|On an island off Britain’s northern tip, new discoveries suggest a huge Stone Age ritual complex is older than Stonehenge reports the National Geographic. But age is only the half of it. Researchers say the site may have in fact been the original model for Stonehenge and other later, better-known British complexes to the south.|
First discovered in 2002, the waterside site — called the Ness of Brodgar (“Brodgar promontory”)—lies on Mainland, the largest of Scotland’s Orkney Islands. According to recent radiocarbon dating of burned-wood remains, the Ness was first occupied around 3200 B.C. and went on to include up to a hundred buildings within a monumental walled enclosure. By contrast, the earliest earthworks at Stonehenge date to about 3000 B.C. And it would be roughly another 500 years before the first of the famous stones were set on Salisbury Plain.
Temple Decommissioned in 2300 BCE
The idea of Orkney as a font of Stone Age culture isn’t completely new.
It’s been suspected, for example, that so-called grooved-ware pottery, which became dominant in Neolithic Britain, originated in Orkney and spread south. According to Card, it now appears that the crockery style may have ridden a cultural wave that included notions of stone circles and henges — ritual grounds enclosed by low earthwork “walls”.
Despite its apparent influence, the Ness wouldn’t last in this incarnation forever. The dating of animal bones found around the finely crafted temple indicates that a huge feast ceremony was held in about 2300 B.C., after which the temple was effectively “decommissioned,” Card said.
“We are perhaps looking at the remains [almost exclusively shin bones] of 600 individual cattle, which in anybody’s book is a massive feast.”
Made of red and yellow sandstone, the Stone Age furniture was “beautifully finished” and represented “the very top end of the market” for their time, the archaeologist noted.
The 2011 excavation also found further examples of mysterious geometric stone carvings that decorate the complex as well as evidence for the production of paints. Traces of orange, red and yellow paintwork were first detected on walls in 2010.
World Heritage Status Granted
|Bounded by a 13-foot-thick (4-meter-thick) stone wall, the Ness of Brodgar is located between two other important monuments, the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness — all part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UN World Heritage site.
Archaeologist Mark Edmonds thinks that thousands of years ago, the Ness was a place where Orkney’s Neolithic farming communities gathered in large numbers for seasonal rituals and to commemorate the dead—a pattern likely later repeated farther south.
Pic: National Geographic
Site director Card agreed, and pointed out that less than 10 percent of the Ness complex has been excavated.
“We’re still really just scratching the surface,”
The Man-made Promonotory
Robin McKee of the Guardian’s Observer reports that the drive west from Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, and then head north on the narrow B9055 and you will reach a single stone monolith that guards the entrance to a spit of land known as the Ness of Brodgar. The promontory separates the island’s two largest bodies of freshwater, the Loch of Stenness and the Loch of Harray. At their furthest edges, the lochs’ peaty brown water laps against fields and hills that form a natural amphitheatre; a landscape peppered with giant rings of stone, chambered cairns, ancient villages and other archaeological riches.
This is the heartland of the Neolithic North, a bleak, mysterious place that has made Orkney a magnet for archaeologists, historians and other researchers. For decades they have tramped the island measuring and ex- cavating its great Stone Age sites. The land was surveyed, mapped and known until a recent chance discovery revealed that for all their attention, scientists had completely overlooked a Neolithic treasure that utterly eclipses all others on Orkney – and in the rest of Europe.
|This is the temple complex of the Ness of Brodgar, and its size, complexity and sophistication have left archaeologists desperately struggling to find superlatives to describe the wonders they found there. Discoverer Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology says:
What is clear is that the cultural energy of the few thousand farming folk of Orkney dwarfed those of other civilisations at that time. In size and sophistication, the Ness of Brodgar is comparable with Stonehenge or the wonders of ancient Egypt. Yet the temple complex predates them all. The fact that this great stately edifice was constructed on Orkney, an island that has become a byword for remoteness, makes the site’s discovery all the more remarkable. For many archaeologists, its discovery has revolutionised our understanding of ancient Britain.
“We need to turn the map of Britain upside down when we consider the Neolithic and shrug off our south-centric attitudes,” says Card, now Brodgar’s director of excavations. “London may be the cultural hub of Britain today, but 5,000 years ago, Orkney was the centre for innovation for the British isles. Ideas spread from this place. The first grooved pottery, which is so distinctive of the era, was made here, for example, and the first henges – stone rings with ditches round them – were erected on Orkney. Then the ideas spread to the rest of the Neolithic Britain. This was the font for new thinking at the time.”
