Blocks and robbers: Was stone robbing more than just prehistoric plundering?

“The response in some cases was to dismantle what remained and start again, taking inspiration (and raw material) from the footprint and the fabric of an older building.”
Card et al. As it Stands (2020)
The outer face of a section of the 'Great Wall of Brodgar'. (📷 Jo Bourne)
The outer face of a section of the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar‘, dismantled around 3000BC. (📷 Jo Bourne)

By Sigurd Towrie

Stone-robbing is the term used for the removal of building material from structures, presumably for use elsewhere. Over the past 20 years we’ve referred to the practice regularly because, to varying degrees, most of the Ness of Brodgar’s excavated buildings were affected.

The word “robbing”, however, carries negative connotations. It implies unsavoury behaviour. Illicit activities. Desecration.

But was that how it was seen in the Neolithic? Or was stone robbing simply part of the cycle of things? A crucial part of the construction process that incorporated the old into new, perhaps even transferring status, significance and “life”.

If, as has been suggested, the Neolithic house was a physical representation of ancestry (whether real or perceived), then the transfer of material from one to another may have carried elements of that symbolism with it. In essence the new construction cemented links to the past as an “expression of kinship links involving issues of rights and inheritance”. [1]

Barnhouse settlement from the air. (Nick Card)
Barnhouse settlement from the air. (📷 Nick Card)

The Barnhouse settlement lies 400 metres to the south-east of the Ness complex. There too the degree of stone robbing encountered suggested that construction material was being reused:

“While there is an obvious practical benefit to such actions, it has to be recognised that the old may have effectively constituted the new and in doing so created symbolic links across generations. In this situation the ancestors remained part of life in a very material and permanent sense.” [1]

This apparent desire – or requirement – to reference the past is also reflected in the Neolithic practice of raising structures on top of their predecessors. By occupying the same space, and incorporating elements of earlier buildings, the new construction was perhaps physically and metaphorically bonded to those who came before…

The significance of recycling

There’s no doubt stone was being reused within the Ness of Brodgar complex, where the “detritus of past activities helped to establish and protect a new gener­ation of occupants”:

“This process made different kinds of connection between present and past. It reduced the existing fabric, helping to level the ground upon which new buildings could be raised. It also carried the past into the present…
“We might explain this by appeals to common sense and allow that much of this process happened without reflection. But in some cases, the recruitment of older features proba­bly evoked a sense of continuity, a conscious connection made across the generations.
“A different expression of this same concern can be seen where secondary struc­tures were built with clear and close reference to the form or the footprint of older, demolished buildings.” [2]

At the Ness it was not just construction material being reclaimed but also decorated/dressed stone, roof timbers and tiles.

Apart from those relating to the deliberate demolition of Structure Eight’s northern roof section, the number of tiles found on site has been relatively low. This suggests they were prized and recovered for use elsewhere.

The same is likely for the huge timbers forming the roof frames. Although no evidence of these has survived, the deliberate and careful removal of the large posts from Structure’s Five is arguably a sign that, by around 3200BC, large timbers (at least) were becoming harder to source and therefore reused.

But like the “recycling” of stone, the inclusion of old timbers in new buildings probably also carried some meaning:

“Scarred and smoke-stained from years in the rafters, those timbers carried old attachments into new surroundings.” [2]

Although we know building material was being reused at the Ness, it is difficult to trace.

We can clearly see where stone has been taken from a structure, but finding out where it went is not as straightforward. Fortunately, the use of a distinctive type of stone in one building meant we were able to do just that.

Structures Twelve and Twenty-Eight

Structures Twelve and Twenty-Eight.
The position of Structure Twenty-Eight (red) in relation to its successor, Twelve.

Around 3200BC, the beautiful Structure Twenty-Eight was raised, its inner wall face incorporating fine, quarried stone with a pink surface and glacial striations.

Twenty-Eight was dismantled at the end of its life and, around 3100BC, Structure Twelve built on top. While Twenty-Eight probably served as the model for Twelve’s construction, there is no doubt it also provided the building materials.

How do we know? Because we can see where the pinkish blocks were used again in Twelve.

