Around the Ness: The Barnhouse Settlement

“[A]fter the establishment of settlement at Barnhouse the local landscape underwent a fundamental transformation by virtue of the spectacular display of monumentality embodied in Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness and the groups of standing stones.”

Andrew Jones and Colin Richards. Living in Barnhouse. 2005
Barnhouse settlement from the air. (Nick Card)

Barnhouse settlement from the air. (Nick Card)

 

The Ness of Brodgar and monuments.

By Sigurd Towrie

In December 1984, evidence of a Neolithic village was found 150 metres (164 yards) to the north of the Stones of Stenness, at the southern end of the Harray loch.

Unlike Skara Brae, which was protected for millennia by a cocoon of sand, Barnhouse had been badly damaged by centuries of ploughing. As a result, only the reconstructed lower courses of the structures are visible today.

Although these might not be as visually impressive as the remains of Skara Brae, Barnhouse was key to changing our perceptions of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.  Before its discovery, the area around the Ness of Brodgar peninsula was seen as a purely “ritual landscape” – the home of Neolithic monuments, megaliths and stone circles kept separate from “domestic” life. The settlement at Barnhouse showed, without a shadow of a doubt, that people were dwelling among the monuments.

Barnhouse also introduced a new element to the previous, sketchy, picture of Neolithic settlement in Orkney — one of (relatively) short-term occupation of what appeared to be a freshly founded site [1]. Established in the closing centuries of the fourth millennium BC [2], Barnhouse was a new build on virgin ground with no apparent predecessor [3]. It was, however, only in use for a few centuries – from c3115BC until 2875BC [2].

Barnhouse village in relation to the Stones of Stenness. (http://canmore.org.uk/collection/1144196)

Barnhouse village in relation to the Stones of Stenness. (http://canmore.org.uk/collection/1144196)

Based on excavation evidence, it is suggested that the founding of the Barnhouse village, initially comprising perhaps four dwellings [2], was home to a single family or kin group [3]. Within a few generations, the settlement had expanded, growing to a maximum of 12 buildings [3]. The lochside location, however, could mean other sections of the village have been lost. It is unlikely that the Barnhouse site was unaffected by rising water levels, so the possibility remains that earlier or later areas of the settlement are now submerged or destroyed.

One of the early 'flimsy huts' at Skara Brae - the style of construction encountered at the Barnhouse settlement. (Sigurd Towrie)

One of the early ‘flimsy huts’ at Skara Brae – the style of construction encountered at the Barnhouse settlement. (Sigurd Towrie)

Although Barnhouse shared many similarities with Skara Brae, there were distinct differences. The Barnhouse dwellings were small and round, with turf cladding surrounding the outer walls, perhaps “looking like small, grassy mounds with trails of smoke emitting from the roofs and doorways” [3].

Because there were no roofed passageways between them, the houses were freestanding and not encased in midden, making them similar to the earlier “flimsy huts” encountered by Childe at Skara Brae and which he suggested were replaced by “larger and solider edifices”. [5]

Structure ?? At Barnhouse, a dwelling adjacent to the monumental Structure Two. (Sigurd Towrie)

House Three at Barnhouse, a dwelling adjacent to the monumental House Two that was one of the first constructed on site. (Sigurd Towrie)

Because Barnhouse and Skara Brae were contemporary, their houses share architectural elements – central hearths, box “beds” on the side walls and the so-called “dressers” opposite the entrances [6]. The slight differences are due to Barnhouse going out of use some four centuries before Skara Brae.

While any clear spatial arrangement at Skara Brae may have been masked by the limited nature of excavation, at Barnhouse it was clear that the village had been laid out in a specific pattern.

The buildings were arranged in two rings surrounding an apparently central, open area [3]. This pattern was maintained throughout the life of the settlement, with the inner and outer rings served by separate drainage networks. This, together with marked differences in artefacts recovered, has been argued to be evidence of a social division between certain households [3].

The concentric organisation of the Barnhouse structures around an open, central area. (Jones and Richards. 2005) [3]

Whatever the reason, the elaborate drainage system that served the two-tier “inner and outer” settlement circles [3] must have been planned from the outset, suggesting more than a hasty relocation from an existing site.

In addition to the open central area – which featured a large, open-air hearth and probably represents a meeting and working area that was home to a range of crafting activities [3] – life at Barnhouse seemed to focus on a single large, monumental house. Christened House Two, the building exhibited features previously undocumented in the Neolithic settlement record in Orkney [1].

Barnhouse Structure Two in the foreground, with Structure Eight and the Stones of Stenness in the distance. (Sigurd Towrie)

Barnhouse Structure Two in the foreground, with Structure Eight and the Stones of Stenness in the distance. (Sigurd Towrie)

The settlement, towards the end of its life around 2900BC, was home to at least one other monumental building — Structure Eight [7] — which had clear architectural parallels to Structure Ten at the Ness of Brodgar. Spatially, Structure Eight relates spatially and architecturally to the nearby Stones of Stenness [8] and Maeshowe [9].

Although it has since been encountered elsewhere – perhaps most dramatically at the Ness of Brodgar – at Barnhouse it was clear that the settlement underwent repeated episodes of demolition and reconstruction. A house went out of use and a replacement erected [3]. The newly built structures, however, were never in exactly the same position but always partially overlaid their predecessors [7].

