Neolithic site in Orkney to be reburied after 20 years of excavation

In a few weeks, archaeologists will gather at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney and for the next two months they will dig at one of the best prehistoric sites in Europe.

Over the past 20 summers, scientists and volunteers have excavated here, uncovering wonders that include the 5,000-year-old remains of temples, hearths, ceramic figurines, and elegant pottery.

Then, on August 16, the team will put down their propellers and brushes for the last time. Soil will be laid over the ancient walls they have been trying to uncover for the past twenty years, the land across the Ness will be regrown and the site will be returned, permanently, to its former status: an anonymous green field.

It appears to have been an extraordinary decision, one similar to the mounding of earth over Stonehenge to hide it from future generations. However, archaeologists are adamant that this year’s dig on the Ness should be their last for a long time.

“What we’ve discovered is just the tip of a huge archaeological iceberg,” said Nick Card, who has led excavations on the Ness since the site was discovered in 2003. “There are over 100 buildings here. Under the most recent are countless older editions.

“We want to leave these later buildings intact. We want to avoid them to find those below. So we are going to leave that task to future archaeologists who will hopefully benefit from new technologies. As it is, we have collected a large collection of discoveries from Nis that we must now study in laboratories and museums.”

Ness is situated on a headland that separates Orkney’s two largest inland bodies of water, Loch Stenness and Loch Harray. There is a large mound that was originally thought to be made of glacial debris until a geophysical survey in 2002 suggested a much more complex composition.

Excavations began and showed that the mound was mostly man-made. The six acre site was found to have many buildings connected to outhouses and kitchens by stone walkways. The bones of hundreds of cattle, elegantly made pottery and pieces of painted ceramics were found scattered around the site, remnants of a neolithic civilization that began building there over 5,000 years ago.

In size and sophistication, Ness rivals the wonders of Sutton Hoo and Hadrian’s Wall. But the Ness complex is thousands of years older, with excavations suggesting the site was primarily a meeting place – now run by the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Institute of Archaeology.

For hundreds of years, neolithic people from all over Orkney and the surrounding islands came here to worship, exchange products and socialize. This was a place to pray, trade and party.

It also had a significant impact. In the late neolithic period, the last phase of the Stone Age, around 3200 to 2500 BC, a new type of pottery known as fluted ware was adopted throughout Britain. “It was the first pan-British cultural phenomenon that we know of – and it originated in Orkney and then spread to the rest of the country,” said Card.

“At this time, Ness was not known in Orkney but throughout Wales. It was occupied for something like 60 to 70 generations. It is the same kind of time that separates us today from people who were alive at the Battle of Hastings. So you can see that this is a place of enduring cultural significance.”

Card added that another key factor in the decision to bury the Ness was the stones used to build its buildings. “Unlike the resilient beach stones used to build other ancient sites on Orkney, such as Skara Brae, those at Ness were quarried and begin to flake and crumble when exposed to air. So we can’t leave them exposed. We have to bury them.”

Regarding the prospect of future technologies revolutionizing the study of prehistoric artefacts and thus allowing the Ness to be reopened one day, Card pointed to techniques such as ancient DNA analysis, which have developed significantly since 2003 and which is already being exploited in a range of subjects. different ways. For example, he is revealing how pottery was used from the leftover food he absorbed.

“Drones also changed aerial surveys of the site – we used to fly kites on cameras. And it is hoped that in the future new types of radar and other systems will tell us what lies beneath the upper layers of buildings on the Ness.”

Another work suggests that the people who built Ness were very similar to people today – although life at that time was certainly not utopian: there are signs that they suffered from scurvy.

“The Ness has been my life for the past 20 years,” said Card. “It was an all-consuming experience. I was lucky enough to be there from the beginning and see it through to the end – although that won’t be for a long time. Cataloging and publishing the large number of discoveries we have made will keep our teams busy for years to come.”

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