Catch up on last year’s dig ahead of 2023’s seven-week excavation
In a month’s time the covers come off again at the Ness and the penultimate season of excavation will begin. We’ll update you on our plans for the 2023 season nearer the time, but here we look back some of the key points of last year’s dig.
Excavation resumes on Monday, July 3, running until Friday, August 18, 2023. The seven-week dig is open to the public on weekdays between Wednesday, July 5 and Wednesday, August 16. Look forward to seeing you on site.
A full cohort of international excavators meant that all three main trenches – J, T and P – were re-opened in 2022, although in the latter Structures Twelve and Twenty-Six remained under their protective covers. The focus was progressing areas that had been dormant since the last full season – particularly Structures One, Eight and Twenty-Seven.
In Structures One and Ten work concentrated on removing, and sampling, floor deposits. This is a task that is, by necessity, slow but the results yield valuable insights into how each the different areas of the buildings were used over time.
In Trench T, all eyes were eagerly on the extraordinary Structure Twenty-Seven.
First discovered in 2015, this large, sub-rectangular building lies at the southern end of the trench, built directly on the natural boulder clay and covered by a massive mound of ash, midden and refuse.
Twenty-Seven is approximately 17 metres long by 11 metres wide, with walls over two metres thick. Its internal space is defined by enormous stone slabs – looking for all the world like recumbent standing stones – set horizontally along the interior walls. Large, rectangular slabs were inserted in the gap between these prone orthostats and the wall, cladding the less-than-perfect internal faces.
Unfortunately, after falling into disuse, Structure Twenty-Seven was subjected to extensive stone robbing, resulting in the removal of most of its south-eastern and south-western walls. We had long hoped that more of the north-western wall had survived, and, in 2022, our prayers were answered.
As the overlying midden and rubble layers were removed the stunning quality of the surviving wall’s stonework shone through. It was, quite simply, exquisite.
“That must surely be the most immaculately constructed and beautiful Neolithic stone wall anywhere!” exclaimed site director Nick Card.
Arguably the finest masonry uncovered on-site to date, the wall consists of regular courses of perfectly fitted stone, showcasing unparalleled precision in their placement. Additionally, the Neolithic builders intentionally incorporated a subtle curve into the length of the wall.
The outer face of the wall is supported by massive projecting, or stepped, foundation slabs, some exceeding two metres in length.
But the good news didn’t end there. Based on the floor level observed within the building’s interior in 2022, it appears that the magnificent north-western wall may have survived to a height of nearly one metre!
The wall’s grandeur was complemented by features revealed on the southeastern side of Twenty-Seven.
During the removal of debris caused by stone robbing revealed massive paving slabs, extending outward from the stepped foundations and occasionally resting upon them.
These slabs also served as capstones for a drainage system surrounding the building’s exterior, which was connected to a drain located beneath the south-western end wall, leading to the building’s interior.
As the season came to a close, there were indications that this paving was mirrored on the north-western side, suggesting that Twenty-Seven, like Structure Ten, was surrounded by a paved area or passageway. Additionally, a low wall was present at the outer edge of the paving, potentially defining this passage and holding back the midden deposits that had accrued around the building.
The parallels with Structure Ten continued as a significant amount of animal bone was discovered on the adjacent paved area. For those familiar with the Ness, it brings to mind the substantial deposit of cattle bone deposited left outside Structure Ten following its “decommissioning feast” around 2400BC.
A preliminary examination of the Structure Twenty-Seven bone deposit, by Professor Ingrid Mainland of the UHI Archaeology Institute, confirmed its similarity to the bone assemblage found near Structure Ten. However, it comprised bones from different animals, smaller in size compared to the beasts associated with Structure Ten, and showed only minor signs of burning.
Structure Eight’s predecessors
In Structure Eight, one of the primary objectives was to uncover more of the two underlying buildings and gain insight into their relationship with each other and their successor. The results were enlightening, showing that Structures Seventeen and Eighteen stood side-by-side, and were separated by a paved area, before elements of both were incorporated into the fabric of Structure Eight.
The two buildings bear a striking resemblance, in size and layout, to Structure Fourteen (or its earlier incarnation Structure Thirty-Six) at the Ness, as well as House Two at the nearby Barnhouse settlement. This raises interesting questions about the relationship between the two sites.
Human femur fragment deposited
The excavation of a stone box introduced an intriguing new aspect to the relationship between Structures Seventeen and Eight. Given its contents, the small box was clearly not a hearth but had been placed on top of the remains of Seventeen’s northeastern wall section before being covered over and Structure Eight built on top.
