The Passage of Time in Neolithic Orkney

Excavations taking place at Ness of Brodgar. Can we really compare the development of this site with that of other Neolithic archaeology around Orkney?

Many years ago (more than I care to remember) I used to meet with a group of archaeological colleagues for a relaxing drink on a Friday night in Edinburgh. Most of us were involved, at one time or another, in working on the Neolithic archaeology of Orkney. Even then Orkney was regarded as something special. Being archaeologists we rarely left our work totally behind but rather used the time to discuss some of the most pressing dilemmas in our archaeological interpretations. I remember animated debates as to the meaning of the two very different pottery styles to be found in Neolithic Orkney. Did they, as some people thought, overlap, or had one supplanted the other. Radiocarbon dating had not long been employed and it was still something of a blunt tool – in many ways it did not lend much to our discussion. Another favourite topic was the meaning of the different styles of tombs and houses to be found in Orkney. It all seemed very bipartite. Were we simply observing the transformations in society that lead to changes in material culture? But was it a simple linear, evolutionary change? Or were there more nefarious elements at play. In short, did the advent of new styles of tomb and house (and other material culture) mean the advent of new people with new ways, did it signal some sort of social unrest or change, or was it just a matter of time?

You will notice that the uncertainties of dating at the time were such that we were able to assume that everything had changed at much the same time.

Now, I read with interest a new paper, by Alex Bayliss and colleagues, recently published in Antiquity. Alex is one of the wizards of radiocarbon dating. Using a statistical technique, known as Bayesian analysis, she is able to produce much tighter estimates of age from calibrated radiocarbon dates in conjunction with existing understanding of the archaeological record. Together with her colleagues they have been looking at the dates available for the sites of Neolithic Orkney, and taking many new dates as well, in order to provide a detailed chronology for Neolithic Orkney and consider what it may mean.

It is an interesting, thought provoking paper that pulls together a huge amount of information. It has received much attention since it was published. There is a lot of useful information relating to issues like the length of use of specific sites, and the ways in which they may relate to one another. But I am left questioning some of their conclusions, and somehow I ended up feeling a little disappointed. One of the problems with publishing in Antiquity is that you have to keep your papers short, and, in this case, it meant that the evidence needed to back up their statements was often lacking.

There is useful information relating to the antiquity of timber houses in Orkney together with the stone buildings that became more common. There is information relating to the dating of different types of tomb, and to the pottery types. The general conclusion seems to be that some social differentiation and the concurrence of new ideas took place fairly early on in Neolithic Orkney (the overlapping of the different styles in tombs and pottery for example), but that around 2800 BC something happened that led to a geographical shift in settlements and the development of larger houses and more elaborate pottery. The authors note that events in the Neolithic heartland of Stenness-Brodgar were, however, very different.

One of my problems relates to this comparison of the sites in the Stenness-Brodgar area with those elsewhere in Orkney. Stenness-Brodgar is a very different place with a very different type of site. Ness of Brodgar is discussed as a ‘place of human dwelling’. Now there is not much yet published about Ness, but all the material that one can find leads one to believe that it is not a common or garden settlement. Surely, it is not, therefore, surprising to find that events there were different to those elsewhere. The authors are not, as I understand it, comparing like with like.

There is also a general assumption that the archaeology of Orkney is such that the known sites provide a representative sample of what went on in the past. I find this very doubtful. Not only does general research suggest that this is not so, the known sites represent only the places where we have looked for (or found), sites. But also, the very existence of sites like Ness of Brodgar, totally unknown until some ten years ago, tells us that we don’t know everything about Neolithic Orkney.

The authors conclude by suggesting that the variety of style and material culture in the earlier centuries of Neolithic Orkney may represent a competitive society in which communities sought to outdo each other in the monuments and houses that they built and the goods that they used. In this, the advent of elaborate flat-bottomed Grooved Ware pottery and different types of tomb might be seen as a way for one community to differentiate itself from others. Continual elaboration of house form and material culture is used to back this up and the paper talks of political tension and social concerns. Finally, the arrival of the Orkney vole is brought into play as a proxy for the introduction of new ideas and possibly even people directly from Europe in the later fourth millennium cal BC.

As I say it is an interesting paper. But I am left wondering whether, in nearly 40 years, we have really advanced at all in our archaeological deliberations. The arguments of the paper sound so much like those I used to hear in the pub. The dates are more tightly constrained, we have more sites, more variation in our sites, and, perhaps, more sophistication in our ideas. But I don’t really feel that I have learnt anything new. The dates presented confirm the old conundrums, they don’t explain them. For that we are left with unsupported speculation, just as we always have been. As you know, I don’t believe in an ‘archaeological truth’, and I guess we all love speculation, but we need to be careful not to suggest that it is founded in scientific fact.

css.php