Ness of Brodgar

The page compiles posts and links about Ancient Scotland and the 'Atlantic Civilisation' of roughly 4,000 BC to . . . it seems parts of it are still with us.

The focus of discussion is the incredible temple/ monastery/ college at Ness of Brodgar and the connected sacred or cultural landscape around it. It is here that we appear to find a philosophy, an industrialisation and a 'brand', which is then transferred across Britain and appears at the formative stages of developments in the Stonehenge region.

"The Ness of Brodgar is an archaeological site covering 2.5 hectares (6.2 acres) between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site in Orkney, Scotland. Excavations at the site began in 2003. The site has provided evidence of decorated stone slabs, a stone wall 6 metres (20 ft) thick with foundations, and a large building described as a Neolithic temple.[1] The earliest structures were built between 3,300 and 3,200 BCE, and the site had been closed down and partly dismantled by 2,200 BCE." - Wikipedia

Credit: S Marshall - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

The content begins with a sketch of what is largely known and how things seem to have begun. Beyond that there is a great deal of possible interpretation, input from recent finds and hints at echoes of this Atlantic culture passing on its knowledge and understanding. This discussion involves taking the available archaeology and exploring some of the possibilities about what was going on. In other words . . . wandering off into speculation.

Consequently, this page is not about trying to deliver some sort of fixed or settled account. Scotland's history has had enough of that. Instead the content is about recognising what was achieved 5,000 years ago in what is now Scotland - and exploring the themes and mysteries that may let us get closer to understanding how much this Atlantic Civilisation achieved.

Importantly, there are no signs of advanced astronomy, structures made to modern tolerances or fixed lines between one early civilisation and another . . . but there is evidence of a great deal of ingenuity and even more hard work.

Roughly speaking the landscape below appears to start to develop significantly after 3,300 BC with straightforward passages running into increasingly sizable cairns or mounds.

Ness of Brodgar's Sacred Landscape
Credit: Islandhopper - CC BY-SA 3.0

Ness of Brodgar and The Neolithic Highway

Gavrinis and other related sites in Brittany are critical to the transfer of the European megalithic to Caithness, Ness of Brodgar and Ireland. Brittany, Ireland and Scotland were in contact along what is known as the Neolithic Highway (maritime) and ideas from the Morbihan region were transferred over to already quite sophisticated cultures. (Seemingly first trying truly monumental architecture in the British Isles in Caithness where we see the Camster Cairns),

The local populations then took these inputs and look to have made them their own. In Ireland we see 700 years of progression in chamber 'tombs', while Orkney is so advanced for the time they go into re-design and industrialisation with, respectively, the 'rebirth' mound concept at Maes Howe and the production of Grooved Ware.

This regional civilisation's products and stylings are then exported to, amongst other places, the Stonehenge region; where the whole cultural pack is made anew by the already sophisticated culture there. (Intriguingly, while I haven’t seen all the carved panels in Brittany’s ‘chamber tombs’ so far they don’t have the diamonds/ lozenges so prevalent in Ireland, Orkney, and later, Bush Barrow and other sites near Stonehenge).

The incoming 'traders' seem too few to invade or to take over, so we end up with these unique regional diversities developing through common inputs set alongside existing indigenous understandings.

Mounds; swirling designs; and cup and ring marks, often bundled as 'Celtic', are central to these Neolithic cultures' worldview/ s 3000 years before any 'Celtic' influences and stylings arrive from Europe via the much later Atlantic Bronze Age/ Celtic horizon.

It appears possible some sort of religious or spiritual dimension/ message was involved in these Neolithic developments and this, speculatively, may explain the ridiculous amount of effort/ resources put into megalithic monuments - up to and including the equinox-locked lightboxes built into Newgrange and Maes Howe. (Alignment between Maes Howe and Ness of Brodgar indicates a wide ranging Orcadian sacred landscape).

Power, conflict and the geopolitics of more recent times don't offer a good explanation, as it is not until/ during the processes described that the archaeology shows the formation of familiar social hierarchies. In Orkney we actually find two distinct Neolithic sub-cultures living alongside each other.

