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The Stones of Stenness may be Britain’s most ancient stone circle.

Before Stonehenge

One long-ago day around 3200 B.C., the farmers and herdsmen on Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands decided to build something big...

This article appears in the August 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

They had Stone Age technology, but their vision was millennia ahead of their time. Five thousand years ago the ancient inhabitants of Orkney—a fertile, green archipelago off the northern tip of modern-day Scotland—erected a complex of monumental buildings unlike anything they had ever attempted before.

They quarried thousands of tons of fine-grained sandstone, trimmed it, dressed it, then transported it several miles to a grassy promontory with commanding views of the surrounding countryside. Their workmanship was impeccable. The imposing walls they built would have done credit to the Roman centurions who, some 30 centuries later, would erect Hadrian’s Wall in another part of Britain.

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Blessed with fertile soil and a mild climate, Orkney was a land of plenty for Neolithic homesteaders. Agricultural wealth helped give them the freedom to pursue grand architectural dreams.

Cloistered within those walls were dozens of buildings, among them one of the largest roofed structures built in prehistoric northern Europe. It was more than 80 feet long and 60 feet wide, with walls 13 feet thick. The complex featured paved walkways, carved stonework, colored facades, even slate roofs—a rare extravagance in an age when buildings were typically roofed with sod, hides, or thatch.

Fast-forward five millennia to a balmy summer afternoon on a scenic headland known as the Ness of Brodgar. Here an eclectic team of archaeologists, university professors, students, and volunteers is bringing to light a collection of grand buildings that long lay hidden beneath a farm field. Archaeologist Nick Card, excavation director with the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, says the recent discovery of these stunning ruins is turning British prehistory on its head.

“This is almost on the scale of some of the great classical sites in the Mediterranean, like the Acropolis in Greece, except these structures are 2,500 years older. Like the Acropolis, this was built to dominate the landscape—to impress, awe, inspire, perhaps even intimidate anyone who saw it. The people who built this thing had big ideas. They were out to make a statement.”

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Sheep graze among the Stones of Stenness, which may have been a model for Stonehenge. In 1814 a farmer tried to remove the ancient stones so he could more easily tend his fields.

What that statement was, and for whom it was intended, remains a mystery, as does the purpose of the complex itself. Although it’s usually referred to as a temple, it’s likely to have fulfilled a variety of functions during the thousand years it was in use. It’s clear that many people gathered here for seasonal rituals, feasts, and trade.

The discovery is all the more intriguing because the ruins were found in the heart of one of the densest collections of ancient monuments in Britain. The area has been searched for the past 150 years, first by Victorian antiquarians, later by archaeologists. Yet none of them had the slightest idea what lay beneath their feet.

Stand at “the Ness” today and several iconic Stone Age structures are within easy view, forming the core of a World Heritage site called the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. On a heather-clad knoll half a mile away rises a giant Tolkienesque circle of stones known as the Ring of Brodgar. A second ceremonial stone circle, the famous Stones of Stenness, is visible across the causeway leading up to the Ness. And one mile away is an eerie mound called Maes Howe, an enormous chambered tomb more than 4,500 years old. Its entry passage is perfectly aligned to receive the rays of the setting sun on the eve of the winter solstice, illuminating its inner chamber on the shortest day of the year.

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In 1958 a farmer digging flagstones accidentally uncovered the 5,000-year-old Tomb of the Eagles. It held more than 16,000 human bones mingled with the talons of white-tailed eagles.

Maes Howe also aligns with the central axis and entrance to the newly discovered temple on the Ness, something archaeologists believe is no coincidence. They suspect that the freshly uncovered ruins may be a key piece to a larger puzzle no one dreamed existed.

Until as recently as 30 years ago, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, and the Maes Howe tomb were seen as isolated monuments with separate histories. “What the Ness is telling us is that this was a much more integrated landscape than anyone ever suspected,” says Card. “All these monuments are inextricably linked in some grand theme we can only guess at. And the people who built all this were a far more complex and capable society than has usually been portrayed.”

Orkney has long been good to archaeologists, thanks to its deep human history and the fact that nearly everything here is built of stone. Literally thousands of sites are scattered through the islands, the majority of them untouched. Together they cover a great sweep of time and settings, from Mesolithic camps and Iron Age settlements to the remains of Old Norse feasting halls and ruined medieval palaces.

“I’ve heard this place called the Egypt of the North,” says county archaeologist Julie Gibson, who came to Orkney more than 30 years ago to excavate a Viking cemetery and never left. “Turn over a rock around here and you’re likely to find a new site.”

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Life in Stone Age Orkney was far more refined than once imagined. The well-built homes at Skara Brae, Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, included stone hearths, beds, and cupboards.

