Orkney – Britain’s Neolithic heartland (part 2)

Continued from part 1

The Ness of Brodgar
The ‘cathedral’ on the left, archaeologists at work on the right

The final site to mention is the Ness of Brodgar, which has been the location of archaeological digs since it was discovered through geophysical survey work in 2003. The first use of the site by Neolithic peoples is likely to have taken place around 3500 BC, based on sherds of carinated bowls have been found. The main use of the site came later, according to archaeological director Nick Card:

“At its zenith, in the main phase that we are currently exploring (dating from 3100 BC), the Ness was dominated by huge freestanding buildings enclosed by a massive stone wall. This was much more than a domestic settlement: the size, quality, and architecture of these structures, together with evidence from tiled roofs, coloured walls, and over 800 examples of decorated stone – all add to an overall sense of the Ness being special in some way”

The Neolithic peoples appeared to use the Ness of Brodgar intermittently, possibly as a meeting place rather than a place of permanent occupation. At the 3100 BC high point, the Ness was dominated by Grooved Ware pottery and several large communal buildings, which fell out of use around 2800 BC.

Structure 10, dubbed the ‘Cathedral’, was erected around 2900 BC – see photo above left. It measures 20 by 19 metres, and – according to Card – “must have been one of the most impressive buildings in northern Europe at the time”. It stood alone when the other structures were cleared around 2600 BC, and was re-visited around 2400 BC, when it was surrounded by a deposit of cattle skulls and tibia bones from over 400 animals. Perhaps this represented a communal event, or feast, commemorating the end of the use of the structure?

For more on the excavations, see the Ness of Brodgar website, a BBC news article about a Neolithic axe find, and an article (with some great photos) on the National Geographic website.

What happened when?

Archaeologists and researchers are still piecing together the puzzle of Neolithic Orkney, helped by the continuing archaeological investigations, and improvements in radiocarbon and other dating techniques. What follows is an attempt to set some of the recent research against evidence of a couple of very significant climatic disturbances…

Research published in 2017 compared the development of Orkney’s heartland or core (what is now the World Heritage Site) with the peripheral areas of the islands. In his article in Northern Earth magazine featuring this research, Mike Haigh sets out a chronology for Orkney, starting around 3500 BC, with a population living mostly in the periphery in timber (and latterly stone) houses and burying their dead in stalled cairns or passages graves.

Departing from Orkney for a moment, around 3200/3100 BC a major climatic disturbance had significant impacts around the globe. It featured abrupt cooling at higher latitudes, and both flooding and desertification in lower latitudes. There have been suggestions that this was caused by an incoming storm of meteors or comet fragments.

Obligatory photo illustrating a cosmic catastrophe

It was followed by the emergence of new civilisations around the world, and in Scotland, the Edinburgh area was first settled around this time. And as for Orkney…

“Around 3150-3100 BCE activity started at Orkney’s core, with a vibrant and competitive culture whose members seemed to have been engaging with each other as to who could build the largest and most impressive buildings and megalithic sites” (Haigh)

Perhaps this active Neolithic culture represented new settlers arriving at the islands, pushed from their homelands due to catastrophic environmental changes?

Whatever the case, this period sees the establishment of Skara Brae village, the building of megalithic stone circles and the introduction of flat-based pottery. Settlements were transformed to appear as large mounds, with nucleated houses and the deposition of substantial midden materials (domestic waste). Given the evidence of abrupt cooling at higher latitudes, perhaps the Neolithic islanders were doing their best to stay warm?

After around 3000 BC the population in Orkney declined, and there was evidence of villages being abandoned around 2800 BC. A short time after this, most activity in the core had ceased, although things started to pick up again in the periphery for a couple of thousand years. There is also evidence of intermittent activity at the Ness of Brodgar in the mid-third millennium, including the possible ‘final feast’ around 2400 BC. In the periphery, Neolithic houses continued to be occupied until around 2200 BC, although there is little evidence after around 2350 BC.

This ties in very well with another major event that took place in around 2300 BC, after which there was little Neolithic activity in Orkney. It appears to have been a worldwide occurrence, possibly involving asteroid or comet-fragment impacts again, leading to abrupt climate change, sudden sea level changes, catastrophic inundations, widespread seismic activity and evidence for massive volcanic activity.

Wetter weather prevailed in Orkney

This event led to the collapse of many cultures worldwide, and it caused a climatic change for Scotland and the Orkney islands, which became wetter thereafter. Could this have pushed the remaining Neolithic Orcadians further south? Whatever the case, the Bronze Age had started in Northern Europe, and in Britain the Beaker culture came to the fore. The time of Orkney’s Neolithic culture had come to an end.

For more on the 3200/3100 BC event, check out these webpages:

For more on the 2300 BC event, check out these webpages:

There are further references and resources below, and you’re welcome to add your own thoughts and feedback – on anything covered in this article – in the comments section.

Further references and resources

Article by Nick Card in Current Archaeology magazine: ‘The Ness of Brodgar – Uncovering Orkney’s Neolithic Heart’, issue 335, February 2018.

Article by Mike Haigh in Northern Earth magazine, The Dating Game in Orkney, issue 154, Sept 2018.

Book by Caroline Wickham-Jones: Monuments of Orkney – A Visitor’s Guide, Historic Scotland, 2017.

Book by Charles Tait: The Peedie Orkney Guide Book, fourth edition, revised 2017.

Booklet: The Ness of Brodgar – Digging Deeper, The Ness of Brodgar Trust, 2017.

TV series: Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney: Details available on the BBC website, or you can view episode 1 on vimeo.com.


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