The Orkney Islands possess some of the most remarkable Neolithic archaeology in Europe, with many strikingly well preserved monuments, including chambered tombs, stone circles and settlements. The western part of the main island, or ‘mainland’, now has a Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site that includes a wealth of famous sites such as Maes Howe, the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae.
The Neolithic settlement of the Orkney archipelago probably began in the earlier fourth millennium cal BC, and is characterised by the appearance of small, scattered settlements and chambered tombs. By the late fourth millennium cal BC and onwards, several significant changes are detectable. New and larger chambered tombs were constructed, like Quanterness and the passage grave at Maes Howe. Henge/stone circle monuments such as the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar were also constructed, and larger, nucleated settlements were built and used, many of them associated with a new and distinctive style of pottery, Grooved Ware. Many aspects of these changes were not confined to Orkney alone. The idea of passage graves, for example, could have been copied from the great monuments of the Boyne valley in eastern Ireland. Grooved Ware, however, which is also found over the whole of Britain as well as in Ireland, may have first appeared on Orkney, as part of complicated processes of dynamic and distinctive cultural and social change at the turn of the fourth millennium cal BC. