Book review: ‘The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands’

Book review by Dr Howie Firth MBE, director of the Orkney International Science Festival.

The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands CoverIt was a spring ploughing that did it, in Ola and Arnie Tait’s field at Brodgar in 2003. The plough caught on something, and up came a massive stone, long and rectangular.

An initial trench revealed the corner of a building, with a similar style to the nearby Neolithic village of Barnhouse. Eight test trenches were dug – and seven of them encountered stonework. It was clear that this was something big.

Since then the site has become world-famous, and now it has a book that tells the story. It is full of fascinating information and photographs that are a delight.

It shows the sheer scale of the site, with 36 structures so far, and signs of considerably more to be unearthed. The editors tell the story and bring in skilled specialists who describe the rich insights that have come from detailed study of the finds.

We learn about clues to the construction of the various buildings, some of which have stone piers and corner buttresses. We hear that Structure 27 has tall support stones – orthostats – comparable in size to those in Maeshowe, and the levels of the tops of them lie within 20 mm of each other. And we are shown the evidence for something amazing at Structure 8 – a flagstone roof.

The finds are on a similar scale. There are, incredibly, over 900 stones with markings, cut or carved, pecked or picked, chiselled or painted, and forming one of the largest assemblages in Europe. Around 30 per cent of them turn out to have been pick-dressed, with their surface repeatedly tapped on with a point, a highly specialised process found in only a very few other places in the British Isles – Maeshowe, Anglesey and the great Irish tombs on the River Boyne.

There are details of the analysis of material from the hearths, showing the use of peat for fuel, and also several vitrified fragments showing high temperatures in some of the fires, confirmed by magnetic studies.

The accuracy of the techniques is remarkable. X-ray fluorescence studies of the floor of Structure 14 have picked up higher concentrations of the element bromine in some parts, including the door area. We are given a possible explanation – bromine is present in sea water, and can thus indicate seaweed stored or worked with, or possibly people coming in through the door with the salt spray blowing off the Loch of Stenness.

Botanical material from floors and hearths includes barley, and a little wheat, wild plants like crowberry and chickweed, and also charred crab apple pips.

Individual pieces of rock on the site are tracked down to their sources, such as basalt from Hoy and rhyolite from the Bay of Navershaw. Over 7,000 pieces of worked stone have been found, including numerous pieces of pitchstone from further afield in the island of Arran. Among the stone tools are polished axeheads and the greatest number of maceheads from any site in the British Isles.

Detailed study of the pottery shows the imprint of a coiled basketry mat on one sherd, and the mark of cord on another. Analysis of traces of animal fats show that some pots may have been used for cooking beef, and others for storing or serving milk. Analysis of the many animal bones shows prime beef cattle, and also red deer, and fascinatingly, a white-tailed sea eagle. Fish bones in contrast are fewer, with the eel and salmon/trout families to the fore, but also cod, halibut, saithe and turbot.

There is so much to read about and go back to. It is an incredible site, and this is a superbly produced book.


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