It is a view shared by local historian Tom Muir, of the Orkney Museum. “The whole text book of British archaeology for this period will have to be torn up and rewritten from scratch thanks to this place,” he says.
Farmers first reached Orkney on boats that took them across the narrow – but treacherously dangerous – Pentland Firth from mainland Scotland. These were the people of the New Stone Age, and they brought cattle, pigs and sheep with them, as well as grain to plant and ploughs to till the land. The few hunter-gatherers already living on Orkney were replaced and farmsteads were established across the archipelago. These early farmers were clearly successful, though life would still have been precarious, with hunting providing precious supplies of extra protein. At the village of Knap o’Howar on Papay the bones of domesticated cattle, sheep and pigs have been found alongside those of wild deer, whales and seals, for example, while analysis of human bones from the period suggest that few people reached the age of 50. Those who survived childhood usually died in their 30s.
“Being given World Heritage status meant we had to think about the land surrounding the sites. We decided to carry out geophysical surveys to see what else might be found there.” Such surveys involve the use of magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar to pinpoint manmade artefacts hidden underground.
Says Card. And the first place selected by Card for this electromagnetic investigation was the Ness of Brodgar.
The ridge was assumed to be natural. However, Card’s magnetometers showed that it was entirely manmade and bristled with features that included lines of walls, concentric pathways and outlines of large buildings. “The density of these features stunned us,” says Card. At first, given its size, the team assumed they had stumbled on a general site that had been in continuous use for some time, providing shelter for people for most of Orkney’s history, from prehistoric to medieval times. “No other interpretation seemed to fit the observations,” adds Card. But once more the Ness of Brodgar would confound expectations.
Archaeologist Professor Colin Richards of Manchester University, who excavated the nearby Barnhouse settlement in the 1980s, says that:
“This wasn’t a settlement or a place for the living. This was a ceremonial centre, and a vast one at that. But the religious beliefs of its builders remain a mystery. It was absolutely stunning, The walls were dead straight. Little slithers of stones had even been slipped between the main slabs to keep the facing perfect. This quality of workmanship would not be seen again on Orkney for thousands of years.”
But it is not just the dimensions that have surprised and delighted archaeologists. Two years ago, their excavations revealed that haematite-based pigments had been used to paint external walls – another transformation in our thinking about the Stone Age. “We see Neolithic remains after they have been bleached out and eroded,” says Edmonds. “However, it is now clear from Brodgar that buildings could have been perfectly cheerful and colourful.”
|The men and women who built at the Ness also used red and yellow sandstone to enliven their constructions. (More than 3,000 years later, their successors used the same materials when building St Magnus’ Cathedral in Kirkwall.) But what was the purpose of their construction work and why put it in the Ness of Brodgar? Of the two questions, the latter is the easier to answer – for the Brodgar headland is clearly special. Card says:
The surrounding hills are relatively low, and a great dome of sky hangs over Brodgar, perfect for watching the setting and rising of the sun, moon and other celestial objects. (Card believes the weather on Orkney may have been warmer and clearer 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.) Cosmology would have been critical to society then, he argues, helping farmers predict the seasons – a point supported by scientists such as the late Alexander Thom, who believed that the Ring of Brodgar was an observatory designed for studying the movement of the moon.
These outposts of Neolithic astronomy, although impressive, were nevertheless peripheral, says Richards. The temple complex at the Ness of Brodgar was built to be the most important construction on the island.
“The stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and the other features of the landscape were really just adjuncts to that great edifice,”
he says. Or as another archaeologist put it:
“By comparison, everything else in the area looks like a shanty town.”
For a farming community of a few thousand people to create such edifices suggests that the Ness of Brodgar was of profound importance. Yet its purpose remains elusive. The ritual purification of the dead by fire may be involved, suggests Card. As he points out, several of the temples at Brodgar have hearths, though this was clearly not a domestic dwelling. In addition, archeologists have found that many of the stone mace heads (hard, polished, holed stones) that litter the site had been broken in two in exactly the same place. Richards says:
“We have found evidence of this at other sites. It may be that relatives broke them in two at a funeral, leaving one part with the dead and one with family as a memorial to the dead. This was a place concerned with death and the deceased, I believe.”
Equally puzzling was the fate of the complex. Around 2,300BC, roughly a thousand years after construction began there, the place was abruptly abandoned. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones suggests that a huge feast ceremony was held, with more than 600 cattle slaughtered, after which the site appears to have been decommissioned. Perhaps a transfer of power took place or a new religion replaced the old one. Whatever the reason, the great temple complex – on which Orcadians had lavished almost a millennium’s effort – was abandoned and forgotten for the next 4,000 years.
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