The Ness of Brodgar: path to the Underworld

Go far enough up north from Derbyshire, and you get to the border with Scotland.  Keep going and eventually you’ll get to the Orkney Isles, a series of 70 islands and skerries situated 6.2 miles from the North tip of Scotland.  You might think that this would be abandoned right back in the Neolithic, but instead there’s evidence to suggest a thriving culture up there.  The massive stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar is only part of the remains, which include the well-preserved site of Skara Brae, the Barnhouse Settlement, the beautiful corbelled tomb of Maes Howe and the Tomb of the Eagles.

In fact the islands are littered with the remains of structures, both buildings and walls, standing stones and settlements, which makes the prehistoric heritage there vibrant, alive and in an impressive state of preservation.  The Orkney Isles, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit, are a series of cliffs, shallow bays and winding roads (where they have them at all) which means that the level of modern development is low, and hasn’t really impacted on the landscape as much as say, the centre of a modern city.  The capital up there is Kirkwall, a place with the population comparable to that of Bakewell, and to the west of the capital between the massive Stones of Stenness and the mighty Ring of Brodgar is a little strip of land, which looks quite unassuming on a modern map. You might have figured by now that something looking quite unassuming is likely to attract archaeologists, and so there’s currently an ongoing excavation at the site:

map of the ness of brodgar

map of the ness of brodgar

Go back the Neolithic, however, and that little strip of land was the focus and site of some intense cultural and behavioural activities.   The Stones of Stenness, in the bottom of the picture above, has a central hearth, and is surrounded by evidence of feasting and settlement activity (most notably at the Barnhouse Settlement).  The Ring of Brodgar, at the top of the picture, is surrounded by barrows and burials and has a lack of domestic activity.  So what about the strip between the place of the living, and the place of the dead?  The first thing that happened in 2002 was the archaeologists on the Ness, under command of site director and Orkney Archaeological Trust project manager  Nick Cave, undertook a massive geophysical survey of the site, which ended up with results that looked like this (click for bigger picture):

ness of brodgar survey results

ness of brodgar survey results

Theres a few of things of note here:

1) The white marks are where the geophysical survey has picked up a difference in the buried deposits.  Sadly it won’t tell you precisely what those deposits are, nor where the most interesting bits are to dig.
2)There’s a darker shaped area near the centre of the results, that’s the size of the current excavation area in relation to the size of the whole site.  The excavations cover about 10% of the whole area so far.
3) The whole thing appears to be surrounded by a rectangular wall, which has an entrance way curling inwards in the middle of the right hand edge, and another entrance on the other side, which again curls inwards to the top of the left hand edge.  So whatever buildings these are, you can hazard a guess that they’re walled in.

All the stuff in the centre is pretty much a jumble of lines and wall remains, so in 2008 archaeologists get to do what they do best and dig a nice orderly hole to see what’s down there.
For the north- east part of that excavated area, you get something which looks like this:

Ness of Brodgar trench P

Ness of Brodgar trench P

Isn’t it beautiful? *sigh* Alright, maybe it looks like just another hole in the ground with a great pile of stones in it, but if I do this:

Ness of Brodgar trench P overlay

Ness of Brodgar trench P overlay

You might just start to see the lines of a funny looking rectangular -ish building with alcoves around the inner walls.  It’s not the only building that was discovered either, inside that great walled area the Ness is covered with them, with up to 100 being identified in the survey results and excavations:

Ness of Brodgar structures

Ness of Brodgar structures

The one we looked at first was Structure 8 on the map above, looking from the edge of the above plan towards the middle.

The most current theory is that the whole site is a liminal place of transition between the worlds of the living and the worlds of the dead.  It’s a parallel theory to the hypothesis for the sites at Durrington Walls and Stonehenge, connected by the Avenue, first proposed by Mike Parker Pearson at the Neolithic Conference in Kirkwall in 1998.  Here the Ness is the conducting path between the Stones of Steness/ Barnhouse Settlement and the Ring of Brodgar. It exists in the perfect liminal place, the geography of the site creating a narrow strip of land between salt and fresh water lochs, in alignment with two huge stone monuments representing the living population and the spiritual home of the ancestors and dominating the landscape.  The strange shaped buildings on the plan above are all unique, and don’t exist on the site all at the same time.  Some of them have fire hearths in the doorways, and some have narrow gaps in the walls, possibly for entrances/exits.  The great walls surrounding the site may have been to physically segregate the space, creating a transitional area in which the newly dead journeyed through to the land of the ancestors on the other side.  Others such as structure 10, which is the one with the really thick walls at the bottom of the plan above, have the remains of about 600 individual cattle, almost exclusively shin bones, dating from 2300BC.  There’s even evidence of painting on the walls, and a multitude of pottery and broken stone axe/mace heads.  In amongst all that ceramic multitude is this little chap, named the Brodgar Boy:

Brodgar Boy

Brodgar Boy

You might be very familiar with the Venus Figurines, but this has been tentatively described as a rare representation of a male, here’s his face in close up:

brodgar boy face

brodgar boy face

In simple terms, this site wasn’t a place where people lived: so far there are no houses, no rubbish pits, no sign of fields or everyday tools.  There is no sign of battle or massacre, such as around the Neolithic defensive walls of the site at Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire.  There’s no standardised building template, just lots of buildings which are all unique and all built over time, some over the remains of others.  You could guess that that means they all have a unique purpose, and that that purpose remained similar through time.  The sheer scale of investment involved in planning and building on this scale would logically suggest that the reason they built was a powerful one to them.  You may even go as far as to say that the fact that the site was built at all speaks of a structured and society which had authority and power attached to members.  Sadly evidence for religion and belief is one of the most difficult things to ascertain through archaeology, especially when you deal with a site this old.

Excavations on the site are still ongoing, but you can find out more by checking out the online site dairy HERE
In the recent TV programme about the site, William MacNeil was responsible for the awesome computer-generated reconstruction imagery of the site.  You can also find out more about recent events at National Geographic

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