Ness of Brodgar stories

by Edward Pegler on 9 March, 2012

The Ness of Brodgar site on Mainland, Orkney is amazing and the BBC programme is fantastic.

I recently (well, about two months ago) watched “A History of Ancient Britain: Orkney’s Stone Age Temple”, a “History of Ancient Britain” special. This was on the Ness of Brodgar site on Mainland, Orkney. Funnily enough, I found myself coming away with mixed feelings about it. Given a couple of months to reflect on it, it has made me think about what archaeology is and what archaeologists add to and take away from it.

Ness of Brodgar Archaeology

The Ness of Brodgar excavation has been on the go since 2003. It’s located on a promontory between Lochs Stenness and Harray. Geophysical evidence suggests a significant Neolithic (around 3300-2600BC) site covering at least 2.5 hectares. What is so amazing is the scale of the architecture. Massive, rectangular walls surround multiple buildings with evidence of simple wall painting and bone carving (e.g. the “Brodgar Boy” – ? a spindle whorl), as well as polished hand axes and imported flint tools.

Although the area is already known for the equally ancient delights of Maes Howe, the Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and the Barnhouse ‘village’, no-one was really expecting these new discoveries in Orkney. Arguably, this is the most exciting prehistoric excavation in the British Isles for many years.

Within these walls four larger buildings, or structures, seem to have been particularly noted by the archaeologists: Structure 1 has three doorways and three hearths. Oddly, one of the doorways appears require its user to step over a hearth, a bit like those chemical footbaths I used to try to dodge when going to swimming pools. Structure 8 is a long building with a doorway at one end and three hearths along the middle. Inside, the side walls are divided into compartments by larger piers built into the walls (to hold the roof up?). The building contained several broken mace heads and some whale bone. Structure 12 has no hearths (again odd), the same piers, and a narrow entrance at one end.

A considerably younger building (?2500BC), named Structure 10 is built over other buildings within the walls. It’s roughly square, has immensely thick walls enclosing a small central room and is surrounded by a large amount of cattle bone.

Fact and Story

All of this is fine. The field archaeologists on the site appear to have done an excellent job of recording their finds, using the latest in scientific and visualising technology. This means that although much will, inevitably, have been destroyed in the process of digging, most of the raw data will still be there for archaeologists to interpret in years to come.

And this is where I breathe a huge sigh of relief. Because many archaeologists in Britain currently seem to have no sense of where raw data ends and where stories start. To quote Neil Oliver, archaeologist and presenter of “A History of Ancient Britain”:

[the walls were] too great to be domestic or even defensive.

a monumental structure unlike anything anywhere else.” (obviously not true)

it’s easy to imagine the world within. A stone age world of ritual and religion… but when was this temple complex built?

for the farmers who lived here, quarrying, moving and constructing these stone buildings was a massive show of devotion.”

stone slabs created secret spaces

our temple complex wasn’t only the beginning of a new belief system but of a new social order as well. The people who mediated the beliefs that went along with all of that, the priests for want of a better word, were in control. They were the theocratic leaders of Neolithic Orkney.”

Admittedly, he’s often reading from a script, but… . Anyway, sadly, he’s not the only one to merge fact and story. To quote Alison Sheridan:

it’s surrounded by this wall so it’s a kind of sacred precinct

To be fair, she and other archaeologists in the programme have made statements based on their years of archaeological experience with the prehistory of Britain. However, to say that Neolithic Orkney was a ‘theocracy’ or that a site was a ‘sacred’ ‘temple complex’ or that farmers were ‘devoted’ is just story-telling. When any one of us, be it professional or amateur, makes up a story about how the past was, we should, somehow, keep in mind that what we’re telling is just a story, even if we quite like it.

Orkney and Neolithic Britain

Neil Oliver (or the programme) made other statements about who did what first in Britain at this time and how the Orkney site may take some form of precedence over southern sites like Stonehenge. Certainly, Stonehenge and Avebury were built several hundred years later and the evidence from Grooved Ware pottery appears to show its spread from north to south, so such statements may be true.

The programme also suggests that the Ness of Brodgar site could be the origin of the ‘ancestors cult’ of the ‘living’ (wood) and the ‘dead’ (stone) that has been argued for Stonehenge and Avebury by Mike Parker Pearson. Many of the Scottish archaeologists in the programme took understandable pride in these possibilities, although this is, of course, an anachronism of modern national identity.

But to me what’s so special about the Orkney site in relation to the rest of Neolithic Britain is this –  In Orkney, ready-made building stone, in the form of Devonian slabs, has always been easily available. On the other hand, large trees have always been in short supply here due to the wind. This makes applying Mike Parker Pearson’s theory to Orkney much harder, but that’s not my point.