What made this discovery particularly intriguing was that the box contained a fragment of a human femur (leg bone), specifically the ball joint connecting to the hip socket.
Although the box was large enough (approximately 0.7m by 0.7m) to accommodate an average adult femur (around 46cm), the position of the fragment suggests this was not the case. Although bone preservation on site is poor, due to the acidic nature of the soil, a disintegrated femur would have left traces – perhaps a “ghost image” of where it had lain.
Instead, it appears that the distal end of the femur had either been intentionally removed or had broken before its deposition. The fragment was then selected for inclusion, placed inside the box, and covered over.
But why was a fragment of an apparently healthy young man’s femur put in a box under the floor of Structure Eight?
Was it placed to formally close Structure Seventeen? Or a foundation deposit for Structure Eight? Or did it perhaps represent a genealogical link between the two buildings?
This interaction with the dead was part of daily Neolithic life, suggested Professor Colin Richards, and perhaps explains the presence of human bone within domestic contexts (e.g. Skara Brae, Knap of Howar).
Were skeletal parts being removed from cairns, relocated and possibly exchanged? Perhaps to bring “life” to a new building, seal agreements or even regarded as some form of “magical” protection.
However, and why, the femur ended up in the Structure Eight box, it marks only the second known instance of a body part associated with a building at the Ness. The first occurrence was the deposition of an adult humerus beneath one of the Structure Ten buttresses during the building’s second phase of rebuilding/remodeling around 2800BC.
A grander entrance?
Excavation around the northern end of Structure Eight prompted a significant reassessment of its entrance.
With dimensions exceeding 18 meters in length and 9.5 meters in width, Structure Eight is the largest among the piered buildings on site. Remarkably, it is also the only one to feature a singular entrance. However, despite Eight’s grand scale, its entrance is surprisingly small, measuring just over half a metre in width at its narrowest point.
Initially, we believed this entrance belonged to the building’s primary phase, but the 2022 excavation yielded findings that challenged that interpretation.
Considering the potential role of Structure Eight as a venue for large gatherings, evident by its substantial size and multiple hearths, the 60cm-wide doorway seems rather impractical. This becomes especially apparent when taking into account the size of some of the pottery vessels unearthed on the site. However, signs of reconstruction were observed surrounding the doorway, suggesting the original entrance was significantly larger – potentially around two metres wide!
The masonry on either side of the small entrance had not been tied in, suggesting an unimpressive reconstruction aimed at narrowing the access. This alteration may have taken place during the building’s second phase, estimated to be around 3000-2900 BC, following the collapse of the southern end of its roof.
Despite the collapse, the building’s northern end remained in use, with a large, wooden post inserted to support to remnants of its roof. At this point, however, the purpose of the building appears to have changed, potentially relating to the remodelled entrance.
There may have been a second doorway in Eight’s south-eastern corner, but this area was completely levelled to allow the construction of Structure Ten around 2900BC. Given the way Eight was superimposed on the footprint of Structures Seventeen and Eighteen, it is possible that this hypothetical door occupied the same space as Seventeen’s former entrance.
Trench J continued to live up to its reputation for producing stunning archaeology and artefacts in equal measure.
The beginning of the season saw the attention on Structure Thirty-Two, a small, later building constructed on top of, and incorporating the remains of, Structure Five. Current thinking is that Thirty-Two was raised shortly after Five’s abandonment and was probably not used for any length of time.
During work to record Thirty-Two, prior to its removal, the Structure Five’s original hearth emerged from beneath it. Within the hearth was a polished stone axe, the third to be found in association with hearths in Trench J. However, it was not clear whether the axe related to the Structure Five hearth or the laying of Thirty-Two’s clay floor.
A second axe was found shortly afterwards, a metre away, and outside Structure Thirty-Two.
The hearth related to Structure Five’s original rectangular form. Although it is aligned perfectly with the axis of the building, it was much larger than expected – a 1.95-metre-long elongated rectangle rather than a square.
Its position was also interesting. Going on the likelihood that it was centrally positioned, its location suggested Structure Five continues some way beyond the southern trench edge.
A short distance to the north-west of the hearth, a large, worked whalebone artefact was found firmly embedded into the floor of Structure Thirty-Two.
