Earlier buildings, the ‘Great Wall’ returns and Structure Ten’s deposited arm bone – seasons 2016-2017

Part six of our series looking at how excavation at the Ness of Brodgar progressed –  and ideas changed – over the years, through dig director Nick Card’s annual brief summaries for Archaeology Scotland’s Discovery and Excavation in Scotland.

Annotations in red put the archive information into current site context.

Today we look at 2016 and 2017.


Oblique view of Trench P at the end of July 2016. (Scott Pike)

Oblique view of Trench P at the end of July 2016. (Scott Pike)

Further investigation of the Neolithic complex on the Ness of Brodgar was undertaken, 4 July – 26 August 2016.

Some of the structural elements of Structure Twenty-Seven begin to appear in Trench T. (ORCA)

The main structures were further investigated to clarify their relationships and the individual biographies of each building. Micromorphic sampling of both floors and middens again complemented other sampling strategies including archaeomagnetic and onsite XRF analysis.

Tobias and Sophie point out the ends of a mega-orthostat in Trench T. A re-used standing stone?

In Trench T, near the southern tip of the Ness of Brodgar peninsula, more of the late pits cut into the lower slopes of the midden mound were excavated and the underlying middens removed to reveal more of the robbed out remains of Structure 27.

Initially Structure 27’s form appeared to resemble the Bookan-style of tomb; however, in 2016 its construction was shown to be unique.

Although the outer wall faces are constructed of fine, large masonry, the inner wall faces are much rougher, but would have been hidden behind upright orthostats ‘cladding’ the internal wall faces. Large prone orthostats up to 4m in length set on edge helped to support the orthostat lining.

Side recesses were created along the side walls by orthostats perpendicular to the internal walls. The lack of apparent domestic features (including the absence of the use of midden in the wall cores) may suggest a funerary function.

The symmetry, scale (internally c7.5m wide), and unique construction methods is presently without parallel.

Although not clearly defined in the earth resistance surveys, a slight sub-oval anomaly c20m SW/NE by 15m, could be the outline of this building. This may be set within a larger, sub-circular enclosure, c50m diameter again revealed by resistance.

Trench T structural remains as interpreted in August 2013.

Further excavation was also undertaken in the sondage through the midden mound, which is formed of numerous individual midden heaps. This confirmed the spatial patterning revealed in 2015.

In the main Trench P, excavations continued on the final Phase 2 occupation-derived deposits inside Structure 1.

Further thin ashy layers and floor patches were excavated around the hearth to expose the rammed yellow clay floor which was removed to expose the Phase 1 floor deposits and also orthostats associated with the original southern hearth in the building. This was set more symmetrically within the building than the later phase hearth that overlay it.

Overview of Structure One, with Structure Twenty-One disappearing out of the top right of the trench. The central ‘plaza’ area is in the top left. (Scott Pike)

In the northern part of the original Structure 1, beyond the substantial Phase 2 wall, the excavations continued to expose the upper-most occupation-derived layers of Phase 1.

Some of the bone deposit under the buttress of Structure Ten. (ORCA)

With the full extent of Structure 8 being revealed in 2015 and the last remnants of collapse and later ephemeral use removed, the investigation of the floor deposits across the whole building commenced.

As with Structures 12 and 14 narrow sondages along the length and across its width were opened. This revealed, as suspected, a sequence of relatively shallow (and short-lived?) activity.

Work within Structure 10 again concentrated on the internal floor deposits relating to its secondary major phase.

The lower courses and rough core of the secondary internal SW corner buttress were removed to reveal its foundation deposits.

These included several articulated large cattle leg bones, a large notched slab (similar to the one discovered in 2003), more sherds of a distinctive skeuomorph pot, and a single human humerus close to where a large intricately carved stone block was found in 2013.

The human arm bone under the buttress of Structure Ten. (ORCA)

The remaining occupation-derived deposits in Structure 11 were removed and this late small structure was dismantled.

Giles removes a decorated stone from the vestiges of Structure Eleven. (ORCA)

A large percentage of the stones used in its construction were decorated on their horizontal surfaces which would have been hidden as construction proceeded. The positioning of these designs would suggest that they were decorated in situ as the structure was built.