Centuries later, between 2900BC and 2500BC, those same glacially striated stone pops up again, this time in Structure Twenty-Six. This small, shoddy building not only incorporated stone taken from Twelve but also the collapsed primary phase of the monumental Structure Ten.

But can we be so sure that stone robbing wasn’t just random, opportunistic plundering?

In some cases that may well have been the case but in the major episodes encountered on site, the evidence points to methodical, co-ordinated operations to extract stone.

In Structure Twelve, for example, the “robbers” knew exactly what they were looking for and where to find it. They were not after any old stone but specifically targeted the east entrance.

Structure Twelve showing the area of stone robbing (highlighted) around the east wall and entrance. (📷 Tom O'Brien)
Structure Twelve showing the area of stone robbing (highlighted) around the east wall and entrance. (📷 Tom O’Brien)

Their cut through the overlying midden exposed only the building’s eastern central pier and the facing stones from the sides of the entrance passage – its precision suggesting they were specifically looking for fine, dressed stone rather than just building material.

After those initial forays Structure Twelve was left alone – probably for a considerable period. Then the robber cut was revisited, and enlarged, to allow the extraction of more stone from the east wall.

Structure Ten

Structure Ten with the robbed-out inner wall faces highlighted. (📷 Tom O'Brien)
Structure Ten with the robbed-out inner wall faces highlighted. (📷 Tom O’Brien)
Structure Ten schematic

Over in Structure Ten, the stone robbing was also far removed from opportunistic looting. Again, its highly systematic extraction was carried out by people who knew exactly what they wanted and where it was.

In this case, it was quality stone, specifically the blocks that had faced the interior walls.

Such was the precision of their operation that it is “better understood as excavation, rather than robbing”. [2]

The sought-after stone was clearly considered significant – either due to its quality or its association with the building. In addition, the targeted nature of its removal suggests the “robbers” had knowledge of Ten’s interior – despite the fact the building had been buried for at least 150 years:

“…those engaged in the enterprise were evidently well aware of what lay beneath [and] where the favoured stone was likely to be. That required a sense of history, a sustained memory of how the building had been put together and what it contained.” [2]

In this case, however, we don’t know where the stone went or how it was used.

Structure Twenty-Seven

The heavily robbed-out remains of Structure Twenty-Seven. (📷 Tom O'Brien)
The heavily robbed-out remains of Structure Twenty-Seven. (📷 Tom O’Brien)

We’ve enthused repeatedly about the quality of the surviving stonework in Structure Twenty-Seven. It really is the finest uncovered on site – although there’s not much of it left to see.

Structure Twenty-Seven schematic

After the building went out of use it was partially dismantled and the bulk of its fabric taken away. The remains were then deliberately buried in midden.

But once again, people returned. They dug down through the overlying deposits until they reached their goal and removed more of the surviving masonry.

This robbing may have been episodic rather than a single event, again suggesting it was not just plundering but a co-ordinated operation. They also knew what they were looking for – high quality and worked stone – and where to find it.

The result is that Twenty-Seven’s entire south-eastern wall is now gone, along with part of its south-western end and the inner face of the north-western wall. One of the huge internal prone orthostats in the north-western side was also taken.

2023: Structure Twenty-Seven at the south-western end of Trench P. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
2023: Structure Twenty-Seven from its south-eastern corner. Half the south-western wall (pictured in the foreground) and all of the north-eastern wall (right) was robbed out in antiquity. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Given the extent of the robbing, the recovered stone must have been intended for another construction. Because it came from Structure Twenty-Seven had it acquired some special significance? Perhaps considered auspicious to incorporate into a new build?

Or was it just a convenient source of building material?

We’ve looked so far at the physical acts of construction and destruction encountered around Neolithic structures, albeit with a symbolic slant.

But could there be more going on than just referencing the past?

Were they more than mere physical constructions (cf. Downes and Richards 2005) – things to be built, used and demolished – or perhaps a “living” extension of their builders/inhabitants and their history? Creations that were viewed as animate objects with their own spirit or soul?