The artefact, the latest piece of whalebone recovered from the Ness to date, was in poor condition. Although it had clearly been shaped its purpose remains unclear. Trench supervisor Paul Durdin has pondered whether it was a mattock or mattock-like tool.
Within the primary rectangular section of Structure Five, evidence suggesting the presence of early “dressers,” akin to those still visible at Skara Brae, emerged.
Four definite examples of these “dressers” are aligned along the original walls of Structure Five, although only one still had its broken “shelves” in situ. These four share the same Skara Brae design but appear to have been freestanding rather than built into the walls.
Another two possible examples were identified against the south-eastern and north-western walls, but, unfortunately, these were badly disturbed by the construction of Structure Thirty-Two.
“Dressers” have been encountered at the Ness before and are iconic symbols of Skara Brae, where the visitor can still see complete examples. There they were built to the same design and placed in the same position — directly opposite the entrance.
The term “dresser” is a hangover from the Victorian antiquarians, who first investigated Neolithic structures in Orkney, and basically saw the stone edifices as simple display cabinets, where the householders put their best pottery and other prized possessions on show.
But the significance and role of these so-called “dressers” has been questioned over the years. Were they more than just a set of shelves? Their presence in buildings at the Ness of Brodgar, in particular Structure Ten, reignited the debate.
Skara Brae’s “dressers” were built against the walls but, like those in Structure Five, Structure Ten’s primary dresser was free-standing and incorporated slabs of striking red and yellow sandstone — stone that had been brought to the site and presumably for that specific reason.
Considering the non-domestic role of Structure Ten, it is possible that these “dressers” had a function beyond storage. However, this raises the question of why Structure Five had six.
An earlier building?
Two of Structure Five’s potential dressers stood on either side of the now-blocked south-eastern entrance. Upon excavation, a pair of covered depressions on either side of this doorway were found to be large, well-built post-holes, indicating that it was also flanked by a pair of substantial timber posts.
Two of Five’s potential dressers stood on either side of the now-blocked south-eastern entrance. Upon excavation two covered depressions on either side of this doorway were found to be large, well-built post-holes, indicating that it was also flanked by a pair of substantial timber posts.
Another four were found against the interior walls of the original building.
With a diameter of up to 0.55 meters, the post-holes were similar in size to those encountered at Timber Structure One in the Wideford Hill settlement. Excavation at that site in 2002 and 2003 not only revealed evidence of early timber buildings but also a transition from wooden architecture to stone around 3300 BC.
The post arrangement within Structure Five formed a rectangle approximately seven meters by four meters. If they were used to support the roof, it would be a feature unique to Structure Five.
Elsewhere on the site, evidence of post use pointed to hasty structural repairs, similar to the one mentioned above in Structure Eight.
The fact that the post-holes lay beneath Structure Five’s clay floor raised the intriguing possibility that it was preceded by a timber building.
The proposed date for Five, c3300BC, fits the timber-stone transition phase suggested for other Orcadian sites. In this case, however, the wooden building may not have been dismantled but encased in stone, reusing the layout (and posts).
More possible evidence for earlier activity came from the north-eastern corner of Structure Five. The walls had been robbed of stone – probably for the construction of Thirty-Two – exposing an ashy deposit underneath.
This deposit may represent the fill of an earlier hearth and, if so, suggests a shift in the position or size of Structure Five compared to its hypothetical predecessor. Further excavation is needed to clarify the situation.
Whatever their role, the Structure Five posts were carefully removed when the building’s original section went out of use. The posts gone, artefacts – including stone tools, a decorated stone and a whale vertebra – were deposited in the empty sockets before being carefully covered over.
Scaling the ‘Great Wall’
Trench J was extended again in 2022, revealing the full area between Structure Five and the northern boundary wall – the “Great Wall of Brodgar”. The Great Wall was built around 3300BC, but the archaeological evidence so far suggests it was ruinous by 3000-2900BC.
To anyone viewing the remains of the four-metre-wide wall there is little doubt it was a monumental construction. Its width is clear for all to see but we have long wondered if its height was on par.
Although only two metres wide, the southern boundary wall – the “Lesser Wall” – survived to a height of 1.8 metres suggesting its northern counterpart was at least that.
Near the Great Wall’s north-western curve, previous excavation uncovered a huge stone feature tied into the fabric of the inner face. These looked remarkably like steps! The 2022 extension revealed a second set suggesting that, if these are indeed steps, the height of the wall was such that it could not be scaled without them.
The presence of steps also implies that access to the top of the wall was important. Why? We can only speculate.