Supporting research at the Ness

One of the ways we can best progress work on the Ness of Brodgar is via student research, particularly at postgraduate level.

If we can at least cover the cost of fees circa £5,300 for a Masters of Research (MRes) student, we can make study a lot easier for that student.

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

What follows is her research plan:

Sarah Jane Haston.

Sarah-Jane Haston.

I am delighted to join the Ness of Brodgar team and will over the next two years work towards a masters in research (MRes) at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, investigating charred plant remains from the Ness of Brodgar. 

This project is supervised by Dr Scott Timpany (UHI Archaeology Institute), Dr Rosemary Bishop (University of Stavanger) and Nick Card (UHI Archaeology Institute), the site director of the Ness of Brodgar.

I graduated with a BSc in Environmental Archaeology from the University of Edinburgh in 1999 and since that time have worked as a field archaeologist throughout the British Isles. Latterly, I returned to commercial environmental-based work, concentrating on charred plant remains and wood charcoal analysis.

I have worked on several large projects in Scotland, and it is especially enjoyable to analyse the plant remains from sites such as the substantial Iron Age metalworking site at Culduthel Mains Farm, Inverness-shire on which I was part of the excavation team.

The aim of my MRes research project is to gain insight into the agricultural practices, foraging activity, food consumption and fuel resources of the Neolithic communities who constructed the monumental structures at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

The research project will link with the multi-disciplinary collaborative investigations of the site under the direction of Nick Card and build upon previous and ongoing archaeobotanical work.

My project will focus on the deposits that were sampled and processed from one of the excavated buildings, Structure Eight. The archaeobotanical remains recovered will aim to identify what plants were of use within the structure and whether there are any differences in plant use within the internal space of the building, for instance if any activity/storage areas can be identified. 

The excavation of Structure Eight has revealed two phases of use for the building (Card & Edmonds, 2020). Analysis of the plant remains over these two phases may help to understand the functions of the building through its life.

All samples are processed using standard floatation methods (cf. Kenward et al., 1980). The resulting flot samples will be analysed using a stereomicroscope at magnifications of x10 and up to x100 where necessary to aid identification. Identifications will be confirmed using seed atlases (e.g. Cappers et al, 2006), identification keys (e.g. Jacomet, 2006) and modern reference material from the UHI Archaeology Institute.

My process will be to assess all flot samples from Structure Eight and on the basis of this assessment, select samples containing cereal grain or more than ten seeds to be taken forward to analysis. The results will be used to construct a distribution map of the possible activity areas within the structure. 

Comparison will then be made with the plant remains from other parts of the site, and then from other Neolithic sites in Orkney and across Britain.

Structure Eight is the longest piered structure at the site with an internal length of c.18m by 9.5m (Card & Edmonds, 2020). The internal space contains five individual hearth settings and as such could be of particular interest when looking at the cooking of foodstuffs at the site and the question as to whether any domestic activities took place and to what scale. 

 Ness of Brodgar naked barley grains. (Scott Timpany)

Ness of Brodgar naked barley grains. (Scott Timpany)

Small amounts of charred cereal grain were recovered from Structure Fourteen and have been identified as naked barley (Hordeum vulgare var nudum) with some grains of emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) providing evidence for the cultivation of a wheat crop (Timpany & Montaño, 2020). 

Naked barley has often been recorded as the main cultivar of Neolithic communities throughout Atlantic Scotland (Bishop et al. 2009) and this project will add to the emerging picture of arable activity here. The identification of grain and any chaff fragments will shed light on any potential processing of cereals at the site.

Charred plant remains. (S.J. Haston)

Charred plant remains. (S.J. Haston)

Other charred plant remains could provide further evidence of diet with the potential collection and consumption of wild foodstuffs such as brambles (Rubus fructicosus), apple (Malus sylvestris) and hazel (Corylus avellana), which were recovered in small amounts from Structure Fourteen (Timpany & Montaño, 2020). 

The charred plant remains will potentially also indicate fuel use. There is strong evidence for turf burning at other parts of the Ness site and it will be interesting to see if this is also shown in the Structure Eight plant remains assemblage.

I look forward to getting started on the samples and will keep you posted with my findings as I progress with the analysis of the 800 samples collected from Structure Eight.


  • Bishop, R., Church, M. and Rowley-Conwy, P., 2009. Cereals, fruits and nuts in the Scottish Neolithic. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 139, 47-103.
  • Cappers, R.T.J., Bekker, R.M. & Jans, J.E.A. 2006 Digital seed atlas of the Netherlands. Barkhuis Publishing and Groningen University Library: Groningen.
  • Card, N., 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.
  • Card N., Edmonds M. and Mitchell A. (Eds.) 2020. The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands. The Orcadian, Orkney.
  • Jacomet, S. 2006 Identification of Cereal Remains from Archaeological Sites (2nd Ed.). Basel: Institute for Prehistory and Archaeological Science.
  • Kenward H.K., Hall A.R. and Jones A.K.G. 1980 A tested set of techniques for the extraction of plant and animal macrofossils from waterlogged archaeological deposits. Science and Archaeology 22, 3–15.
  • 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.

If you are interested in making a donation specifically towards postgraduate research, please contact Nick, at to discuss. Your help will be much appreciated.

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