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.