Sometimes you don’t even need to do that. In 1850 a gale tore away some sand dunes along the Bay of Skaill, on the western flank of Mainland island, exposing an astonishingly well preserved Stone Age village. Archaeologists date the village, called Skara Brae, to around 3100 B.C. and believe it was occupied for more than 600 years.

Skara Brae must have been a cozy setup in its day. Lozenge-shaped stone dwellings linked by covered passages huddled close together against the grim winters. There were hearths inside, and the living spaces were furnished with stone beds and cupboards. Even after the passage of thousands of years the dwellings look appealingly personal, as though the occupants had just stepped out. The stage-set quality of the homesteads and the glimpse they offer into everyday life in the Neolithic, to say nothing of the dramatic way they were revealed, made Skara Brae Orkney’s most spectacular find. Until now.

The first hint of big things underfoot at the Ness came to light in 2002, when a geophysical survey revealed the presence of large, man-made anomalies beneath the soil. Test trenches were dug and exploratory excavations begun, but it wasn’t until 2008 that archaeologists began to grasp the scale of what they had stumbled upon.

Today only 10 percent of the Ness has been excavated, with many more stone structures known to be lurking under the turf nearby. But this small sample of the site has opened an invaluable window into the past and yielded thousands of priceless artifacts: ceremonial mace heads, polished stone axes, flint knives, a human figurine, miniature thumb pots, beautifully crafted stone spatulas, colored pottery far more refined and delicate than anyone had expected for its time, and more than 650 pieces of Neolithic art, by far the largest collection ever found in Britain.

Before visiting the Ness, I tended to view Stone Age sites with indifferent curiosity. The lives of the long-ago inhabitants seemed far removed and alien. But art offers a glimpse into the minds and imaginations of the people who create it. At the Ness I found myself looking into a world I could comprehend, even if its terms were radically different from my own.

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The sprawling excavation at the Ness of Brodgar was a farmer’s backyard until a few years ago. Now the foundations of 25 structures have been exposed, with only about 10 percent of the site uncovered.

“Nowhere else in all Britain or Ireland have such well-preserved stone houses from the Neolithic survived, so Orkney is already punching above its weight,” says Antonia Thomas, an archaeologist at the University of the Highlands and Islands. “To be able to link these structures with art, to see in such a direct and personal way how people embellished their surroundings, is really something.”

One of the more startling discoveries has been discernible traces of colored pigments on some of the stonework. “I’ve always suspected that color played an important role in people’s lives,” says Card. “I had a sense that they painted their walls, but now we know for sure.”

Indeed one of the structures apparently served as a kind of paint shop, complete with piles of pigment still on the floor: powdered hematite (red), ocher (yellow), and galena (white), together with the dimpled rocks and grinding stones that served as mortar and pestle.

Also found among the ruins were prized trade goods such as volcanic glass from as far afield as the Isle of Arran in western Scotland, and high-quality flints from across the archipelago and beyond. These artifacts suggest that Orkney was on an established trade route and that the temple complex on the Ness may have been a site of pilgrimage.

More intriguing than the items traders and pilgrims brought to the site, say archaeologists, is what they took away: ideas and inspiration. Distinctive colored pottery sherds found at the Ness and elsewhere, for example, suggest that the trademark style of grooved pottery that became almost universal throughout Neolithic Britain had its origin in Orkney. It may well be that rich and sophisticated Orcadians were setting the fashion agendas of the day.

“This is totally at odds with the old received wisdom that anything cultural must have come from the genteel south to improve the barbarian north,” laughs Roy Towers, a Scottish archaeological ceramicist and the site’s pottery specialist. “It seems to have been just the reverse here.”

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Archaeologists excavating the Ness of Brodgar uncovered the richest collection of Neolithic art yet found in Britain, including this decorative stone incised with a geometric motif.

Traders and pilgrims also returned home with recollections of the magnificent temple complex they had seen and notions about celebrating special places in the landscape the way the Orcadians did—ideas which, centuries later, would find their ultimate expression at Stonehenge.

Why Orkney of all places? How did this scatter of islands off the northern tip of Scotland come to be such a technological, cultural, and spiritual powerhouse? “For starters, you have to stop thinking of Orkney as remote,” says Caroline Wickham-Jones, a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Aberdeen. “For most of history, from the Neolithic to the Second World War, Orkney was an important maritime hub, a place that was on the way to everywhere.”

It was also blessed with some of the richest farming soils in Britain and a surprisingly mild climate, thanks to the effects of the Gulf Stream. Pollen samples reveal that by about 3500 B.C.—around the time of the earliest settlement on Orkney—much of the hazel and birch woodland that originally covered the landscape was gone.

