Archaeology Archaeology

Archaeology in Orkney

You may have heard the saying that if you scratch the surface of Orkney, it bleeds archaeology.

Whilst we don't recommend digging up the landscape (unless you're an archaeologist or a farmer, of course) Orkney's rich legacy spans more than 5,500 years and we do have more ancient sites dotted around than anywhere else in Europe, with new discoveries still being made.

Indeed, the archaeological world is still abuzz over the emergence of a huge Neolithic site, possibly a temple complex, at the Ness of Brodgar, close to some of the other jewels in Orkney’s archaeological crown – the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe chambered tomb. All of these breathtakingly well preserved ancient treasures lie within a UNESCO World Heritage Site area, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

Outside the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, there are a staggering number of other major archaeological sites across Orkney. There appear to be more visible remains in Orkney’s landscape than elsewhere in the UK and every year there are new finds. There are so many remains it is impossible to mention all the sites here. However, Historic Scotland, Visit Scotland and Orkney Islands Council produce material which details many of the sites of interest, as do isles publications, and there are many books detailing the county’s fascinating history. Orkneyjar is a good source of information online.

The Ness of Brodgar, discovered in 2003, throws up new and exciting finds regularly during its annual dig, and its scale and sophistication suggest that Orkney may have been the cultural centre of this country thousands of years ago.

The Ness of Brodgar is usually open to visitors during the summer period that archaeologists are on site making ever more fascinating discoveries. No official tour dates have been announced for the 2016 season yet but, subject to funding, the dig season will run between the 4th of July and the 26th of August. Please be aware that the site is covered over for protection outwith the excavation weeks.

Recent discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar include the earliest known examples of grooved ware pottery and walls painted with colour. Elsewhere, the Orkney Venus, or Westray Wife, was found at the Links of Noltland in Westray. She is the oldest found representation of a human figure in Scotland. A Stone Age tomb, containing a 5000-year-old skull was discovered in a garden at Banks in South Ronaldsay in October 2010.

Archaeologists carry out annual digs in the summer at several important sites including the Links of Noltland in Westray, Rousay, Wyre and Windwick, South Ronaldsay. Marine archaeology projects investigating underwater sites are ongoing too. There are many specialists in Orkney offering commercial archaeology services and archaeology holidays and we also have the Orkney Archaeological Society, a charity which hosts regular talks.

Experience Orkney's archaeological wonders for yourself with our short film...

Inside History



People from Orkney have made their mark on communities and industries around the world for hundreds of years. From the cold and harsh Canadian winters, to the baking heat of Australia, there are traces of Orcadian history everywhere. Here are just some of our famous adventurers.

Robert Rendall

Literary Figures

Orkney has had more than its fair share of writers, who were either born or lived in the county. Many drew on Orkney’s landscape, history and people for inspiration and themes. Here, we explore some of our most famous literary figures.

Another aerial view, showing the scale of the site at the Ness of Brodgar

Ness of Brodgar

The Ness of Brodgar is an archaeological site covering 2.5 hectares, sited between the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

A depiction of St Magnus in St Magnus Cathedral

Norse Heritage

Orkney's glorious Viking past, with its warlike imagery and tales of saints and earls, remains a visible and important part of island life.

Orcadian writer Edwin Muir


When local residents leave the islands, whether for a short business trip, a longer holiday or for a permanent move, the chances are they will always run into another Orcadian at some point on their journey. People from Orkney have travelled and settled across the globe for thousands of years, and it's a practice that continues to this day.

A boy's ba' played out on a snowy Christmas morning

The Ba

If you arrive in Kirkwall in the days or even weeks leading up to Christmas you might wonder if the town is about to be besieged. Wooden barricades are erected to protect doors and windows as if from some sort of violent attack. The truth is that the barricades are put up to protect buildings from hundreds of bodies that surge through the streets in pursuit of a leather trophy; the Ba’.