Neolithic site dig uncovers sophisticated structures

Orkney dig site
A Neolithic site in the Orkney Islands shows our ancestors had sophisticated building skills more than 5,000 years ago. According to a story in The Scotsman,

A groundbreaking excavation of a 5,000-year-old temple complex in Orkney has uncovered evidence to suggest that prehistoric people were a great deal more sophisticated than previously thought.
The archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar, which is still in its early stages, has already thrown up discoveries that archaeologists say will force us to re-evaluate our understanding of how our ancestors lived.
The picture that has emerged so far points to a complex and capable society that displayed impeccable workmanship and created an integrated landscape.

Well, it’s very premature to identify it as a “temple complex.” As for any structure being a “temple” or the whole site being a “temple complex” – that’s just a guess.

The article’s headline is hyperbolic: “Orkney dig dispels caveman image of ancestors.” This is followed by the equally fatuous opening:

THE image of our Neolithic ancestors as simple souls carving out a primitive existence has been dispelled.

I suppose that misrepresentation may have been dispelled from the writer’s rather confused mind, but few others are likely to be that daft.

Orkney dig

The media are ever wont to sensationalize things in this manner. I can’t imagine anyone with at least an elementary school education believes people living 5,000 years ago were “cavemen.” This time is contemporary with the development of early (“proto”) writing in many cultures, and actually later than some finds from 7th millennium BCE China (the Jiahu symbols from Henan, 6600 BCE). It was the time when the first towns were formed.

We’ve known about Neolithic building from the many megaliths and gravesites uncovered, as well as the communities already unearthed. The most famous of which is, of course, Stonehenge, built roughly in the same period as the Orkney site. You can see an imagined reconstruction on the National Geographic site. It’s impressive, but hardly spectacular in the way Stonehenge, Macchu Picu, Angkor Wat or the Pyramids are.

Cavemen, as they are inappropriately called, refers to people living in the Paleolithic period, which Wikipedia reminds us extended,

…from the earliest known use of stone tools, probably by hominins such as australopithecines, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 BP.

The Neolithic is when human communities first start developing beyond the tribal stage; when architecture and agriculture, music, language and religion all developed. While archeologists and anthropologists bicker over the exact time span, in general it ran from about 10,000 BCE to about 4,500 BCE, although some place it as recent as 2,000 BCE for some groups.

Orkney dig

Not to pick on the Scotsman alone, the site Ancient Origins headlines the story: “Orkney excavation reveals incredible sophistication of 5,000-year-old temple complex.”

Incredible means: so extraordinary as to seem impossible; not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable. This site work is far from unbelievable. in fact, it is quite the opposite, as you can read in the site’s own dig diary.

The Guardian’s writer, visiting the site, gives it that TV-drama like edge:

This is the heartland of the Neolithic North, a bleak, mysterious place that has made Orkney a magnet for archaeologists, historians and other researchers. For decades they have tramped the island measuring and excavating its great Stone Age sites. The land was surveyed, mapped and known until a recent chance discovery revealed that for all their attention, scientists had completely overlooked a Neolithic treasure that utterly eclipses all others on Orkney – and in the rest of Europe.

While the Ancient Origins site turns some dry science into exciting puffery, the archeologists at the site are more prosaic. From the Scotsman article:

Archaeologist Nick Card, excavation director… says the ancient ruins are turning British pre-history on its head. “What the Ness is telling us is that this was a much more integrated landscape than anyone ever suspected,” he said.

“All these monuments are inextricably linked in some grand theme we can only guess at. The people who built all this were a far more complex and capable society than has usually been portrayed.”

Not quite what the writer conjured up as “turning British pre-history on its head.” That reference probably comes from a comment made by Card in The Guardian several months previously:

“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. “London may be the cultural hub of Britain today, but 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.”

Robin McKie, writing in The Guardian in late 2012, added:

What is clear is that the cultural energy of the few thousand farming folk of Orkney dwarfed those of other civilisations at that time. In size and sophistication, the Ness of Brodgar is comparable with Stonehenge or the wonders of ancient Egypt. Yet the temple complex predates them all. The fact that this great stately edifice was constructed on Orkney, an island that has become a byword for remoteness, makes the site’s discovery all the more remarkable. For many archaeologists, its discovery has revolutionised our understanding of ancient Britain.

I doubt it’s a revolutionary finding, given the number of other such excavations since the mid-1950s that have revised our appreciation of neolithic society. A page on the Herfordshire official site discusses its own local Neolithic archeology:

Neolithic settlements were sophisticated affairs. On Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire there is an extensive encampment (HER 1551), which was excavated from 1965 onwards. This settlement had evidence of a low wall and a stockade, suggesting that this had once been an enclosed camp and that the Neolithic population had felt the need to defend their settlement. The site also yielded over 4,000 pieces of flint, as well as polished stone axe-heads, pottery, storage pits and hut floors. This evidence points to the fact that the Neolithic settlements were on an organised plan, and that they were more sophisticated and technologically advanced than is sometimes thought.

