The more the Orkney archeologists uncover, the more it is certain that the settlement on the Ness of Brodgar was the hub of a dynamically influential and spiritual society, 5000 years ago… For example, what’s this pyramid…. yes, that’s right, pyramid?

(1700 words, a fifteen-minute read)

(Above: Illustration of Structure 10 by Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen and Jimmy John Antonsen)

That can’t be right, I thought, looking at the image, again…

Three thousand years BC… Five thousand years ago. That’s a long time, I mused. But I knew that Orkney was ancient, and that the importance of its early civilisation was only just coming to light…

What were the Egyptians doing in 3000 BC?, I wondered, reaching for the Google button.

‘Archaeologists believe Egypt’s large pyramids are the work of the Old Kingdom society that rose to prominence in the Nile Valley after 3000 B.C. Historical analysis tells us that the Egyptians built the Giza Pyramids in a span of 85 years between 2589 and 2504 BC.’

To set this Orkney time-frame into context, let’s imagine we go back to the Vikings – say 900AD, then back further to the time of Christ – year zero, then add on another move backwards as far as we are forward, now… then back another interval, equal to the time from Queen Elizabeth Tudor to today.

We’d still need to go back another five hundred years to match the age of this advanced Orkney civilisation… a staggering thought.

But looking at it with familiar ‘units’ like that helps to set the context and share the wonder of how and why I’m staring at a non-Egyptian pyramid with such interest. To be fair, Structure 10 (image above) is not a pyramid, it’s just shaped like one, with a steep roof. It’s really a ritualistic gathering place, with what appears to be a convention-shattering tiled stone roof – the oldest such structure in the world.

In 2008, the excavators uncovered the largest stone-built Neolithic structure in Britain. It was not a tomb… It was created around 2900BC and Structure 10 was the last major construction on the Ness of Brodgar site, which is why I’ve chosen to focus on it in this post.

The scale of the building was astonishing. Measuring 25 metres (82 feet) long by 19 metres (65 feet) wide, the four-metre-thick outer walls are still standing, though now only to a height of one metre.

Structure 10 had a single entrance. This was not a social building – it had a very specific purpose…

(Above: Structure 10 from above – taken from the Ness of Brodgar information panels )

A pair of standing stones flanked the entrance, which led to to a cross-shaped central chamber. The style of this combined different elements of both Neolithic chambered tombs (like Maeshowe) and houses, such as those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae which we had visited earlier in the Silent Eye workshop.

The central space – the focus of the whole edifice – was comparatively small and not designed to hold many people at a time. I couldn’t help comparing this aspect to the (later) King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid and the temples of Karnak, both of which I’ve stood in and ‘sensed’ the space.

Were these places of spiritual initiation – awakening?

One of the ‘stone dressers’ – identical to those we had seen at Scara Brae, was found in the centre – but not placed against a wall. This ‘dresser’ was free-standing and incorporated slabs of striking red and yellow sandstone.

(Above: the ‘dresser’ from Skara Brae’s visitor centre)

The Ness of Brodgar site is uncovering a Neolithic complex like no other in the British Isles. All this on a long and thin strip of land between two of Orkneys’s lochs (Harray and Stenness) that is only the size of five football pitches.

The site has changed history’s views of the culture and beliefs of Neolithic Orkney… and just as importantly, beyond… The learned and skilled people who were here mysteriously disappeared during the second millennium BC. Where did they go? The Picts did not emerge until the second century AD, so are unlikely to be direct descendants…

Without parallel in Atlantic Europe, the Ness of Brodgar’s mere three hectares are literally chock-full with massive stone structures containing unique and spectacular finds.’

(Above: two arial images of the Ness of Brodgar extracted from the freely-available PDF files at the Ness of Brodgar Archeology site)

Despite my two trips, I’ve never been able to get inside the Ness of  Brodgar excavation site, other than staring at its tarpaulin covers over the archeological fence. It’s frustrating because I’ve spent hours wandering around the Ring of Brodgar, the nearby Standing Stones of Stenness and even had a tightly chaperoned crawl through a long and low entrance shaft into the chambered tomb of Maeshowe… 

During the Silent Eye’s extended weekend, we had just completed what was our second trip to Skara Brae; but the Ness of Brodgar, the place that now seems to have been the creative and administrative centre of the entire ritual landscape of Neolithic Orkney, had eluded me. The dig and the corresponding visitor ‘walk’ are only open in the summer months, and then, for obvious reasons, not in the time of Covid-19.

