I’ve been fascinated by the Neolithic period in a very unscientific kind of way for years. Stones circles are a bit of an obsession of mine and I’ve driven down many tiny lanes in search of sites that are marked on OS maps but don’t have a single sign post. I love the mystery of them, the sense of time and place that is beyond understanding and occasionally, the pulse of ancient energy in the stones. A friend of mine, who is a proper archaeologist with a PhD and everything, refers to people like me as ‘stone botherers’.
It was the sheer wealth and variety of Neolithic sites (together with the stories of George Mackay Brown) that drew me to Orkney for the first time six years ago and I spent a very happy week visiting tombs, stone circles and the village of Skara Brae. Back in 2010 people were only just starting to talk about the amazing finds at the Ness of Brodgar. Since then I’ve watched lovely Neil Oliver at the site, read about it in the National Geographic and seen updates on the internet.
A couple of weeks ago I finally got to visit the site and, more by luck than judgement, turned up during one of the two site open days. It was a dreich day, as they say on Orkney, which you can see from the pictures but it seemed like half of the population had turned out to see what was going on. The Ness of Brodgar is on a narrow isthmus of land between the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness. A short distance away on one side are the Stones of Stenness and, at the top of a small hill, on the other side is the Ring of Brodgar. On a lovely day it is quite exceptionally beautiful. This wasn’t a lovely day but wrapped up in waterproof, fleece and woolly hat I got to walk round the site, talk to the people working there and actually handle some of the finds.
Having seen so much about the dig over the years and read about the number of structures that have been found I’d expected it to be much larger. Instead it fits into a surprisingly small space with a jumble of walls that the guides made sense of for us, pointing out the entrance to this structure or the walls of that structure. The stone work is still, 4,000 to 5,000 years since it was built, immaculate. They have a dry stone wall expert working at the site and he says that that we could learn a thing or two from the Neolithic builders. However they did need a few lessons on foundations as when buildings went out of use they simply knocked them down and built over them.
In a lot of places there are examples of ‘ritual and ceremonial use’ which our guide, a man who’s clearly not an archaeologist, said was archaeologist’s code for ‘we haven’t got a clue’! They do admit that the dig throws up more questions than it answers, that each season they’re rewriting the books on this period of history.
After we’d looked round the site we went to the local school where they had finds on display. More incredibly we were allowed to hold some of them. It was a bizarrely disconnected moment to stand in a modern school hall holding a stone hammer head made, maybe, 3,000 years ago. But from the size and feel of it I could imagine the hands that had used it, the person who’d cherished it as their tool of choice. I’m not the kind of person who spends much time using a hammer but the man next to me worked with wood and he said it was perfectly balanced. And there was a sense in that of things echoing down the ages, of skills being timeless and some connections that don’t need words to be felt.
As well as trying to understand the past I was searching for a sense of connectedness with one of my characters. I’m currently working on Storm Witch, the second of the Spellworker Chronicles books, and without really thinking through the ramifications of this, have made one of my characters an archaeologist working at the Ness of Brodgar dig. Having actually seen the dig in action has given me a better idea of what he’d be doing but it’s also highlighted to me the vast gaps in my knowledge about archaeology, the Neolithic and how digs actually work. After all, I’d never have dreamed that they have stacks and stacks of tyres lying around ready to be used to cover over the site at the end of the season until they can start again next year. I’ve a lot more research to do but at least I’ve got an image in my mind to fall back on now. And if you read Storm Witch when it’s published don’t be surprised if it’s always a dreich day at the archaeological dig.
If you’d like to know proper historical fact about the Ness of Brodgar dig then you can find it at http://www.orkneyjar.com/archaeology/nessofbrodgar/ The BBC have been making a series of 3 programme about this site and the Links of Noltland on Westray called ‘Operation Orkney’ which will be shown in late autumn/early winter so Neil Oliver will be available to explain all of this far more competently than I ever could.