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Neolithic Europe's Remote Heart

One thousand years of spirituality, innovation, and social development emerge from a ceremonial center on the Scottish archipelago of Orkney

January/February 2013



In 2002, Ola and Arnie Tait decided they wanted to change the view from their kitchen window. Rather than staring at a sheep pasture, they envisioned looking out onto a wildflower meadow full of poppies, cornflowers, buttercups, and singing birds. Their farm, on Orkney, a remote archipelago of 70 islands 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland, sits in a stunning natural setting, on a narrow strip of land between two sparkling lochs, and is equidistant from two of the most significant Neolithic stone circle monuments: the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, each less than a mile away. In 2003, the Taits plowed their field in preparation for planting that meadow. Just as they rounded the last bend, the plow brought up a surprise: a notched slab of stone. They showed the find to Orkney’s regional archaeologist, Julie Gibson, who thought it might be a side panel from a Bronze Age stone coffin. “This find implied that there were human remains under the field, so a test trench was opened,” says Roy Towers, an archaeologist at the Orkney campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands.


Years have passed and the Taits are still not looking at their wildflower meadow. Rather, they have a prime view of one of the most spectacular Neolithic ceremonial complexes ever discovered. Spanning a millennium of activity beginning around 5,000 years ago, these exquisitely preserved buildings, including foundations and low walls, are revealing how Neolithic society changed over time, and why Orkney—despite its seemingly remote location—was at the center of Neolithic Europe. “Thank goodness the Taits didn’t use a deep plow, or else we’d have been looking at a pile of rubble,” says Towers.


Instead of digging up a Bronze Age coffin in the 2003 test trench, as they expected, the archaeologists uncovered part of a finely crafted Neolithic wall. “It had sharp internal angles, beautifully coursed stonework, and fine corner buttresses,” explains Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, dig director at the site, now known as the “Ness of Brodgar.”


The next year the archaeologists embarked on a season of digging test pits and trial trenches across the field. To their delight they encountered incredible Neolithic stonework in virtually every hole. Realizing that they were looking at a major Neolithic complex, Card and his colleagues decided to open up a larger area. For the last five years, he and his team have dug for six weeks every summer. So far they have identified more than 20 structures, and observed even more through geophysical tests such as magnetometer surveys and ground-penetrating radar, all enclosed by the remains of a thick boundary wall delineating a six-acre complex—the size of three soccer pitches. Carbon dating of animal bone, wood, and charcoal indicates at least 1,000 years of continuous activity, from around 3300 to 2300 B.C. The site was likely in use for even longer. “In many cases one structure is built on top of another structure. The whole thing is sitting on a jelly of earlier structures,” says Card. “What we are seeing really is just the tip of the iceberg.” So far the archaeologists have concentrated on a small portion of the site—just 10 percent of the total area—and only excavated down to the floor level of the uppermost structures. In the layers of building foundations, Card and his team are seeing a clear progression in building style and architecture—a pattern they think may reflect some of the changes occurring in Neolithic society over that time.



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