Neolithic ‘art’

Antonia and Georgie recover a spectacular example of incised stone in 2015.
2015: Antonia and Georgie recover a spectacular example of incised stone from outside Structure Eight. (📷 Ole Thoenies)

By Dr Antonia Thomas

Close-up view of decorated slab.
A close-up of some of the finely incised designs. (📷 Ole Thoenies)

Prior to the excavations on the Ness, Neolithic “artwork” was something of a rarity in Orkney.

Yes, there were examples from Skara Brae, some incised motifs recorded in chambered cairns, the Pierowall Stone and, of course, the Brodgar Stone – discovered in 1925, but one of the main features of the Ness of Brodgar dig is the sheer volume of incised and decorated stone found on site.

The Ness of Brodgar boasts the largest assemblage of Neolithic rock art in the country.

Over 1,000 examples of Neolithic decoration are now recorded and these have been found in every structure and every type of deposit on the site.

It is a truly remarkable collection of carvings, which give us a direct insight into the minds and world of the people who built and inhabited these buildings 5,000 years ago.

The assemblage includes a range of different types of rock art, and includes cup-marked stones, slabs with deeply incised patterns and lines, and even stones that have been painted.

Working stone

2013: The first “butterfly” stone. A number of other incised stones with this motif have since been found.

Hammerstones and coarse stone tools would have been used for pick dressing, and the grinding of cupmarks, with flint tools used to incise and carve patterns into the stones.

Coloured pigments may have also been rubbed into the lines to make them stand out, and many of the lines seem to have been reworked several times.

The rock art shares many of its motifs with those found on contemporary Neolithic artefacts such as Grooved Ware pottery.

The decoration is nearly all geometric and angular in design, and includes parallel bands, lozenges, chevrons and zigzags. There are very few depictions that could be considered figurative or representational in any way at all.

This abstraction is a common feature of Neolithic art in Britain and Ireland and raises many interesting questions. Were depictions of the natural world taboo, in the same way that they are in Islamic art, for example?

The 'Butterfly stone'.  (📷 Antonia Thomas)
The ‘Butterfly stone’. (📷 Antonia Thomas)

Hidden stones

Chevron design from Structure Ten. (Sigurd Towrie)
Chevron design from Structure Ten. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Many of the stones were placed in deliberately eye-catching positions, such as entrances and recesses.

But curiously, many others were hidden from view, concealed underneath floors or within walls.

The patterning of the types of marks, and the way they are placed seem to suggest that these weren’t just accidentally hidden, or simply re-used stones.

In Structures Seven and Eleven, it even seems like the builders were marking stones as they were placing them during construction.

The 'Brodgar Butterfly' motif. (Antonia Thomas)
The ‘Brodgar Butterfly’ motif. (📷 Antonia Thomas)

In many cultures, builders are known to have placed secret messages and objects within the walls of houses, such as shoes, or sacred texts and spells.

Could these decorated stones have been inserted to protect the building and its inhabitants? Or are they simply masons’ marks, or even just doodles?

Some of the stones are so lightly scratched that they are barely visible but may have seemed animate and alive when viewed with the flickering flame of a torch.

This might have given them a magical quality that would have been part of their meaning and appreciation.

See also

Book Cover

To read more, we recommend Dr Antonia Thomas’ book Art and Architecture is Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context.

Focusing on the hundreds of decorated stones from the Ness of Brodgar, the book details the results of the author’s fieldwork both there and at the contemporary sites of Maeshowe and Skara Brae.

It is lavishly illustrated, with many photographs of some of the carved stones.

Click here to download.