We now know that the repeated re-use of house sites is a common narrative at Neolithic settlements. This act of reconstruction, perhaps re-using materials from the earlier buildings, seems to represent the maintenance of a physical link to the past [10]. With this in mind, the fact that Barnhouse was founded on an unused site takes on a new significance. The establishment of a new settlement may represent a deliberate and very visual break with the past. At Barnhouse, we are left wondering whether this is related to the advent of growing political and social tensions hypothesised in 2017 and which, it has been argued, ultimately led to societal collapse [4].

In 2005, the Barnhouse excavators were of the opinion that the settlement stood alone. Aside from a suspected Mesolithic presence in the vicinity, there was no evidence for earlier activity on the village site itself. All the first villagers would see from their new home were the remains of “an earlier building, possibly a dwelling, … at the place where the great passage grave of Maeshowe was to be erected”. [3]

We now know that was not the case. As the first structures were erected at Barnhouse, the earlier buildings at the Ness of Brodgar, 400 metres (437 yds) away, had been standing for some time. In addition, the possibility that Barnhouse was the result of a settlement shift “north along the Loch of Harray” has not been ruled out. [11]

Interpretive plan showing the estimates for the dates of construction of different buildings at Barnhouse. (Richards et al. 2016) [13]

At the Ness of Brodgar, excavation has revealed a well-preserved complex of monumental Neolithic structures flanked to the north-west and south-east by massive stone walls. To date, only ten per cent of the 2.5 hectare site has been excavated, revealing a series of buildings contemporary to those at Barnhouse and which sit atop earlier occupation layers.

Although the majority excavated so far were constructed around 3200BC and abandoned around 300 years later, one building — Structure Five — has been dated to around 3300BC, pre-dating the establishment of Barnhouse by a century. Earlier dates have also come from deposits beneath later structures on site, including the south-eastern boundary wall. 

Excavation at Barnhouse under way.

Excavation at Barnhouse under way. (Richards et al. 2016) [13]

While the architecture and scale of the Ness of Brodgar buildings is beyond the “normal” domestic structures found in Orkney, given their close proximity to Barnhouse we must question whether the two sites were separate entities or whether both were parts of the same complex. If this were the case, perhaps Barnhouse does not represent the establishment of an entirely new settlement but is part of a sequence of shifting occupation in and around a larger conglomeration.

Although there is no doubt that the Ness of Brodgar site excavated so far is entirely different to “normal” settlements, it must be remembered that there is much we still do not know – not only about the Ness site but Neolithic settlement as a whole. Only a fraction of the Ness complex has been investigated and its full extent and composition remains unclear.

The suggestion the water levels of the adjacent lochs were lower in the Neolithic, and the isthmus was therefore wider, could mean that sections of what were once the outskirts of the Ness complex now lie underwater [12]. The same applies to Barnhouse.

The reconstructed Structure Eight at Barnhouse. (Sigurd Towrie)

The reconstructed Structure Eight at Barnhouse. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Barnhouse settlement site appears to have been abandoned around 2900BC, at the same time as the construction of a large, monumental building – Structure Eight – on the site of a second “meeting place”. However, at some point before Structure Eight was erected, the open-air hearth from this area was carefully transferred to the centre of the nearby Stones of Stenness – an act that firmly linked the village to the stone circle [10].

The site of the original hearth was incorporated into Structure Eight, forming the central fireplace of a building that was “neither a house, tomb or henge and yet appears to incorporate elements of each” [7].

Structure Eight is very similar to Structure Ten at the Ness of Brodgar and both marked a distinct change in architecture. Both have parallels with Maeshowe and both were built around 2900BC – Structure Ten following the decommissioning of the adjacent “piered” buildings.

Although we tend to regard Barnhouse as being abandoned, it is possible that “some form of ancillary habitation” continued on site [6]. In addition, the presence of a substantial flint scatter outside the excavation site could represent occupation moving to the “south and east of the original village” [6].  But although a settlement shift may lie behind the apparent early abandonment of Barnhouse, the fact that the Ness of Brodgar piered buildings went out of use around the same time suggests there was something else afoot.

House Two

Notes

  • [1] Richards, C. (ed) (2005) 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] 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.
  • [4] 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.
  • [5] Childe, V. G. (1931) Skara Brae: a Pictish village in Orkney. Kegan Paul: London.
  • [6] Richards, C. (1993) An archaeological study of Neolithic Orkney: architecture, order and social classification (Doctoral dissertation, University of Glasgow).
  • [7] Hill, J. and Richards, C. (2005) Structure 8: Monumentality at 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. 157–194.
  • [8] Challands, A., Edmonds, M. and Richards, C. (2005) Beyond the Village: Barnhouse Odin and the Stones of Stenness. 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. 205–227.
  • [9] 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.
  • [10] Downes, J. and Richards, C. (2005) The Dwellings at 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. 57-127.
  • [11] Richards, C., Jones, R., Challands, A., Jeffrey, S., Jones, A., Jones, S. and Muir, T. (2016) At Stonehall Farm, late Neolithic life is rubbish. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (eds) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press, pp. 128-159.
  • [12] Bates, R., Bates, M., Dawson, S. and Wickham-Jones, C. (2012) Geophysical survey of the Loch of Stenness, Orkney.
  • [13] Richards, C., Jones, A.M., MacSween, A., Sheridan, A., Dunbar, E., Reimer, P., Bayliss, A., Griffiths, S. and Whittle, A., 2016, December. 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.

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