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Scottish Island Discovery Digs Up New Information About Neolithic Religion

February 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new archaeological find in the Orkney Islands off the northern tip of Scotland could have connections to Neolithic religion. Jeffrey Brown examines the background of the discovery and explores some of its surrounding mysteries, including why the site might have been part of one of the biggest barbecues in history.
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JUDY WOODRUFF:Finally tonight: the unfolding mystery of a huge and exciting new archaeological find. It’s all happening on a group of islands off the northern tip of Scotland.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: Drive across the windswept, almost treeless landscape of the Orkney Islands, and you will see sheep, cattle and farmland. But it won’t be long before you come across an ancient standing stone, or two or three.

The islands are littered with a collection of world-famous archaeological sites. There’s Skara Brae, a superbly preserved Neolithic hut settlement, Maeshowe, a chambered stone tomb, built so the midwinter sun shines along its low entrance hall, and the Standing Stones of Stenness.

But now, nearby, a site recently unearthed site to top them all, the Ness of Brodgar, a vast temple-like complex, one of the most important Neolithic discoveries in Europe that may provide new insight into Stone Age religious practice.

NICK CARD, Ness of Brodgar: The Ness of Brodgar is kind of an archaeologist’s dream site. What we have is a complex of structures the like of which we have never really seen before in Atlantic Europe, buildings of scale and complexity and architecture completely enclosed within this massive walled enclosure. It’s just spectacular.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nick Card heads up excavation at the site for the Orkney Research Center for Archaeology. He was in Washington recently to lecture on the work. We spoke in the Gallery of the Society of Woman Geographers surrounded by photos from the islands.

NICK CARD: It was the focus for activity of over 1,000 years. And I think through that thousand years, its purpose, its meaning, its function would have changed. But I think it did have a religious function, as you know, perhaps reaching out to the gods, to the deities that these people believed in.

JEFFREY BROWN: The site dates to around 3300 B.C., well before the construction of Stonehenge some 700 miles to the south.

It was the Neolithic or late Stone Age, a time of transition from hunting and gathering to farming and settled communities. In more modern times, as this painting from 1855 shows, the site was essentially hiding in plain sight, under a huge mound of earth.

NICK CARD: This mound, I live just up the road from it. I have driven past it hundreds of times. And, yes, you always thought, this has got to be natural. It’s too big to be artificial.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you were driving past it all these times, all these years and you thought, maybe something is going on, but you had no idea?

NICK CARD: Exactly. And then just over 10 years ago, this has all changed.

And what has been revealed is this totally unique site.

JEFFREY BROWN: How did you feel the first time you realized that? Were you excited, or did you feel like a bit of an idiot for driving past it for many years? Excuse me.

NICK CARD: If I felt a bit of an idiot, I can assure you that all the other archaeologists in Britain probably felt the same, because it is one of those archaeological meccas that everybody comes to see at least once in a lifetime.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the site was stumbled upon accidentally by a local couple who wanted to plant a garden. When they hit upon a notched stone slab, archaeologists were called in.

Since that first discovery in 2003, the dig has steadily expanded, revealing a walled complex of large ceremonial structures. More than 20 have been uncovered so far, and geophysical tests show they’re only the tip of the iceberg.

NICK CARD: When you see photographs of our site, it looks huge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

NICK CARD: But that trench, our biggest trench only covers 10 percent of the site. The site itself covers the equivalent of five soccer pitches.

JEFFREY BROWN: The ness, which means headland or promontory, stretches along two bodies of water and is sandwiched between what’s left of two ancient standing stone circles. Card says the location is no accident.

NICK CARD: I think that the whole landscape, when you stand in the middle of the ring at Brodgar, you get the sense of being in the middle of this huge natural amphitheater created by the hills all the way around and then the water on either side.

It’s a unique landscape, a very special landscape, and no doubt had very special significance to our Neolithic ancestors.

JEFFREY BROWN: Card points to clues that this was a special ceremonial site: a beautifully polished stone axe, stone mace-heads carefully placed, grooved pottery and even painted walls.

NICK CARD: It wasn’t kind of floor to ceiling, you know, magnolia. It was specific colors in specific places. And again we’re finding this the first evidence in Britain for — that some of the pottery was painted. So suddenly this monochrome world that so often the archaeological record presents to us has transformed into this kind of psychedelia.

JEFFREY BROWN: But mysteries abound as to the exact nature of the place, including why, after those thousand years of activity, it all came to an end. Archaeologists were stunned to find that the site had been filled in and that underneath lay the bones of hundreds of cattle, possibly the remains of a huge feast.

NICK CARD: Cattle, hundreds of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

NICK CARD: It’s one of the biggest barbecues in history.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why one last whatever you want to call it, barbecue, and then closing the place?

NICK CARD: Roughly, when this was happening, you get the introduction of the first metalwork, bronze. And with bronze, the introduction of bronze, you get changes in burial practice, changes in society. There seems to be much more emphasis on the individual, rather on the wider community.

The kind of social structures that made the ness possible and kept it there at the kind of pinnacle of Neolithic society was suddenly eclipsed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Card hopes to find more answers and more objects when the digging resumes this summer at the giant Ness of Brodgar complex.