large quantities of Grooved Ware pottery to the east “adds weight to the suggestion of a second large building being present in this area” [4].

The reconstructed entrance 'porch' leading into Structure Eight's inner building. (Sigurd Towrie)

The reconstructed entrance ‘porch’ leading into Structure Eight’s inner building. (Sigurd Towrie)

Notes

  • [1] Richards, C. (1990) The late Neolithic settlement complex at Barnhouse farm, Stenness. In Renfrew, C. (ed) The Prehistory of Orkney. BC4000-1000AD. Edinburgh University Press.
  • [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] Richards, C. (1993) An archaeological study of Neolithic Orkney: architecture, order and social classification (Doctoral dissertation, University of Glasgow).
  • [4] Hill, J. and Richards, C. (2005) Structure Eight: Monumentality at Barnhouse. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  • [5] 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.
  • [6] The Ness of Brodgar has yielded 42 pitchstone fragments – the largest Orcadian assemblage to date. The Barnhouse Settlement yielded 26 pieces.
  • [7] Ritchie, J.N.G. and Marwick, E.W. (1975) The Stones of Stenness, Orkney. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 107, pp. 1-60).
  • [8] 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, Orkney, pp.229-248.
  • [9] The layout of Structure Eight also closely mirrors that of Maeshowe – a central “chamber” surrounded by a clay platform and an enclosing wall.
  • [10] Brend, A., Card, N., Downes, J., Edmonds, M. and Moore, J. (2020) Landscapes Revealed: Geophysical Survey in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area 2002-2011. Oxbow Books, Oxford.

You may also like...