Uncovering the secrets of the Ness of Brodgar

The 2018 Ness of Brodgar excavations come to a close on the 24th of August after a busy summer of digging.

Sigurd Towrie has been writing about archaeology in Orkney for a number of years and is about to start studying the subject at the UHI Archaeology Institute. He has spent the last seven weeks at the site and has been taking a look back at the season for us.


How time flies when you're having fun.

As I write this, there's around a week to go before the Ness of Brodgar site is put back to bed for the winter. Despite being involved in the Ness since day one, this year, for the first time, I have spent the entire season working on site. And what an incredible two months it has been.

Jenny at work, carefully and patiently removing a section of the midden baulk outside Structure Ten
Jenny at work, carefully and patiently removing a section of the midden baulk outside Structure Ten

Most of my time has been spent in Trench J - one of the first opened on site in 2006 and re-opened last year after being backfilled in 2008. The reason for revisiting the trench was because post-excavation work had yielded dates around 500 years earlier than the magnificent structures in the "main" trench.

These led to questions about the northern boundary wall - the "Great Wall of Brodgar" and its relationship to Structure Five, an early Neolithic building similar to the Knap of Howar in Papay, but much larger. This year, Trench J was extended in an effort to locate the remaining section of Structure Five, but, as usual, the Ness doesn't make things easy for the archaeologists.

After six week's work, meticulously unpicking the activity layers in the extension, we not only have a well-preserved wall in the north-western corner of the trench, but also a substantial hearth - clear indicators that later buildings were constructed on top of the remains of Structure Five.

Rob investigating a later, ephemeral section of wailing at the bottom of Trecnch J and outside Structure Five
Rob investigating a later, ephemeral section of wailing at the bottom of Trecnch J and outside Structure Five

Meanwhile, at the Harray Loch side of the trench, later material was removed to see whether the "Great Wall" - which curves along the outside of Structure Five - continued south-eastwards. Surprisingly, it seems it did not but stopped abruptly. Do we have an entrance here and the wall continued after that? Or was it never completed? More questions that will require further investigation to answer.

Staying with the wall, over by the shore of the Stenness Loch, a new trench was opened to try and find evidence of the suspected west wall that connected the northern and southern boundary walls. Led by Dr Mike Copper, an incredible effort by the Trench Y team saw tonnes of earth removed and, despite extending three times, there is still no sign of any wall along the shoreside. Despite this, Trench Y yielded one of the most spectacular finds of the season - a large, polished-stone axe that showed clear signs of use.

The large polished stone axe - the biggest so far discovered at the Ness - in site in Trench Y. The business end of the axe had been very heavily used and was badly damaged, with the removal of many flakes from its edge
The large polished stone axe - the biggest so far discovered at the Ness - in site in Trench Y. The business end of the axe had been very heavily used and was badly damaged, with the removal of many flakes from its edge

Over in Trench P, the home of the iconic Ness structures, work to carefully sample and work down through multiple occupation layers continued. While this is painstaking and vital work, the buildings still managed to produce a few delightful surprises - not least a stunning gneiss axe from Structure Eight.

Neolithic art continued to be found across the entire site, but particularly in Structure Twenty-Six - a small, less-than-grand building nestled between Structures Ten and Twelve. Much of what was found there was very reminiscent of that which has been recovered from Structure Ten — the "cathedral" — and the latest thinking is that this little construction is contemporary with the remodelling of its monumental neighbour's interior.

The Ness continued to produce incised and decorated stone this year, such as this one from outside of Structure Twenty-Six in July
The Ness continued to produce incised and decorated stone this year, such as this one from outside of Structure Twenty-Six in July

Over in Trench T, the work to remove the midden overlying the massive Structure Twenty-Seven has proceeded at remarkable speed and more of this enigmatic building is beginning to emerge.

But although lengths of the structure's wall have been uncovered, it is clear that stone robbing took place in antiquity. This is hardly surprising because the external wall faces of Structure Twenty-Seven are magnificent examples of crafted stone. It would have graced any building, ancient or modern, and is of an even higher quality than the stone in the main buildings in Trench P.

While there is no doubt that excavating has been exciting, rewarding and hard-work, the archaeology is just one part of "the Ness" experience.

The other is the people - working side-by-side with folk from all over the world creates firm friendships, so much so that there is a genuine sense of sadness when a colleague reaches their last day on site. Fortunately, however, that sorrow is tempered by the fact that all vow to return so that camaraderie can be rekindled.

Marc passes the southern entrance to Structure One
Marc passes the southern entrance to Structure One

On top of that, there are the thousands of visitors who flock to the site over the eight-week excavation. Equal parts interested, intrigued and delighted, their enthusiasm is contagious. Some, however, don't quite appreciate the age of the buildings laid out before them. One Australian visitor, while watching me recover a polished axe from the environs of the "Great Wall", asked whether that massive structure had been built to defend against the vikings.

Holding up the freshly exposed axe, I explained that this beautiful little artefact would already have been 4,000 years old when the first Norse set foot on Orcadian soil. Needless to say, he was suitably stunned.

Sadly, perhaps the most persistent misconception among new visitors surrounds the funding of the site.

Many still believe that the annual excavation is fully funded by government, universities, colleges etc. When it is explained that the majority of the annual cost comes from the generosity of public donations, it is heartening to see these folk make their way to the site shop or donation barrel.

Bryn, the site dog, on one of his routine patrols, while Roy leads one of the three daily tours in the background
Bryn, the site dog, on one of his routine patrols, while Roy leads one of the three daily tours in the background

By the time you read this, preparation will be well under way for 2018's second open day on Sunday, August 19, from 11am until 4pm. Activities for all the family will take place on site as well as in the Stenness School.

So come along and see what's been happening this year, before the covers and tyres go back on and the Ness resumes its slumber.


Find out more about the Ness of Brodgar via the official website. You can also follow the dig on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Sigurd runs the Orkneyjar website, full of information on Orkney history, places and folklore. You can also find him on Instagram.

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