Orkney dig dispels caveman image of ancestors

The Ness of Brodgar site in Orkney. Photographs: Jim Richardson/National Geographic

The Ness of Brodgar site in Orkney. Photographs: Jim Richardson/National Geographic


THE image of our Neolithic ancestors as simple souls carving out a primitive existence has been dispelled.

A groundbreaking excavation of a 5,000-year-old temple complex in Orkney has uncovered evidence to suggest that prehistoric people were a great deal more sophisticated than previously thought.

The archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar, which is still in its early stages, has already thrown up discoveries that archaeologists say will force us to re-evaluate our understanding of how our ancestors lived.

The picture that has emerged so far points to a complex and capable society that displayed impeccable workmanship and created an integrated landscape.

Until as recently as 30 years ago, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, and the Maes Howe tomb, all in Orkney, were seen as isolated monuments with separate histories. Now it appears they were built as part of a connected community, although its purpose remains unknown.

Archaeologist Nick Card, excavation director with the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, says the ancient ruins are turning British pre-history on its head. “What the Ness is telling us is that this was a much more integrated landscape than anyone ever suspected,” he said.

“All these monuments are inextricably linked in some grand theme we can only guess at. The people who built all this were a far more complex and capable society than has usually been portrayed.”

The archaeological excavation, which is featured in the August edition of National Geo­graphic magazine, has yielded thousands of priceless artefacts – ceremonial mace heads, polished stone axes, flint knives, a human figurine, miniature thumb pots, beautifully crafted stone spatulas, highly-refined coloured pottery, and more than 650 pieces of Neolithic art, by far the largest collection ever found in Britain. Card pointed out that only 10 per cent of the Ness has so far been excavated, with many more stone structures known to be present under the turf nearby.

Roff Smith, author of the National Geographic article who has studied the cache, said: “They had Stone Age technology, but their vision was millennia ahead of their time. Five thousand years ago the ancient inhabitants of Orkney – a fertile, green archipelago off the northern tip of modern-day Scotland – erected a complex of monumental buildings unlike anything they had ever attempted before.

“They quarried thousands of tons of fine-grained sandstone, trimmed it, dressed it, then transported it several miles to a grassy promontory with commanding views of the surrounding countryside.

“Their workmanship was impeccable. The imposing walls they built would have done credit to the Roman centurions who, some 30 centuries later, would erect Hadrian’s Wall in another part of Britain. Cloistered within those walls were dozens of buildings, among them one of the largest roofed structures built in prehistoric northern Europe. It was more than 80ft long and 60ft wide, with walls 13ft thick.”

Smith noted that the complex featured paved walkways, carved stonework, coloured facades, even slate roofs at a time when buildings were usually covered with turf, hides, or thatch.

“Stand at the Ness today and several iconic Stone Age structures are within easy view, forming the core of a World Heritage site called the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

“On a heather-clad knoll half a mile away rises a giant ­Tolkienesque circle of stones known as the Ring of Brodgar,” Smith said.

“A second ceremonial stone circle, the famous Stones of Stenness, is visible across the causeway leading up to the Ness. And one mile away is an eerie mound called Maes Howe, an enormous chambered tomb more than 4,500 years old.”

Orkney’s county archaeologist, Julie Gibson, who arrived in the islands more than 30 years ago to excavate a Viking cemetery, said: “I’ve heard this place called the Egypt of the North. Turn over a rock around here and you’re likely to find a new site.”

Smith added: “The Ness of Brodgar appears to be the anchor piece – the showpiece, if you will – that links these other great monuments into one great monumental landscape of a sort nobody had dreamed existed. And to have had it ­lying underfoot, unsuspected, for so many centuries only adds to the sense of wonder surrounding its discovery.

“Bear in mind archaeologists and Victorian antiquaries have been poking over this ground for well over a century.

“What fascinated and surprised me personally was the engaging humanity of these Neolithic ruins.

“Although I have done quite a few archaeology stories, all over the world, I sometimes find it hard to warm up to the Neolithic.

“The long, long ago world they inhabited, the lives they led, seems too remote for me to grasp – at least well enough for my imagination to get some traction. Not at the Ness of Brodgar.

“When I looked at those paved walkways, and admire that incredible craftsmanship in their dry stone work, I could readily imagine the people who built these walls and structures. They came alive to me as real people, just like us, and that gave these ruins a significance to me that Stone Age ruins never have before. It is an exciting find and will continue to be exciting for many years to come.”


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