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.

Circling the Square: part two

This image of Maeshowe published by James Farrer in 1862 shows, very clearly, the encircling henge, which tends to be forgotten in many accounts of the tomb. Incidentally, it also shows the appearance of the mound before the reconstruction of the roof by the Ministry of Works in the early twentieth century.

Recently, a team of specialists drawn from the Universities of Leicester and Southampton announced the find of a new structure within the south circle at Avebury. It is an exciting find that reminds us that these ancient and well-loved places still preserve their secrets. I found it particularly interesting because of the way in which the new formation, said to be composed of megaliths that were removed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, comprises a square that is set within the heart of the surviving stone circle.

The team are, apparently, surprised to find a square megalithic setting, I can’t comment on that as my knowledge of megaliths around the UK is not, sadly, comprehensive, though I would point them to a paper published by Tim Darvill in the spring of 2016 which celebrates just this design at Stonehenge. I would also suggest that, were they to look north, they might find that the use of a square design, and indeed the overall design of a rectangle set within a circle is far from unusual. In fact, in Orkney, monuments comprising a square setting within a circle were all the rage among the special places of the late Neolithic. Perhaps the best known is Structure Eight at Barnhouse, where one is able to enter the reconstruction and experience for oneself how this type of architecture may have functioned. Another, well known example, is Structure Ten at Ness of Brodgar, only partly excavated but of similar design – contrast the angularity of the interior with the rounded nature of the exterior.

This internal angularity with external rounding is also seen in the house structure at Skara Brae, perhaps it is just how one did things in the Neolithic? But there is another site that suggests it may have a deeper meaning. Maeshowe is known for the circular platform on which it sits – yet the tomb interior is beautifully angular. Curiously, several archaeologists have suggested that there may have been a free standing rectangular stone setting on the platform at Maeshowe prior to the building of the tomb. And, of course, many of the stone-built chambered tombs of the north comprise rectangular chambers set within a rounded mound.

My guess is that were we to have a similarly detailed record of late Neolithic architecture right across the UK, we would find other uses of the square within the circle. Hopefully, the application of refined geophysics to sites away from the research heartlands of Wiltshire and Orkney will start to find them. What it actually meant is anyone’s guess, though I have noted before that it is still a powerful symbol (with many meanings) today. The new find at Avebury is indeed significant, but I’d caution against celebrating it as unique – to my mind it is more interesting if it starts to flesh out the nascent patterning of monumental settings that we are beginning to recognise across Neolithic Britain.

The Landscape of the Ness of Brodgar

Landscape of Orkney
The landscape at the heart of Neolithic Orkney. This was a    dynamic place for those who chose to site their monuments here.

New Paper out on the development of the landscape around Ness of Brodgar.

Wickham-Jones, C.R., Bates, M., Bates, R., Dawson, S. and Kavanagh, E. 2016 People and Landscape at the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 31 (2), 26-47.

Together with my colleagues, I’ve been working on a paper to discuss the results of our work on landscape change around the Ness of Brodgar, particularly relating to the Loch of Stenness. We published the tekky detail this time last year, and we were keen to explore what it might mean with relation to the Neolithic communities of the area and the siting of the monuments that make up the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. You really have to read the paper to get the full detail, but in essence our landscape reconstructions document the penetration of marine conditions into the dry land world of the Neolithic farmers at the heart of the islands. Given the emerging evidence for the ‘slighting of the sea’ in the Early Neolithic, it is fascinating that this fragile spot became so important to the island community.

It is possible to order a copy of the Landscape issue of Archaeological Review from Cambridge here. But I can let people have a pdf of our paper for individual research interests – just email me (my email address is on the home page).

Thoughts on Ness of Brodgar

My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passage way running between the two.
My favourite spot at Ness of Brodgar, the paving outside structures one and eleven and the passageway running between the two.

I’m often asked about the site at Ness of Brodgar. It is an amazing place, and a fascinating excavation to visit. But I have to say that I am quite glad not to be a part of the project team. Ness is clearly very, very complex and exploring the history of a site like that is not an easy task. I can remember visiting Lionel Masters when he was excavating the long cairn at Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness and feeling quite overwhelmed by all the stone work there. I have the same feeling at Ness of Brodgar. I don’t envy Nick Card and his colleagues the work that lies ahead as they follow and unravel the threads of human activity that have gone to make up the site.

It is a rare and exciting opportunity, however, to see a side of Neolithic life that we have only just begun to explore in Scotland: we have some detail of the houses and communities in which people lived; we have information on the great chambered tombs they built to house at least some of their dead and where we think people may have gathered as part of the cementing of local identities; we even have the great stone circles and henge sites where a wider expression of society is likely to have taken place. Ness shows us that there was more to life than that. Whatever it was, and we have yet to see the interpretations founded on painstaking analysis that will no doubt arise in years to come, it was clearly an important part of life in Neolithic Orkney. Continue reading Thoughts on Ness of Brodgar