It has been suggested that Bronze Age houses not only represented a family or lineage group – as has been proposed for the Neolithic [1] – but that the life and wellbeing of the house was inextricably linked to that of its occupants.

Just as the rites of passage, such as birth, marriage and death, were marked throughout their occupants’ lives, so too were equivalent points in the life of a structure. [3]

One of these significant events may have been the “death” of the building. In the Bronze Age, this seems to have been a particularly significant event, “with abandoned houses and the human dead being treated in a number of analogous ways.” [4]

To Johanna Brück:

“Just as grave goods were occasionally given to humans on death, the deposition of objects […] may have acted as a formal closure or a transformation of the relationship between the building (or its inhabitants) and the rest of the kin group.”

Some Bronze Age structures were burned, others dismantled, before being sealed by spreads of rubble, earth and occupation debris. They were, like their occupants, “buried” at the end of their lives. [3]

Bruck continued:

“It has been suggested above that the lifecycles of buildings and their inhabitants may have been metaphorically as well as practically linked. In societies where this is so, houses are often considered to possess a life force or soul and as such are conceptualised as living entities.” [3]

She added:

“[T]here are hints that Middle Bronze Age roundhouses may have been thought of as ‘living’ entities, with lifecycles very similar to those of their inhabitants. In such a context, the use of anthropomorphic symbolism would not be unexpected.” [3]

Are we seeing something similar in Neolithic Orkney?

Was the Neolithic house also considered an animate, living symbol of the life of an individual, social group or lineage? And, if so, did it have to be allowed to “die” and decay?

Let us imagine for a moment an untimely death in a household. Was the house, as an extension of that group, necessarily abandoned? Left to die? Were the circumstances of the occupiers’ demise, or departure, such that it was not considered “right” to re-occupy the site? Or did a suitable period have to pass before any return to use could be permitted?

2010: Roy discovers the whalebone macehead in Structure Eight. (ORCA)
2010: Roy Towers excavating the whalebone macehead in Structure Eight. This artefact was part of a deposited cache that included a polished stone axe, a whale tooth, quartz pebbles, a flint blade, a stone spatulate tool and a multi-hollowed cobble. (📷 ORCA)

That may explain the deposition of artefacts at the end of a building’s life and the burying of structural remains on the Ness of Brodgar.

A burial that was later revisited to recover “useful” material.

Upon its “death” was a house required to disintegrate in the same manner as a human corpse?

The evidence from Orkney’s chambered cairns points to fully fleshed bodies being placed within and left to decay [5] – a process hastened by the deliberate defleshing and dismemberment of corpses. [6]

With stone structures, decay and ruination would obviously take considerably longer than the flesh of a human body.

So, in much the same way as the corpse’s decomposition was “assisted”, was the symbolic death of a house accelerated by episodes of deliberate manipulation, where walls were removed and stone removed?

Perhaps its replacement could only be built after a prescribed period. Until then perhaps “respectful and appropriate actions had to be performed in much the same way as funerary feasts might be held for the dead”. [7]

Then, after a suitable time had passed, was any form of rebuilding or re-use of the site deemed proper?

We know from the chambered cairns that people returned to the dead to remove specific, presumably significant and important, skeletal parts.

Were they doing the same to their “dead” buildings?


  • [1] 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.
  • [2] Card, N., Edmonds, M. and Mitchell, A. (2020) As it Stands. In Card, N., Edmonds, M. and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [3] Brück, J. (1999) Houses, lifecycles and deposition on Middle Bronze Age settlements in southern England. In Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (Vol. 65, pp. 145-166). Cambridge University Press.
  • [4] Brück, J. (2006). Fragmentation, personhood and the social construction of technology in Middle and Late Bronze Age Britain. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16 (3), p.297.
  • [5] Cummings, V. (2017) The Neolithic of Britain and Ireland. Taylor & Francis.
  • [6] Crozier, R. (2016) Fragments of death — a taphonomic study of human remains from Neolithic Orkney. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 10, pp.725-734.
  • [7] Pollard, J. (2012) Living with sacred spaces: the henge monuments of Wessex. In Gibson, A. Enclosing the Neolithic: Recent studies in Britain and Europe. Archaeopress.

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