(Above: the complete timeline of the site… so far. Image from the online information boards referenced previously)

The story of the Ness of Brodgar began in 2003 on a field at Brodgar belonging to farmers Ola and Arnie Tait. Their plough caught on something hard and large. They sought help and a huge stone was revealed. Local archeologists were called in and an initial trench was dug, which revealed the corner of a building. This bore a resemblance to ancient houses at the nearby Neolithic village of Barnhouse. The team dug another eight test trenches, and seven of them discovered more stonework. Things were getting intense…

Using all the available information, the team created a plan for two large trenches to cut through different parts of the site – Trenches P and T. The information board describes the results:

Opened in 2008, Trench P is one of the two original trenches on site and home to the series of monumental buildings that are now known worldwide. 

The buildings you can see in the trench today are from the last major phases of the site, with construction started on the tiered Structures One, Eight, Twelve, Fourteen and Twenty-one around 3200BC and initially abandoned around 2900BC.

(Above: the story of Trench P – another extract from the Ness of Brodgar’s Archeological website downloadable PDFs, showing the main dig and the home of the massive ‘pyramidal’ Structure 10)

The Ness of Brodgar site is now world-famous, and dramatically larger and more significant than anyone could have imagined. Thirty-six ‘structures’ have been excavated so far. There are many more waiting to be started. Further experts were co-opted and a picture of the sophistication of construction began to emerge, with the use of stone piers and corner buttresses.

Some of the early work revealed structures with tall support stones, named orthostats, which were comparable in size to those at nearby Meashowe (see next post). The accuracy of construction was far ahead of what had been expected; for example, the tops of the orthostats were all within 20 mm of each other – all this with stone tools…

Together with the rich, large assemblage of prestige items (such as mace heads and polished stone axes) this suggests it was more than a domestic settlement.

Structures 8 and 10 were constructed with steeply sloping flagstone roofs – the earliest instance in the archeological world. Structure 10, with its pyramidal roof, is the longest lasting, and survived through to the end of the site’s use. It seems to have been a temple; the very heart of the Orkney civilisation for thousands of years. A large collection of animal bones indicate that its use was terminated, ritually, with a feast, and then the site – like Skara Brae – was ceremonially closed down and demolished.

These people wanted to leave nothing of their spiritual selves behind…

The inference is that the people moved on, migrated south. But no-one knows where…

Detailed work on the site continues, and only a fraction of the total buildings have been excavated. Nearly a thousand stones have been discovered that show markings of various kinds; cut, carved, picked or ‘pecked’. This is one of the largest such groups found in Europe. About a third of them had been ‘pick-dressed’, their surfaces worked with a sharp point and repeatedly tapped. This process has only ever been found in a few other places in the British Isles, including nearby Maeshowe, Anglesey and the great Irish tombs on the river Boyne.

Although the Ness buildings are architecturally similar to houses at known Neolithic settlements in Orkney – such as Skara Brae and Barnhouse – they are much larger and more elaborate.

One of the key analyses carried out revealed the use of peat for fuel, and sophisticated pottery-making styles using high temperatures. Organic micro-material from floors and hearths reveals barley, wheat, wild plants like crowberry and chickweed, and also charred crab apple pips.

Analysis of traces of animal fats shows that some pots may have been used for cooking beef, and others for storing or serving milk. Analysis of the many animal bones shows prime beef cattle, and also red deer, and strangely, a white-tailed sea eagle.

Surprisingly, perhaps, fish bones in contrast are fewer, with the eel, salmon and trout common, but also the consumption of cod, halibut, saithe and turbot. It seems that, despite being surrounded by the sea, meat was the preferred option.

Our investigations have expanded greatly since their modest start over a decade ago., but the excavations still only cover less than ten percent of the complete complex of buildings

We have pieced together a site biography that spans millennia, from traces of Mesolithic activity to the site’s Neolithic heyday, through to the early Bronze Age, with a later episode of use in the Iron Age.

(Above: the Ring of Brodgar site offers a free set of PDFs directly downloadable from the site)

Professor Mike Parker-Pearson of University College London, who is an expert on Stonehenge said: “We’re looking at a fairly major transition across Britain, the impact of a whole way of life, spiritual and social, which comes out of Orkney … Orkney was a place of synthesis, where whole Neolithic worlds came together.”

In the next post, we will examine the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Chambered Tomb of Maeshowe before leaving the Ness of Brodgar to visit other areas on Orkney.

To be continued.

Other parts in this series:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, This is Part Five

The preceding Pictish Trail weekend blog posts:

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

©Stephen Tanham, 2020.

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye – a journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being.

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