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19 August 2007
Neolithic village unearthed in Orkney

The remains of a Neolithic settlement discovered in Orkney (Scotland) were hailed as potentially as important as the Skara Brae village on the islands. The 2.5 hectare site is believed to date back nearly 5,000 years and to include a complex system of temples and dwellings spread over two fields. The find, at Ness of Brodgar, between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, will add to the area’s reputation as home to some of the most remarkable archaeological monuments in Europe.
     Nick Card, project manager at the dig, began excavations two months ago with a team from Orkney College and Orkney Archaeological Trust. He said that the discovery had the potential to rank alongside Skara Brae, the Stone Age village that is now part of a World Heritage Site. "The discovery has the potential to illuminate how these different sites interacted and how people lived," he said.
     Only a small part of the settlement has so far been unearthed, but it includes large oval stone buildings subdivided into small chambers, almost certainly temples. Other buildings are believed to be domestic. Mr Card said: "What we have is a whole series of buildings; the buildings which we have uncovered are of a kind never seen before. Some of the structures do appear to be domestic in nature but one, the main structure in the big trench, is much more complex, with very symmetrical architecture." Other findings include a Neolithic mace head and beautifully decorated stones, as well as stone tools and burnt animal bones. Mr Card said that the team had uncovered 'pottery by the bucketful'.
     One of the most intriguing features of the site is a massive prehistoric wall, which may once have separated the realms of the dead and the living. Geophysics scans of the area previously showed that building to the south of the stone circle stopped abruptly and that an area to the north and south was maintained as a definite 'no-go' area. Nick Card explained: "What the excavation has shown is that this building cut-off point is real is the seems to be differentiated by this massive monumental wall. Judging by the width of the five to six metre wide foundations you’re looking at something extremely large and very impressive, with the most beautiful stonework incorporated into the side facing the Ring itself. It wasn’t defensive. It was more like a stone barrier, separating the activity on the south-east of the Ness from whatever activity was going on around the Ring of Brodgar."
     The wall's discovery fits in with a theory proposed a few years ago that the two stone rings had specific roles in Neolithic life – in particular representing life and death. The Standing Stones o' Stenness, with its central hearth and surrounded by evidence of feasting, settlement and activity, may have represented life and the world of the living. In stark contrast, the Brodgar ring, with its marked lack of domestic activity and later surrounded by a complex of Bronze Age burial barrows, could have represented death, or a spiritual domain of the ancestors.
     Mr Card said: "From the geophysics scans, we knew this area would be extremely rich in archaeology and what we have uncovered over the past five weeks is merely the tip of the iceberg. As this season’s excavation draws to a close, we’re really just glimpsing a tiny percentage of what is actually here – there’s a whole sequence of buildings on the site, one after the other. Who knows what else is hiding under these later structures."

Sources: The Times (14 August 2007), Orkneyjar (16 August 2007)

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