The large threshold slab revealed in the magnificent eastern entrance to Structure Twelve, resplendent with flanking standing stones. (ORCA)

A cache of hammerstones related to Structure Twenty-Eight under Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

Excavation in the interior of Structure 12 continued with the removal of more secondary occupation layers and the last remnants of collapse. Narrow sondages were opened across the building and these revealed a less complex and shorter history for Structure 12 than first thought.

It now appears that, rather than being dismantled and rebuilt, Structure 12 may be a reincarnation of Structure 28 which underlies the S end of Structure 12. Substantial fine walling associated with Structure 28 was revealed in several of the sondages.

A sample grid is established in Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

Within Structure 14, the main focus of this season was the removal of the remaining sample and section baulks across the floors. These baulks comprised one E/W baulk aligned on the long axis of the building, and two N/S baulks centred on the structure’s two hearths.

Hugo extends the sondage under the robbed-out wall of Structure Fourteen. (ORCA)

Outside of the baulks, remaining primary floor deposits and features were excavated including a number of small pits, postholes, very small stakeholes around the eastern hearth, and cuts for orthostatic divisions and furniture (removed during a later remodelling).

A sondage under the robbed out northern wall of Structure 14, which had produced Early Neolithic round-based ceramics in 2014, was expanded to allow recovery of material for dating. Suitable samples were obtained that produced a date of c3450 cal BC.

An arc of walling, previously uncovered in a sondage which explored the S wall and outer paving of Structure 10, was further revealed in a small trench extension in order to establish its relationship with Structure 12. This building, Structure 26, was filled with rubble and its form and details have yet to be clearly defined.

Excavation under way in the newly opened Trench X. (ORCA)

Trench X was an extension to the main Trench P leading out downslope from the SW corner of Structure 12, towards the Loch of Stenness.

The aim of this trench was to investigate the presence of the enclosing perimeter wall along the SW side of the Ness and also the density of contemporary buildings and activity associated with those in the main trench.

The ‘rosette’ decorated stone from Structure Eight. (ORCA)

Although no trace of the enclosure wall was found, deposits at the loch end of the trench did dramatically drop away which may indicate the presence of a boundary at a lower level. Across the rest of the trench midden deposits, elements of several later ephemeral structures, paving and features were revealed including two lines of small stone-lined postholes.

Near the NE end of the trench a stone working area was revealed complete with an anvil, hammerstones and stone flakes.

Numerous other examples of Neolithic art were also discovered including a line of cup marks from Structure 12 and a ‘rosette’ of cup marks enclosed by a double curving band from the external wall of Structure 8.


Trench T - a hive of activity (that is also sometimes sheltered from the wind).

Trench T – a hive of activity. (Sigurd Towrie)

Further investigation of the Neolithic complex on the Ness of Brodgar was undertaken, 3 July – 25 August 2017.

More of the stepped foundation slabs and robbed-out walling of Structure Twenty-Seven in Trench T are revealed.

Trench T  was squared off in order to reveal more of the plan of Structure 27 (12.3 wide by at least 17m long overall).

More of the late pits cut into the lower slopes of the overlying midden mound were excavated, with some pits exhibiting partial rough dry stone lining.

More than 50 pits have now been excavated. Some of the pits were evidently the result of the robbing of Structure 27. The number and complexity of these pits prevented floor levels in Structure 27 being further exposed. However, its plan has been clarified with the SW end wall and more of the internal wall lining being revealed.

As suggested last year, Structure 27 was lined by vertical orthostats partially held in place by 4m long orthostats lain on edge. A new partially exposed orthostat on the same alignment as the side walls but near the central axis of the structure may be part of an entrance arrangement/passage.

The thickness of the walls, c2.4m, would suggest that this structure was not corbelled.  A few stone slates previously found imply a roofing system similar to other buildings at the Ness.

The southern external corner was also clarified and confirmed the quality of the build with stepped foundations and some slabs exhibiting pick dressing. Further stone slabbed external drains were also discovered at its SW end.

The inner face of the 'Great Wall of Brodgar' once again sees the light of day.

In Trench J, the inner face of the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’ sees the light of day again. (ORCA)

Trench J in 2008. The ‘Great Wall’ is shown in red, with Structure Five in yellow.