My point is that this means Orkney’s buildings have, since early times, tended to be made from stone rather than wood or mud. Importantly, even allowing for the time honoured pilfering of stone, ancient buildings in Orkney have a better chance of being discovered here than in most other parts of the British Isles.

This gives archaeologists a fantastic chance to reconstruct ancient ‘settlements’ or ‘temples’ in the region in much more detail than they would further south (as has previously been argued for Skara Brae). By contrast, structures of equivalent size in southern Britain would be built of earth and wood and many may have been lost through decay and subsequent earth movement by farmers and builders. This makes them difficult to detect.

Indeed happy location and pure chance have played a large part in the discovery of the few late Neolithic settlements in the south. The ‘domestic’ buildings associated with Durrington Walls, a similar, though younger, walled ‘settlement’ near Stonehenge, were discovered due to the build up of soil at the base of a slope (at the top end of the slope nothing would be left of these buildings).

And the great walled Neolithic enclosures of West Kennett, near Avebury, were discovered by chance only through the laying of pipes. These remains perhaps represent only the deepest parts of the site which have luckily escaped erosion. There is no evidence for buildings here so far.

So, maybe Orkney was special… and maybe it wasn’t.

And maybe the buildings at Ness of Brodgar were temples… maybe they weren’t.

Indeed, maybe “A History of Ancient Britain: Orkney’s Stone Age Temple” was good TV…

And the locals?

Which brings me back to the Ness of Brodgar site. This massive, walled enclosure contained numerous buildings, all made in stone. The archaeologists argue that these buildings were not inhabited by normal people. But the archaeologists think the normal people built the buildings and the enclosure itself. So where did these builders live? I look forward to finding out.


Ness of Brodgar Excavation site

Will MacNeil’s computer pics from the television programme

Cameron Balbirnie’s summary of the program




{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Elisabeth K November 5, 2016 at 2:13 am

I think the Ness of Brodgar war a fertility center. The building looking like birth clinics. And the way it was destroyed can indicate something like that.


Edward Pegler November 5, 2016 at 4:35 pm

Dear Elisabeth

Maybe… maybe not. Show us that it’s likely. You might well do a better job than the archaeologists.


Jerry L Krause March 20, 2012 at 4:16 pm


Accurate definition requires ‘big comments’. Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences was a book. By using a number of characters with different thoughts, Galileo encompassed an issue (let all sides make their arguments). A problem of modern scholarship seems to be that issues can be adequately considered with only ‘small comments’ or comments from only one point of view. I was only trying to put issues on the table which I had not found being considered. As I have written, learning is my central theme of studying prehistory.



Jerry L Krause March 15, 2012 at 7:12 pm


I will try to illustrate what I understand to be accurate definition (see Dialogues Concerning Two Sciences at About). I start with what I read about Skara Brae.

“In the winter of 1850, a great storm battered Orkney.

There was nothing particularly unusual about that, but on this occasion, the combination of wind and and extremely high tides stripped the grass from a large mound, then known as “Skerrabra”.

This revealed the outline of a number of stone buildings — something that intrigued the local laird, William Watt of Skaill, who embarked on an excavation of the site.”

“Because of the infamous erosion, Skara Brae now stands right by the shore of the Bay o’ Skaill. During its lifetime, however, the village would have been some distance from the sea.
At one time it was thought that a fresh water lagoon lay between the village and the Neolithic coastline.

Iinvestigations by the Quaternary Society, however, revealed that although the lagoon certainly existed, by the time of Skara Brae’s construction, it had dried up leaving an area of open grassland.”

I can see that the Ness of Brodgar is on a narrow strip of land between two relatively large bodies of water. From what I can see that this strip of land is primarily composed of sand. I read that one of the bodies of water is a freshwater lake and the other a salt-water bay.

While I do not know where the layered rocks, used in the construction of the stonewalls and stonebuildings, are found. I conclude their location must have been somewhat near each location and it seems obvious these rocks were excellent building materials.

I think I see that the thick walls found at the Ness of Brodgar site were constructed by laying two walls of rock and the space between the walls was filled with sand. I can imagine that the small spaces between of the rocks of the two walls were also filled with sand. In modern time concrete (mortar) is commonly substituted for the latter sand.

I have read that the larger site (not a building), was also bounded by a thick wall. Likely of the same type of construction as the thick walls of some buildings.

I read that an exciting possibility is that nearby there might be a submerged building site.

Brian John, on his blog site, just recently wrote about the glaciation (that Agassiz saw evidence of and convinced first himself and then the scientific community) of the British Isles and much of the higher latitude portions of the Northern Hemisphere’s land areas. He also called attention to the rapid restructuring of coastal beaches that has occurred in the past 50, or so, years.

