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18 June 2004
Dig confirms existence of Brodgar Neolithic village

Last year's discovery of a structure half-way between the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness (Orkney, Scotland) gave the first hint that old conceptions about the area were going to have to change. That discovery, together with a series of extensive geophysics scans, was beginning to indicate the sheer extent of prehistoric human activity wasn't entirely based around the ceremonial rings. But even the geophysics results couldn't prepare the archaeologists for what they found after digging a number of small exploratory trenches around the site of the "Brodgar New Hoose" - in particular that the area around Lochview could be still house an extremely well-preserved Neolithic village.
     A team of four archaeologists, led by Nick Card, projects manager for the Orkney Archaeological Trust, uncovered evidence of a massive village that once stood between the two stone circles - a settlement with an area of approximately 2.5 hectares that appears to have been used throughout the Neolithic period (approximately 3,500-1,800 BCE). The earliest phases of the settlement were standing long before the construction of the Ring of Brodgar, and are perhaps contemporary with the Standing Stones of Stenness. Nick Card explained: "We deliberately chose to put down trenches that would avoid the major items of archaeology indicated by the geophysics. But we've been astounded as every one of the five trenches has produced archaeological remains."
     The trenches revealed massive quantities of deliberately "improved" soil over the area of the settlement - soil enriched by the addition of midden material to a maximum depth of 2.5 metres. This human alteration to the landscape has resulted in a massive man-made mound on which the current house, Lochview, now stands. At the bottom of a deep trench, on what would appear to be the periphery of the settlement, were what appeared to be the lower courses of an early Neolithic structure. A short distance away lies the late Neolithic structure discovered by Beverly Ballin-Smith last year. This confirms that as time passed, and as earlier structures fell out of use, new buildings were erected on top - a process that led to the gradual formation of the current settlement mound.
     But even looking at the remains of the oldest building, Nick suspected there were still earlier levels underneath. "What we have come to realise is that we're looking at a landscape dotted with more archaeological remains and sites than even the geophysics scans have picked up," he said.
     Towards the western outskirts of the settlement, and overlooking the water of the Stenness Loch, is a large geophysics anomaly that may be a chambered cairn. Although it will take a full excavation to confirm whether this is the case, it could provide another interesting challenge to current thinking on the role and positioning of these "houses of the dead". So far these tombs have generally been found outside areas of domestic settlements - in locations that led to the idea that they were deliberately kept away from everyday life. If the anomaly at Lochview proves to be a tomb, it may provide some clues as to the structures' roles other than as a simple repository for the Neolithic dead.
     Moving to the north-west and closer to Brodgar farmhouse, another trench contained a rectangular stone setting that looked remarkably like a burial cist. The mystery deepened, however, when it was found to contain no burial remains. It will have to remain a mystery until further excavation can confirm whether it is an isolated feature or part of a larger building.
     One of the most striking features on the geophysics results was a huge rectangular anomaly that roughly follows the modern road before bending at a sharp 90-degree angle. The scale of this "wall" led to its interpretation as a medieval construction, so a trench was put down to explore it further. Nick Card explained: "It is definitely not medieval. All the finds have been prehistoric. It seems to be a new class of Neolithic monument, for Orkney at least." He added: "It could be something to define the boundaries of the settlement area, or perhaps in some way related to the cursus monuments found in the south."
     Summarising, Nick said: "What has become clear is that a full excavation would be dealing with very well preserved Neolithic structures. Compared to the Barnhouse Settlement which was very badly degraded when excavated, the buildings in this settlement have perhaps survived to up to half a metre tall. There is no doubt at all that further work on this site will help us further understand the Neolithic in Orkney, in particular the Ness of Brodgar's role in the daily life, rituals and beliefs of the Neolithic inhabitants of the county."

Source: Sigurd Towrie/Orkneyjar (16 June 2004)

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