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14 October 2012
Why Orkney is the centre of Neolithic Britain

"We have discovered a Neolithic temple complex that is without parallel in western Europe. Yet for decades we thought it was just a hill made of glacial moraine," says Ness of Brodgar discoverer Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology. "In fact the place is entirely manmade, although it covers more than six acres [around 2.5 hectares] of land."
     Two great walls, several metres high, had been built straight across the ridge between two lakes. There was no way you could pass along the Ness without going through the complex. Within those walls a series of temples had been built, many on top of older ones. "The place seems to have been in use for a thousand years, with building going on all the time," says Card. More than a dozen of these temples have already been uncovered though only about 10% of the site has been fully excavated so far.
     "This wasn't a settlement or a place for the living," says archaeologist Professor Colin Richards of Manchester University, who excavated the nearby Barnhouse settlement in the 1980s. "This was a ceremonial centre, and a vast one at that." The bones of sacrificed cattle, elegantly made pottery, and pieces of painted ceramics lie scattered around the site.
     "We need to turn the map of Britain upside down when we consider the Neolithic and shrug off our south-centric attitudes," says Card, now Brodgar's director of excavations. "5,000 years ago, Orkney was the centre for innovation for the British isles. Ideas spread from this place. The first grooved pottery, which is so distinctive of the era, was made here, for example, and the first henges - stone rings with ditches round them - were erected on Orkney. Then the ideas spread to the rest of the Neolithic Britain. This was the font for new thinking at the time."
     It is a view shared by local historian Tom Muir, of the Orkney Museum. "The whole text book of British archaeology for this period will have to be torn up and rewritten from scratch thanks to this place," he says.
     "We have never seen anything like this before," says York University archaeologist Professor Mark Edmonds. "The density of the archaeology, the scale of the buildings and the skill that was used to construct them are simply phenomenal."
     Around 2,300 BCE, roughly a thousand years after construction began there, the place was abruptly abandoned. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones suggests that a huge feast ceremony was held, with more than 600 cattle slaughtered, after which the site appears to have been decommissioned.
     For more information or to donate to the dig, go to www.orkneyarchaeologysociety.org.uk

Edited from The Guardian (6 October 2012)

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