It is generally accepted that the last glaciation occurred ten to twelve thousand years ago. Which places the Ness of Brodgar, etc., about midway between then and now. It is generally accepted that sea levels fall during the peak of such glaciations at the same time the land surfaces are depressed by the weight of the ice over them. Of course, this is elementary knowledge today, but totally unknown when Skara Brae was rediscovered after the 1850 storm.

And I read that Agassiz had some difficultly in convincing others of such an widespread glaciation and that he came to North America to view the possible evidence of its glaciation.

And I read that a sea-wall was built to protect Skara Brae from the onslaught of the sea. So, it seems intuitively possible (and likely if a submerged site is found) that the thick outer wall was built as a sea wall to protect the first buildings from the sea. But as the sea continued to rise (relative to the land which was also rising according to popular understanding) it became obvious the first buildings would become flooded during extreme events. If this were occurring, it seems intuitively possible (based upon the little which has now been uncovered) that the interior was filled with sand so a yet higher building could be constructed over the previous buildings. And the walls of this building was constructed thickly to protect its interior from the sea.

Of course, this is pure speculation. Just as Agassiz’s glacial ideas were. But as more and more evidence is seen, there comes the point when it becomes obvious that such speculative ideas are wrong or it must be generally accepted that they are probably correct (maybe not in detail but in general).

But there is more to consider. You referred to the hearth in a doorway. Did you consider the ubiquitous mosquito. One might ask: Why build on a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water that is only slightly higher than the water? I can imagine it could be a site of more consistent breezes, which I know from experience reduces the number flying insects. And from experience I know that wood smoke seems to discourage mosquito. So I can imagine that a smouldering fire in the doorway could have served as a prehistoric screendoor. Again, this is speculation. But, I have never read about mosquitoes relative any discussion of prehistory and I know that mosquitoes cannot be ignored. So, once I recognize their presence, I have another reason for traveling ridges and the ‘hillforts’ on them, etc.

I have a thought relative to what you term: ‘hillfort’. If, as you state, the ridges of the chalklands are dry, a fort that is dry cannot be protection against any hostile people. For all these hostile people would need to do is to wait until the people in the fort get thirsty and have to leave the protection of the fort to get water.

Another fact about the Ness of Brodgar, which I have read, is: there is a pile of oxen shins (700 hundred as I remember). Which has been interpreted as evidence of a great feast. Archaelogists, if they aren’t seeing most evidence as related to prehistorical burial practices see most other evidence to be related to festivals (feasts).

Ned, I am surprised you haven’t seen the Ness of Brodgar as a possible trading post. Or a possible industrial site. I suspect you are familiar with Tim Severin and the Brendan Voyage (1976-1977).

Mainland is an island. Was it an island when the buildings of the Ness of Brodgar were constructed? It is hard to imagine that it wasn’t. So it seems there had to have been previously boats of some type. Which, in the context of 700 oxen shins, prompts the question: How did all these shins get there? I can imagine calves being transported in small boats. But I can not imagine many adult oxen (cows and bulls) being transported in small boats. I can imagine calves grazing on the grass, which I see in aerial photos of this island, and growing into adults. I can imagine sheep being transported in small boats and grazing on grass. I have read that the Shetland lsles were over grazed because there were no prediators (wolves, coyotes, bears) so the livestock was allowed to go wild. The result was their populations were not controlled so that they began to eat bark off of trees. Thus, killing the few trees that were originally present.

A fact of livestock is nearly equal numbers of males and females are born. But one male is all that is necessary to service 20 or more females. Hence, populations can be rapidly increased while ‘harvesting’ the majority of the males at times beneficial to the farmer (herder). In fact, the regular slaughter of a majority of the male animals is a practical necessity, once one sees the limited carrying capacity of any grazing land.

I am sure there are other facts and issues that should be considered relative prehistoric life on the British Isles, but I leave you with the questions: What was to prevent prehistoric people at Ness of Brodgar manufacting ox-hide boats at this site? Could the ribs and other bones been used instead of the branches used by Severin to frame his boat?

It is my observation that ingenious people are seldom considered to be geniuses.



Edward Pegler March 16, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Dear Jerry

That’s one big comment. However, everything that you say seems logical and possible. Mosquitoes, admittedly, are not presently a great issue in Scotland. However a small insect commonly known as a midge is. It is abundant and a right pain where it occurs, which is on acid, generally waterlogged soils. I suspect that Ness of Brodgar is underlain by rock, not sand, possibly the very Devonian sandstones and siltstones used in the building (this needs checking). Either way, the coast/lakeshore position could well be radically different at that time. As for a trading post, I’ve tried to resist suggesting it, as that’s my story but definately not a fact!

best wishes



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