|25 October 2003
Geophysics surveys of Brodgar peninsula
For centuries scholars and antiquarians have had their own theories over the activities that once took place in Orkney’s World Heritage Site covering the Ness of Brodgar in Stenness (Scotland). From druid enclosures to ancestral monuments, each era had its own ideas about the Neolithic ceremonial centre. However, despite the advances in archaeological knowledge, technique, and technology, there is still very little known about the area.
But this looks set to change, with the continuation of a project to use magnetometry to scan the entire Brodgar peninsula. Magnetometry is the technique of measuring and mapping patterns of magnetism in the soil. Ancient activity, particularly burning, leaves magnetic traces that show up even today when detected with the right equipment. Buried features such as ditches or pits, when they are filled with burnt or partly burnt materials can show up clearly and give us an image of sub-surface archaeology.
So far, 45 hectares have been scanned, and the measurements showed that the entire Brodgar peninsula is covered in anomalies that indicate that there was once considerable activity there – although the exact details of this remain tantalisingly unclear. “If this is all related,” said Nick Card of Orkney Archaeological Trust (OTA), “then we’re looking at what could potentially be the largest Neolithic settlement or ceremonial sites in Britain.”
The geophysics results clearly show a lot of activity around the Standing Stones of Stenness, the Brig o’ Brodgar and house of Lochview right up to Brodgar Farm. At this point, however, from a landscape rife with anomalies, there comes an almost clinically defined point where activity ceases: an invisible boundary over which the area’s inhabitants did not want to cross.
Does this mark the start of a symbolic shift in the perception of the landscape? Or is there a more mundane reason – a field or territorial boundary perhaps? Despite all the questions the scans raise, the evidence to provide answers awaits ‘ground truthing’ of the geophysics by excavation. Nick explained: “Although a lot has been written about the World Heritage Site, there’s a lot still to be discovered, not only in terms of structures and monuments, but how they all inter-relate with each other.”
A chance discovery on the Ness in April this year revealed solid evidence of one of the geophysics anomalies – a stone dwelling almost exactly halfway between the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The structure was found to be remarkably similar to the Neolithic structure at Barnhouse, a short distance away. At Barnhouse, this “double-house” has come to be interpreted as being that of a chief or person of authority. The structure was different from its contemporaries in that it was the only house at Barnhouse that was not superseded – in other words it stood throughout the entire life of the village. All the while, houses around the structure were being knocked down and rebuilt.
After the preliminary excavation the structure was covered over again. The OTA hope that the new scans will allow them see a clearer picture of the settlement. County archaeologist Julie Gibson added “The further study of this structure and the area around it could offer an insight into the relationship between ritual and domestic life in the Neolithic.”
The scanning work around the World Heritage Sites will include an area to the north-west of Maeshowe, where aerial photographs indicate the presence of a large enclosure. The geophysics scans should clarify the nature of this site as to whether it is perhaps the remains of another Neolithic henge monument or perhaps a settlement.
Source: Orkneyjar Archaeology News (24 October 2004)
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