In light of post-excavation analysis and some early 14C dates, Trench J to the NW of the main trench was reopened having lain dormant since 2008.

With more of the overburden of later middens and activity removed more of the plan of Structure 5 was revealed.

As suspected it is reminiscent of several other early Neolithic houses such as Knap of Howar and Smerquoy, with a ‘waisted’ plan where the internal wall lines are pinched in with orthostats used as internal divisions, although it is larger.

The northern boundary wall of the site in this trench were it was first recognised was also revealed again and its outer NW face further revealed.

Aerial photo from 2016 showing the path of the cropmark (solid line) suspected to be the route of the enclosing wall. (Scott Pike)

To support the argument that the site was fully enclosed a drone photograph from last year (see above) has revealed a linear cropmark in the rougher ground along the shore of the Loch of Stenness that would seem to link the N and S boundary walls as indicated by both previous excavation and geophysical survey.

This cropmark also coincides with a marked drop in the topography towards the loch edge. [Excavation in 2018 failed to find evidence of a wall along the line of the cropmark]

In Trench P, excavation in Structure 1 concentrated on the removal of the secondary curving wall across the interior of the building. The dismantling was recorded by photogrammetry in addition to traditional means.

Over 60 decorated stones were recovered from within the build mainly hidden within the wall. At the base of the wall a foundation deposit of the skeletal remains of a calf were recovered. The primary phase floors have now been revealed across the structure.

Chris hard at work in the entrance area to Structure Eight and exposing more elements of the underlying Structure Eighteen.

Within Structure 8, the investigation of the floor deposits across the whole building was continued.

More of the underlying Structures 17 and 18 were revealed. The single narrow NE entrance was unblocked and the ‘forecourt’ area excavated. This revealed several new wall lines some of which relate to Structure 18.

Work within Structure 10 continued on the internal floor deposits relating to its secondary major phase, concentrating on the northern half of the building. Like the other structures this was based on a 0.5m2 sampling grid.

Outwith Structure 10 excavation continued to remove the fill of the outer passage around the building and its upper fills of monumental amounts of mainly cattle bone. In order to speed up the process of recording, in 3D, each fragment of bone (Smartfauna), photogrammetry was again utilised to great effect to complement the normal methods of recording.

The barbed and tanged arrowhead – a first for the Ness! (ORCA)

In the layer immediately overlying the bone deposit a barbed and tanged arrowhead was found, close to where a sherd of Beaker pottery was discovered in a previous season.

Excavation in the interior of Structure 12 continued with the removal of more secondary occupation layers and also the fills of the large northern hearth.

Outwith the S end of the building more pottery concentrations and midden were removed around the southern phase 1 blocked entrance. This revealed an area of paving that presumably extends around the E and S side of the building.

Structure Twenty-Six’s outline is clarified (ORCA).

Within Structure 14, the last vestiges of its primary use and construction were excavated. The scant remains of an immediately earlier structure was revealed that must have been almost totally removed for the construction of Structure 14.

Trench P was slightly extended to encompass the full extent of Structure 26.

The overlying midden and some of the rubble infill was removed to reveal a relatively small, double skinned wall with in places an outer revetment D-shaped structure. As yet the intricacies of its build are still masked by further infill.

Although originally presumed to predate Structure 10, it now seems likely that this is one of the later buildings on site and may be contemporary with the later phases of Structure 10. At the edge of this trench extension another arc of walling was revealed that would seem to coincide with a large geophysical anomaly, Structure 30, another probable piered building.

Fragments of the ‘incense’ cup. Only four others of this style are known and all are from the Stonehenge-Wessex area. (ORCA)

Close to Structure 26, and within the late midden deposits surrounding the structure, several sherds of a small waisted incense cup were recovered. The closest parallels for this particular form of cup are from the Stonehenge area.

Work continued in Trench X, opened for the first time in 2016.

Further late ephemeral activity was revealed including more stone-lined postholes that would appear to delineate a small, late linear timber structure.

Numerous other examples of Neolithic art were also discovered, most notably a series of very lightly incised opposed triangular motifs on the external wall of Structure 12.


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