Archaeologists Try To Date The Brodgar Megaliths On Orkney

By Janis Mitchell | 12 November 2008
a photograph of standing stones on a moorland overlooking a stretch of water

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. Picture © Janis Mitchell 2008

Archaeological excavations have continued this summer within ‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site.

The Ring of Brodgar, the third largest standing stone circle in Britain and the Ness of Brodgar, its accompanying settlement site, have been the focus of an investigation funded by Historic Scotland and Orkney Island Council under the direction of Dr Jane Downes (Orkney College UHI) and Dr Colin Richards (Manchester University).

This season saw the anticipated re-opening of Professor Colin Renfrew’s 1973 trenches at the Ring of Brodgar, the impressive monument which is thought to be 4 to 4,500 years old although the date has never been scientifically confirmed.

“Although the excavations 35 years ago were undertaken to obtain dating material and establish chronology, they failed due to the limitations of available dating techniques at the time,” explained archaeologist Dr Jane Downes.

a photograph of a man in hard hat next to a trench

Ring of Brodgar excavation Trench C (Orkney College and Manchester University Excavation 2008). Photo © Janis Mitchell 2008

“The advanced new techniques now at our disposal mean that this time our investigations should establish when the Ring of Brodgar was built and help us learn a great deal more about it.”

Trenches were dug to the original ditch cut from bedrock by the builders of the stone circle. No artefacts were expected but a time capsule from the 1970s excavation was a surprise discovery. It is now held at Orkney Museum.

Construction of the ditch surrounding the stone circle was also under investigation. A tomography survey was undertaken to determine if the original circle contained more than the 27 megaliths standing today. The survey revealed empty sockets suggesting the original was made up of at least 60 stones.

However, archaeologists continue to seek an answer for one big question – what was this monument for?

a photograph of a stone slab and other pieces of stone on a desktop

'Neolithic Art', decorated stone and some other artefacts from Ness of Brodgar 2008 Excavation (laid out to dry). © Janis Mitchell 2008

Within viewing distance of the Ring is the Ness of Brodgar, and another excavation funded by, OIC, Orkney College, Friends of Orkney Archaeology Trust, Robert Kiln Trust completed a third season of digging.

This site offers the opportunity to learn more about daily life in Neolithic Orkney and the ties people had to the stone circles. Naturally archaeologists are keen to explore its role and significance.

“The excavation this year again emphasises the importance of this site and its pivotal role in our understanding of the use and development of Brodgar/Stenness/WHS in the Neolithic,” said site director Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology. “Even the dominance of the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar in the landscape seem challenged.”

This season also saw a number of exciting discoveries, including two additional non-domestic buildings within the settlement area.

an aerial view showing stone foundations of a building

Ness of Brodgar aerial view of trench P (Excavation 2008 Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology and Orkney Archaeological Trust). Photo © Janis Mitchell 2008

Under further investigation was the massive wall extending across the Ness known as the Great Wall of Brodgar. It divides the ring from the settlement and archaeologists believe it might represent the separation of the land of the living from the land of the dead.

Artefacts numbering in the 1000s were found. These include sensational finds such as a stone polished axe and mace head and everyday objects like pottery and flint tools.

An exceptional discovery of Neolithic Art was also made. The previously rare find of purposefully decorated stone was discovered on structure walls and individual stone slabs.

The Ness of Brodgar will continue to provide insight into how these monument builders of Neolithic Orkney lived. However, archaeologists now wait for summer 2009 to see what new exciting discoveries can be made made. In the meantime results for the date of Ring of Brodgar are eagerly awaited.

For for more information about the heritage of Orkney see

  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share