There is also the question of largely funerary definitions of monuments where we have features from 'ceremonial' contexts, such as diamonds and swirls, also appearing on pottery in domestic settings.

The focus on rebirth within Maes Howe's layout, (indicated by archaeologists), and the alignments of other monuments, such as the Ring of Brodgar, seem indicative of a sacred landscape involving more than simply passive monuments to remind people of their ancestors. For example, a number of mounds were blocked later, but they were not sealed at the time in the manner of the individual tombs sometimes linked to the Beaker People in the Bronze Age. (Some mounds contain human bones or cremated human bones in some quantities, others don’t. Of those with human bones some may have been carried in by animals at much later dates).

As a result, it is possible what is often presented in haste as a 'tomb' was more of a cemetery you might visit - or in a Neolithic context somewhere along the lines of a communal 'ancestral home'. Understandings of the boundaries between life and death may have been very different from our own - making such a site conceptually ancestral and 'generative'.

Orkney - Ness of Brodgar

View Ness of Brodgar in Google

The current excavation:


Structure Ten is built and goes through various stages of additions and alterations, e.g. the addition of the annex/ forecourt at its eastern end, and the incorporation of a pre-existing standing stone into this annex.

“Was it a 'temple', as first proposed, or as now appears, with more of the internal features apparent, a 'house' but on a truly monumental scale?

Although exhibiting many features in common with domestic buildings, such as a central hearth, side recesses and a “dresser”, the oddities of this structure, (its scale, walls up to five metres thick, its surrounding paved pathway, its alignment with Maeshowe, the use of coloured sandstone, the incorporation of standing stones in its build, the extensive use of decorated stonework, in particular cup marks, etc . . . marks it out as something quite extraordinary!”

Ness of Brodgar - Interpretation

Not exactly an academic source, but a really quite quick and clear explanation of what we are starting to be more sure about at Ness of Brodgar - and how this may connect the sites on either side, i.e. the Stones of Stenness, 'world of the living', and the Ring of Brodgar, 'realm of the ancestral':

"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 Stenness/ 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."

Ness of Brodgar - Structure 10

Structure 10, described as "temple-like", was discovered in 2008. It has walls 4 metres (13 ft) thick and still standing to a height of more than 1 metre (3.3 ft). The building is 25 metres (82 ft) long and 20 metres (66 ft) wide and a standing stone with a hole shaped like an hourglass was incorporated into the walls. There is a cross-shaped inner sanctum and the building was surrounded by a paved outer passage. It is believed to have been constructed around 2,900 BCE.[1] This is the largest structure of its kind anywhere in the north of Britain and it would have dominated the ritual landscape of the peninsula.

Structure 10 appears to have been partly rebuilt around 2,800 BCE, probably due to structural instability.[1] It was used until around 2,400-2,200 BCE. At this time it appears to have been "closed" in an extraordinary and unique episode of demolition[17] involving the slaughter of several hundred cattle. Bones of approximately 400[1] cattle—tibias (shin bones) comprise the vast majority of bones found[18]—were laid around structure 10 and an upturned cow skull was placed within it. The tibias appear to have been cracked to extract the marrow, suggesting that this slaughter was accompanied by a feast. All the killing seems to have taken place in a single event.[18]

After the feast, the whole carcasses of several red deer were placed atop the broken bones, and structure 10 was largely destroyed.[18] This event appears to have marked the closure and abandonment of the Ness of Brodgar site.

S Marshall

Work in Progress

The first extra page is almost good to go, the others have yet to be filled:

More on the symbols uncovered at Ness of Brodgar and Structures 10 and 14: Diamonds

Comment on the Atlantic Culture and its mythical background: Tuatha

Discussion of the wider Atlantic Culture and it's origins: An Mhaighdean


Turns out the archaeologist leading the Ness of Brodgar dig is off on a US lecture tour - starting mid February 2017. Lots of details linked here.