Bristol and Avon Archaeological Society

The Archaeology of Orkney

On Wednesday April 12, 2023
Andrew Smith, BAAS Member and former Chair

This talk, based on the CBA visit in 2015, looked at some of the archaeology of the Orkney Islands and in particular at the ongoing excavations at the Ness of Brodgar.

It began with the chambered cairn of Maeshowe,  founded on a glacial deposit mound with a bank and ditch cut into the rock.  It is built from Orkney stone c. 2800BC.  Inside it has a corbelled roof in the main chamber and the winter solstice sunlight travels down the passage and illuminates the chamber.  The passage is about 7 m long and about 1m high, lined with massive slabs of stone, the largest estimated to weigh up to 3 tonnes.  Inside there are runic inscriptions from the Norse period (mid-12th Century). It is believed this Norse graffiti comprises the largest collection of runic inscriptions [33 at least, plus 8 sketches] surviving outside Scandinavia. Within its landscape setting can be seen the distant Hills of Hoy, the Stones of Stenness (3100BC), the Ness of Brodgar and the Ring of Brodgar (2600-2400BC).

About 1 km west of Maeshowe lies the Barnhouse settlement, dated to 3200BC, on the shore of Loch of Harray.  It was discovered in 1984 and excavation revealed 15 houses similar to those at Skara Brae, together with Grooved Ware pottery.  Together with Maeshowe and those mentioned above, plus a range of smaller sites, they form the Neolithic Heart of Orkney World Heritage Site, largely bounded by the lochs of Stenness and Harray.

The Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae, 2900 BC, was revealed after a storm in the 1900s and subsequently excavated by Vere Gordon Childe.  Excavation revealed houses linked by passageways, with drainage underneath the houses.  This stone-built settlement showed some houses with stone built box beds, hearths, dressers and quern stones.  One house suggests a workshop with specialised crafts being carried out. Together with its extensive environs it is the other part of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

The Broch of Gurness is Iron Age and has banks and ditches surrounding it.  It has a guardhouse at the entrance and is built of 2 concentric drystone walls with a stairway between them.  Inside it is divided into sections by upright slabs. There is a settlement surrounding the broch.  Iron Age brochs are only found in Scotland.

At the Kirbuster Farm Museum the grain drier is very similar to that designed and used by the Romans.  The farmhouse at the Museum shows the original fire in the centre of the house.  At the Brough of Birsay is a Pictish and Norse settlement; the finds of brooches, rings and dress pins suggest it was a Pictish power centre.  There is a [reproduction] Pictish symbol stone here, which is the only one on Orkney and also depicts carvings of people, dated to 8th Century AD.

Rousay:  on Rousay there is a Neolithic chambered cairn called Taversöe Tuick.  It had no artefacts found from it and is dated 3500-2500BC. Nearby is the Blackhammer stalled cairn, ca. 3000BC. The Midhowe chambered cairn dates to 3500BC and has 12 chambers divided by stone orthostats.  The Midhowe Broch is dated 200BC-100AD and is built of cut Sandstone slabs. Inside it is divided by stone partitions.  The broch tower has an internal diameter of 9 metres within a wall 4.5 metres thick, which still stands to a height of over 4 metres.

Scapa Flow is a body of water sheltered by mainland Orkney, Hoy, South Ronaldsay and Burray.  It is where the Vikings anchored their longships and where the German fleet was scuttled after WWI.  In 1939 HMS Royal Oak was torpedoed by a German submarine, with huge loss of life.  There are war graves on the land by Scapa Flow adjacent to the site of the ruined Orphir Round Church and the Earl’s Bu [Norse drinking hall].

The Italian Chapel built by Italian prisoners of war helping construct the Churchill Barriers in WWII, following the Royal Oak disaster, was restored in 1960.  It was constructed from 2 Nissen huts joined end to end.  Inside there is a painted sanctuary end and the entire interior is painted plasterboard, with ornate screens made from scrap metal, beautifully wrought.

In the centre of Kirkwall, St. Magnus’ Cathedral was founded in 1137AD and is built of red Sandstone.  It is dedicated to St. Magnus who was martyred on Egilsay.  It is the oldest cathedral in Scotland, and the most northerly in Britain.  The Bishop’s Palace, opposite, was built at the same time.  Across from both are the ruins of The Earl’s Palace. Started in 1601 it is considered “the most mature and accomplished piece of Renaissance architecture left in Scotland.”

The Orkney Vole (Microtus arvalis orcadensis) is not found elsewhere in Britain and from DNA comparisions appears to have originated in Belgium.  It is found in eight of the Orkney Islands and is bigger than other British voles. Its relevance is that it appears to have genetic mutations on a fairly regular basis.  Its remains may often be used as a dating tool when found in possibly otherwise undatable contexts

The Ness of Brodgar excavation is directed by Nick Card.  Excavations began in 2004 and have revealed a complex of monumental Neolithic buildings from around 3500BC.  There is a midden 6m high and 70m diameter as a result of accumulation of debris and domestic waste resulting from human use.  An inscribed slab, with decoration on two faces was the first intimation, ploughed up in 1925.of the site which became Structure 8.  Structure 10 is the final phase on the complex where bones from at least 400 cattle, sealed in places by a number of complete red deer carcasses were found, including an aurochs, as a closing deposit.  The pottery includes coloured vessels and Grooved Ware, believed to be the earliest in Britain and not known in Europe.  There are carved stone balls (only found in Scotland) plus stone maceheads and stone axes.  A 4 m, later 6 m, thick wall runs across the Ness to the north, matched by a similar wall, 2 m thick to the south.

The Ness buildings definitely had stone-tiled roofs. On Structure 8 for example the average tile thickness was 20mm, and it was calculated that the weight of the roof was around 16 tons. The question to be asked is where did the timber come from to support the roofs?  It is believed that Orkney was more wooded in the Neolithic and driftwood could have also been used.

For more information on the Ness of Brodgar:

PLEASE NOTE:  The final season of excavation at the Ness of Brodgar will take place in 2024, after which the remains will be covered over and backfilled. This has been confirmed by email from the Ness of Brodgar team, as it was contradicted on the evening.

After some 20 years work it is believed that only about 15% has been revealed and there is such a huge volume of material to conserve and results to analyse and publish that it is felt that a line needs to be drawn and the site closed.

(All images copyright Ness of Brodgar Trust)


Stones of Stenness                                                                                Ring of Brodgar


Ness of Brodgar excavation                                                                     Finds from Orkney