Awe and wonder in an age of reason – taking visitors to the Ness of Brodgar excavations

By Peter Yeoman

Peter Yeoman.

The greatest thing about a visit to the Ness is that it peoples the landscape of deep time, in a way that other prehistoric sites on Orkney or anywhere else cannot deliver.

I’ve been visiting the Ness for many years and have been taking groups there for the last four years, sadly, of course, not in 2020. I am amazed by the new discoveries each year, and have been able to observe the overwhelming reaction from my groups of wonder and astonishment.

For many it’s an ambition fulfilled, somewhere they have wanted to visit for years, having seen it on TV or in magazines. For some it’s their prime motivation for a trip to Orkney, sometimes from half-way around the world.

Nothing prepares you for spending time with the folk of Neolithic Orkney. Our visitors experience a sense of amazement and almost disbelief, that they can have such a direct experience of life 5,000 years ago, an unrivalled experience of deep time set against the backdrop of this magical natural environment.

The Ness is at the heart of the World Heritage Site, a designation that was made before the discovery of the Ness – and the results from these excavations are truly extraordinary, forcing a total rethink of our understanding of Neolithic Orkney. This is the rare kind of leap in knowledge which really allows us to move forward.

But it also makes you wonder – what else are we missing? It’s entirely possible that other remarkable sites like the Ness on Mainland Orkney and Links of Noltland on Westray (furthest north-west of the Orkney islands), still await discovery. Like Nick Card says “scratch the surface of Orkney and it bleeds archaeology”.

The Ness of Brodgar excavation site looking south-east towards the Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Settlement and Maeshowe. (Scott Pike)

The Ness of Brodgar excavation site looking south-east towards the Stones of Stenness, the Barnhouse Settlement and Maeshowe. (Scott Pike)

Exploring the Ness excavations as a visitor is like diving into the unknown, immediately inspired a sense of awe when you first encounter the site. Yes, there are similarities with other sites, and yet is remains utterly unique in the scale of the buildings, as well as the architectural and decorative detailing of those buildings. And we are also astonished by the sheer quantity, range and quality of artefacts – many of practical use underpinning these folk’s everyday activities here, while others seem more ritual or ceremonial, like the beautiful polished stone axes and maceheads. There are other hints which get us inside the heads of these distant ancestors – a human arm bone deposited under the wall of a remodelled structure or the burial of a child in the corner of a house.

Aspects of the visit connect us to these people, maybe a bit like us, while at the same time other discoveries emphasise how difficult it is for us to understand their lived experience. And we all love a mystery, an enigma shrouded in a conundrum.

Excavation under way in Structure Eight. (Jo Bourne)

And let’s not forget the extraordinary process of excavation itself. There are few places where you can witness human investigation being revealed before your eyes. We are essentially curious about the human condition, and archaeology allows us to pursue this curiosity more than any other science.

Above-all a visit to the Ness is an emotional experience, exciting and bewildering at the same time, shifting our understanding of our origins.

This is emotional for the visitor, and just as emotional for Nick Card and his team, constantly being surprised and amazed at what they are revealing in this expert and multi-facetted scientific enquiry – with their motto of “expect the unexpected”! And then they are required to make sense of it all, being put on the spot by visitors and journalists alike, only able to speculate on the answers of such fundamental questions such as “ what were these people doing here, and how did this change over the 1,000 years-plus span of the use of the Ness?”.

Diggers abound! Work to uncover the wall and rubble in the Trench J extension today.

Diggers abound! Work to uncover the wall and rubble in the Trench J extension. (Sigurd Towrie)

There is nothing mediated through screens here, nothing passive, this is a visceral, personal interaction, really making us think about the big picture – the passing of Time, the way we view our world, and the extraordinary achievements of people who went before us. And you may well come away with more questions than answers, the same for Nick and his team, making it all the more worthwhile and exciting – after all, on some matters at the Ness your guess is as good as anyone’s!

Like us, the Neolithic folk of the Ness lived their lives through spiritual, moral and aesthetic emotions, sharing with us an essential need to understand their world, and even to alter it. And this is one overarching theory about the great burial and ceremonial monuments created in Orkney by the Neolithic folk, that these were a means of expressing and controlling their otherwise uncontrollable lives. Within what must surely have been a complex and sophisticated belief system.

Structure Eight, with the corner of Structure Ten biting into its top right corner. (Scott Pike)

Like us, they were aware of being part of something bigger, but while we live in supposedly rational times they looked to the natural world, the night sky and to the revered dead, to help negotiate their paths through life. In part this dwelled in their imaginations, while at the same time expressed in physical form in stone and earth – places where these dramas could be acted out.

Awed wonder is good for us, so come and improve your health with a visit to the Ness of Brodgar excavations when they are back up and running (hopefully July and August 2021).

You couldn’t visit Troy when Schliemann was digging there, or Tutankhamun’s tomb with Howard Carter, but you can visit the Ness of Brodgar – the most important prehistoric excavation current in Europe.

But don’t take my word for it, come and experience the wonder for yourself!

Peter Yeoman is a specialist tour guide and independent archaeologist. He was Head of Cultural Heritage at Historic Scotland and part of the Orkney World Heritage Site management team.

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