Structure Eight: Bearing fruit

Sarah-Jane Haston is a UHI Archaeology Institute MRes student, looking at the charred plant remains from Structure Eight. We have been able to support her with tuition fees as a result of a generous donation made in 2020 specifically for research work.

Here is Sarah-Jane’s latest update:

Sarah Jane Haston.
Sarah-Jane Haston.

I am now into the second year of my masters by research (MRes) project and it is great to see results coming together and to see how the charred plant remains data will add to the emerging picture of diet and fuel use at the site.

I have assessed over half the 800 samples taken during the excavation of Structure Eight, the largest of the piered structures at the Ness of Brodgar. 

Initial assessment of the samples indicates the plant species present, their abundance and state of preservation and a wide range of charred plant remains have been recovered, albeit in relatively small quantities.

The archaeobotanical assemblage from Structure Eight shows a mix of materials relating to a possible fuel source and other plant materials, including edible plants, that were either deliberately discarded or accidentally incorporated into the fire. 

Within the assessed samples the most abundant macrofossils are the seeds of a number of different sedges (Carex sp.) and grasses (Poa sp.) – most notably heath-grass (Danthonia decumbens L.). 

Ness of Brodgar Trench P: Structure Eight.

Together with the seeds, buds, florets and leaves, other parts of heathers (Calluna vulgaris L. Hull and Erica spp.), could indicate the use of peat or peaty turf as a fuel source.

The charcoal fragments within the samples are mostly of stems of heathers or other shrubby plants and also suggest that the moorland resources were being utilised as an important fuel resource at the site. 

Frequent amounts of blinks or water chickweed (Montia fontana) seeds along with the sedges indicate wetter, boggy conditions, perhaps as more well-humified peat is used rather than peaty turf.

In terms of diet, comparatively low numbers of cereal grains have been recovered in the assessed deposits. These are mainly naked barley (Hordeum vulgare var nudum), with emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) the only other cereal represented. 

The presence of these grains fit well with the general picture that is emerging for agriculture in Atlantic Scotland and from other excavated sites in Orkney. Possible weeds of cultivation that would have grown within the crop include ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), cinquefoil (Potentilla sp.), buttercup (Ranunculus sp.) and dock (Rumex sp.). 

Other edible species recovered from the samples include crowberry (Empetrum nigrum L.), blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus L.), crab apple (Malus sylvestris) and hazel (Corylus avellana) nutshell. The berries, fruit and nuts would have been some of the wild foods gathered in the late summer or early autumn.  

Crab apple pips.

The presence of crab apple pips in Structure Eight is interesting.

Crab apple pips have been recorded in only a small number of excavated Neolithic sites in Scotland.

In a summary of cereals, fruit and nuts recovered from Scottish Neolithic sites, Bishop, and others (2009) found that apples pips were recorded at only five of the 75 sites investigated. This sparse presence on sites suggests that apple trees would have been rare in the Neolithic of Atlantic Scotland. 

The presence of crab apple pips in Structures Eight and Fourteen at the Ness of Brodgar (Timpany & Montaño, 2020), from Skara Brae (Dickson and Dickson, 2000) and from Barnhouse (Hinton, 2006) attest the use and potential growing of crab apple trees. 

Today crab apples are usually eaten only after being dried or cooked. These insights are important for exploring foraging activity as a part of Neolithic life in Orkney.

Once all the samples have been assessed, the next step will be to select samples for further analysis. At the next level, more detail of the individual species present and the relative abundance of different plant parts (e.g. grain, rachis, culm node, stem) will be gathered. 

Thanks must go to the Ness of Brodgar Trust, which has funded this research and allowed me to engage with material from such an exciting site.


  • Bishop, R., Church, M. and Rowley-Conwy, P. (2009) Cereals, fruits and nuts in the Scottish Neolithic. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 139, 47-103.
  • Card, N and Edmonds, M. (2020) Later Piered buildings. In Card N., Edmonds M. and Mitchell A. (Eds.) The Ness of Brodgar, As it Stands. The Orcadian, Orkney. 72-91.
  • Dickson, C. and Dickson, J.H. (2000) Plants & People. In Ancient Scotland. Tempus.
  • Hinton, P. (2006) The Charred Plant Remains from Barnhouse and Maeshowe. In Richards, C (Ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. 339-357.
  • Timpany S. and Montaño J.M., (2020) Grain and Fire. In Card N., Edmonds M. and Mitchell A. (Eds.) The Ness of Brodgar, As it Stands. The Orcadian, Orkney. 174-183.

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