“It’s been assumed that the woodland was cleared away by Neolithic farmers, but that doesn’t seem to have been entirely the case,” says Michelle Farrell, a paleoecologist at Queen’s University Belfast who studies past land use and environmental change. “Although early farmers accounted for a degree of woodland loss, in some areas much of the woodland was already gone by 5500 B.C. It seems to have been a prolonged event and largely caused by natural processes, but what those processes were we really can’t say without better climate records.”

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Student Jessica “Jo” Heupel uncovers a polished stone axhead—“the finest one I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing discovered,” says excavation director Nick Card (left).

One thing is certain, says Farrell: “The open nature of the landscape would have made life much easier for those early farmers. It could have been one of the reasons why they were able to devote so much time to monument building.”

It’s also clear that they had plenty of willing hands and strong backs to put to the cause. Estimates of Orkney’s population in Neolithic times run as high as 10,000—roughly half the number of people who live there today—which no doubt helps account for the density of archaeological sites in the islands. Unlike other parts of Britain, where houses were built with timber, thatch, and other materials that rot away over time, Orcadians had abundant outcrops of fine, easily worked sandstone for building homes and temples that could last for centuries.

What’s more, the Neolithic homesteaders and pioneers who settled Orkney knew what they were doing. “Orkney’s farmers were among the first in Europe to have deliberately manured their fields to improve their crops,” says Jane Downes, director of the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands. “Thousands of years later medieval peasants were still benefiting from the work those Neolithic farmers put into the soil.”

They also imported cattle, sheep, goats, and possibly red deer, ferrying them out from the Scottish mainland in skin boats, braving miles of open water and treacherous currents. The herds they raised grew fat on the island’s rich grazing. Indeed, to this day, Orkney beef commands a premium on the market.

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Last of the great monuments built on the Ness, the Ring of Brodgar has inspired awe for 4,500 years. As Scottish poet George Mackay Brown wrote, “The Orkney imagination is haunted by time.”

In short, by the time they embarked on their ambitious building project on the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney’s farmers had become wealthy and well established, with much to be grateful for and a powerful spiritual bond to the land.

For a thousand years, a span longer than Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral have stood, the temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar cast its spell over the landscape—a symbol of wealth, power, and cultural energy. To generations of Orcadians who gathered there, and to the travelers who came hundreds of miles to admire it and conduct business, the temple and its walled compound of buildings must have seemed as enduring as time itself.

But sometime around the year 2300 B.C., for reasons that remain obscure, it all came to an end. Climate change may have played a role. Evidence suggests that northern Europe became cooler and wetter toward the end of the Neolithic, and these conditions may have had a negative effect on agriculture.

Or perhaps it was the disruptive influence of a new toolmaking material: bronze. Not only did the metal alloy introduce better tools and weapons. It also brought with it fresh ideas, new values, and possibly a shake-up of the social order.

“We’ve not found any bronze artifacts so far on the Ness,” says Card. “But a society as powerful and well connected as they were must surely have known that profound changes were coming their way. It may have been they were one of the holdouts.”

Whatever the reason, the ancient temple was decommissioned and partially destroyed, deliberately and symbolically. Before the people moved on, they left behind one final startling surprise for archaeologists to find: the remains of a gargantuan farewell feast. More than 400 cattle were slaughtered, enough meat to have fed thousands of people.

“The bones all appear to have come from a single event,” says Ingrid Mainland, an archaeozoologist from the University of the Highlands and Islands who specializes in ancient livestock. She has been analyzing the piles of bones that were deliberately arranged around the temple. Curiously, the people who ate that final feast left behind only the shinbones of the animals they slaughtered. “What the significance of the tibia was to them, where that fits in the story, is a mystery,” says Mainland.

Another unknown is what impact killing so many cattle may have had on this agricultural community. “Were they effectively taking out the future productivity of their herds?” wonders Mainland. “We don’t know.”

After cracking open the bones to extract the rich marrow inside, the people arranged them in intricate piles around the base of the temple. Next they draped unbutchered deer carcasses over the piles, presumably as offerings. In the center of the chamber they deposited a cattle skull and a large stone engraved with a sort of cup motif. Then came the final act of closure.

“They deliberately demolished the buildings and buried them under thousands of tons of rubble and trash,” says Card. “It seems that they were attempting to erase the site and its importance from memory, perhaps to mark the introduction of new belief systems.”

Over the centuries that followed the abandonment of the Ness, time and the elements took their toll. Whatever stones remained visible from the old forgotten walls were carried away by homesteaders for use in their own cottages and farms. Now it was their turn to play out their history on Orkney’s windswept stage.