Before Stonehenge, innovation and mystery in Neolithic Scotland

“The more sites and artifacts that archaeologists discover, the less we know about the past”. Paradox? Perhaps not. Recent excavations in Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland turned up unexpected and unprecedented remains. Here, at a time before long Stonehenge was constructed far to the south, people were building houses and decorating pottery and buildings in ways precious and stunning. Is this new site (dating to 5000 years ago) at the Ness of Brodgar a temple, a village, a workshop? A complex of sturdy long-lasting stone-walled buildings stand within stone walls. One building is huge: over 80 feet long and 60 feet wide. Its walls are 13 feet thick.

An unexpected find. The largest roofed building in northern Europe at this time sitting in a landscape that was already famous for its concentration of prehistoric sites: the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, the tomb at Maes Howe. Among the artifacts are ceremonial stone mace-heads, stone axes, flint tools, miniature clay pots, colored pottery and a human figurine. Archaeologists were stunned to find that the Ness inhabitants and builders painted their walls with colored pigments. One building was as paint workshop: archaeologists found grinding tools and heaps of pigments on its floor: red hematite, yellow ochre and white galena.

So, here is an extraordinary find in a region where archaeologists have been working intensively for over 100 years. While so much work has focused on southern England (as at the famous sites of Stonehenge and Avebury) it seems that the really cool action was happening far to the north in Orkney. This site changes the way that we understand prehistoric life in Europe. Changing the way that we understand the past is what we do in the MA Anthropology program at San Francisco State University. You can be part of that. Check out our MA in Anthropology website for full details about the structure of the degree, how to apply (we have a rolling admissions schedule), and send us an email so that we know more about you and what you want to study: AnthroMA@sfsu.edu.

Link: Scotland's Stone Age Ruins (National Geographic) http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/neolithic-orkney/smith-text