In another example, the Vinca culture of southern Europe seems to have been quite advanced. Wikipedia tells us the population bloom of the era produced among the Vinca,

..some of the largest settlements in prehistoric Europe. These settlements maintained a high degree of cultural uniformity through the long-distance exchange of ritual items…

In fact, this sort of sophisticated, integrated site development has been seen elsewhere at sites like Stonehenge, KastoriaJerichoCatalhoyuk, Barnhouse, Maeshow, Skara Brae and Banpo – although purposes and building techniques clearly differ.*

The Orkney community seems to have been built around the end of the mass migration from the Middle East, concurrent with the shift from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more sedentary, agricultural-based life which depended heavily on livestock and farming. What those people’s religious, ritual, communal and cultural lives were like is another area of speculation.


Keep in mind when reading these effusive media reports that the archeologists usually couch their words in more cautious terms, and they will tell you that the actual use and function of the site and its buildings remains unknown.

The large building (“Structure ten”) described in some reports as a “Neolithic cathedral” is actually described by Card with words like “seems” and “in some way” rather than in certainties:

“When we consider the overall scale of Structure Ten, with its five-metre-thick walls, containing a cruciform central chamber, it fits in none of the present Neolithic categories. Instead, it’s something quite extraordinary and seems to be very much a mix of the domestic and the religious, or ritual. In effect, it combines elements of both the chambered tombs and the domestic houses, such as those at Barnhouse and Skara Brae — but it has become startlingly clear that this was no domestic house.”

Nick added: “I think we can quite safely say what we have here has to be a temple – a structure that was in some way involved in the belief systems of the Neolithic Orcadians. But again, given the monumental scale of the building, and the artefacts we’ve been recovering, I think it was more than just a simple religious structure for a handful of people. It has to have been a cathedral of its period and, as such, perhaps the focal point for people across Orkney, and beyond.”

One site asked wistfully, “So what was Structure Ten for?” Then answered itself:

We can only speculate, but it is possible that, like churches today, it had a number of roles.
A fragment of human skull was found in the forecourt area — belonging to a youth in the late teens or early 20s — while a child’s tooth was retrieved from the inner chamber. Do these mean the structure was involved in the “handling” of the Neolithic dead?

Speculate. Possible. It all seems so easy to build a picture of Neolithic life from a few bits of bone and stone. But Card is more cautious:

“A few samples of human bone doesn’t necessarily make Structure Ten a funerary structure. It may be that it was involved in part of the rituals involving the dead — in particular the ‘preparation’ of the dead for their ‘onward journey’ — which would make sense when we consider the location and the possible symbolism of the nearby ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’.”

The reason for these uncertainties is simple: no one knows for sure what the structures were used for and likely will only ever be able to make guesses. Perhaps educated guesses, but they are still applying 21st century logic, culture, religion and social ideas onto a 5,000-year-old, long vanished society, based on what they discarded and abandoned. It’s like guessing the habits and beliefs of local teenagers based on the litter they leave on the street.

For all we know, it could have been a fortified cattle pen to protect livestock from less advanced but more aggressive neighbours. It may have been a fort; an outpost in the Neolithic migrations. Or a ceremonial meeting place where various clans and tribes could gather peacefully to settle disputes. Maybe the walls were thick because that’s the most stable formation when using small stones.

So when I read in The Guardian:

For a farming community of a few thousand people to create such edifices suggests that the Ness of Brodgar was of profound importance. Yet its purpose remains elusive. The ritual purification of the dead by fire may be involved, suggests Card. As he points out, several of the temples at Brodgar have hearths, though this was clearly not a domestic dwelling. In addition, archeologists have found that many of the stone mace heads (hard, polished, holed stones) that litter the site had been broken in two in exactly the same place. “We have found evidence of this at other sites,” says Richards. “It may be that relatives broke them in two at a funeral, leaving one part with the dead and one with family as a memorial to the dead. This was a place concerned with death and the deceased, I believe.”

Equally puzzling was the fate of the complex. Around 2,300BC, 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. Perhaps a transfer of power took place or a new religion replaced the old one. Whatever the reason, the great temple complex – on which Orcadians had lavished almost a millennium’s effort – was abandoned and forgotten for the next 4,000 years.

I get very annoyed. This piece combines wild speculation with snippets of fact and tries to weave whole cloth from them in a sensationalist manner. The author admits the purpose of the site – and of each building in it – remains “elusive.” Which just means his comments about a “transfer of power”, “huge feast” and “decommissioned” site are guesses; sensationalist guesses.

Perhaps the slaughter of those cattle points to the site being a fortified cattle pen – maybe the cattle were slaughtered by invaders who finally overran the compound. Maybe they were killed because the community was forced to move and couldn’t herd them all safely, so just took what meat it could carry. Maybe, perhaps, possibly. We may never know. But speculation like this will simply encourage all sorts of conspiracy theory and pseudoscience writers who will take those guesses for “fact.”

The dig and its discoveries are exciting, and what they have uncovered may even be unique at this time – but there are many Neolithic sites that have not been this fully excavated, so we cannot say what remains to be unearthed. And only about 10% of the Brodgar site has been excavated, so speculation on what that means to the other 90% just opens the door to being proven wrong.

I would not diminish the results or the efforts in any way, just caution readers to use the proverbial grain of salt when reading the second-hand reports of the dig online.
* While a few millennia later in development, several South American cultures developed very sophisticated art and architecture of a similar style and technique. For example, the Tiwanaku of what is now Bolivia, and of course the later Inca.