Location, location location – Neolithic buildings and the importance of place

“Houses are more than material constructions to provide shelter, they are places where people dwell. The house provides a fixed place, a reference point in the world.”
Downes and Richards. The Dwellings at Barnhouse. 2005.
Structure Eight from above in 2023, with Structures Seventeen (left) and Eighteen clearly visible. (Tom O'Brien)
Structure Eight from above in 2023, with its immediate predecessors, Structures Seventeen (left) and Eighteen, clearly visible underneath. (📷 Tom O’Brien)

There is absolutely no doubt that the Ness of Brodgar structures were built to impress.

But although time and effort went into making them look magnificent, elements of their construction (in the later piered buildings at least) left a lot to be desired.

Look beyond the surface and it is clear the grandeur was just skin deep!

From the outset problems with their foundations meant that the buildings were doomed to collapse.

The big question is whether the builders knew this was an inevitable outcome. Certainly, by the time of Structure Ten’s construction, around 2900BC, it seems they did and went to extraordinary measures to combat the subsidence that had plagued its predecessors. [1]

But it didn’t work and Structure Ten suffered also a major collapse within a few generations of its construction.

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Structure Ten with the location of one of its predecessors, Structure Twenty, highlighted.
Structure Ten with the location of one of its predecessors, Structure Twenty, highlighted.

The importance of place

“The occupation sequence at the Ness may have been punctuated, and it varied from one part of the site to another. But it possessed a reiterative quality, a strong commitment to the place itself.”
Card et al. As it Stands. (2020)

Behind these structural issues lay an apparent importance ascribed to specific places in the Neolithic.

This phenomenon has also been noted at other settlement sites in Orkney, where new houses were invariably built on the remains of their predecessors.

At Stonehall Meadow, in the neighbouring parish of Firth, for example, the inhabitants not only reused the same sites but also incorporated elements of the earlier buildings. The same has been encountered at Skara Brae, Rinyo and the Barnhouse settlement, with a clear cycle of construction, abandonment, demolition and replacement.

At Barnhouse, for example, the excavators were able to show that one site had been used for four separate houses. [2]

Although the availability of space may have played a part, other elements suggest the practice goes beyond mere practicality.

As Downes and Richards put it:

“To be erected in a specific manner, altered and eventually abandoned, the house can be considered as a dynamic entity sharing an intimate relationship with the changing fortunes and circumstances of its inhabitants. Continuity from one generation to another may, in some cases, be more embodied in the ‘house’ than in actual affinity between individuals.” [2]

The house, they suggest, may represent more than the identity of the living occupants but a potent symbol of kinship links extending back into a mythical past. [2]

The Barnhouse excavators noted the repeated recovery of hearthstones, presumably for reuse in new buildings, which, they suggested, also forged links with the original house founders, concluding that:  

“It seems that towards the end of occupation at Barnhouse, the villagers were taking increasingly elaborate steps to portray links with the ancestors who initially founded the village.” [2]

So, a new building, by occupying the space of its predecessor(s), and including parts of it in its fabric, was perhaps a tangible, highly visible, link to the past and earlier generations. It maintained a physical connection to the builders’ forebears, perhaps not only emphasising their continuity, kinship and ancestry, but place in society and the landscape.

Conversely, moving a structure could be seen as breaking with the past – a deliberate act to alter identity and distance the builders from those who went before. [2]

As Professor Colin Richards has pointed out, the outward appearance of a house is often a public or social face of the inhabitants. [2]

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than the structures at the Ness of Brodgar. Although technically not dwellings – at least in a permanent sense – these were built to make an obvious statement, presumably highlighting the status and power of the occupants and their ancestry.

But why replace a building? With a dwelling the most obvious reason could be structural deterioration. But there are numerous examples of structures being repaired/remodelled over the lifetime so there may be more to the complete demolition and replacement that just necessity.

Today there’s a difference between “house” and “home” and it was surely no different in the Neolithic.

Turning again to Downes and Richards, they pointed out that:

“The house embodies its inhabitants and, in this respect, when considering the physical qualities of the house, it is important to consider the lives of these occupants, as opposed to a simple examination of materials and architecture.” [2]

So, there could be numerous other reasons behind complete demolition and replacement than just structural failure. We could be looking at the death of the occupant(s) or a change in their circumstances. And possibly many more that we can’t appreciate today.

The situation at the Ness, however, is slightly different.

Although the Ness buildings were not, strictly speaking, houses, it seems the builders’ requirement/desire to maintain links to their predecessors remained. That required building on top of earlier structures.

And with that requirement came major structural issues.

Structure Twenty-Eight (in red) lies immediately under Structure Twelve. Beneath Twenty-Eight is at least one other, Structure Twenty-Four.
Structure Twenty-Eight (in red) lies immediately under Structure Twelve. Beneath Twenty-Eight is at least one other, Structure Twenty-Four.

At the Ness, when the time came to erect a new building, its predecessor was partially dismantled and the remains covered by midden. The midden layer provided a level surface for the new construction but brought with it a critical problem – subsidence. The soft midden compressed beneath the weight of the walls leading to structural issues that led to catastrophic collapses in at least three of the excavated buildings.

The flaws in the construction method are clear. So why do it?

Within the Ness complex, like excavated Neolithic settlements in Orkney, it seems the site of the building was key – perhaps more important than a requirement for long-term structural stability.

Excavation under Structure Twelve in 2023 pointed to a construction sequence that was considerably more complex than previously thought. The evidence suggested, yet again, that construction work within the complex was constant, with some buildings (the earlier ones at least) apparently lasting barely a generation before being replaced.

With Structure Fourteen, for example, by raising their new structure on exactly the same footprint the builders may have been highlighting and reinforcing a clear, unbroken link to their predecessors.  

The relationship between Structure Eight and its predecessors, Structures Seventeen (left) and Eighteen.
The relationship between Structure Eight (in red) and its two predecessors, Structures Seventeen (left) and Eighteen.

Structure Eight, on the other hand, saw a huge building placed on top of the remains of two much-smaller predecessors. In this case are we looking at the same effort to link to the past but on a grander scale? Or was it a grand attempt to merge/appropriate/supercede the significance of two distinct groups?

At the Ness, the monumental buildings may have been constructed for a specific role, used and then perhaps lost their significance. They had served their purpose and it was now down to the next generation to do the same. Ethnographic studies have recorded similar processes across the world in more recent times. [3]

Notes

  • [1] Giant foundation slabs were placed, both internally and externally, to support Structure Ten’s four-metre-thick walls.
  • [2] Downes, J. and Richards, C. (2005) The Dwellings at Barnhouse. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. pp. 57-127.
  • [3] For example: Urwin, C., 2023. Building and Remembering: An Archaeology of Place-Making on Papua New Guinea’s South Coast. University of Hawaii Press.

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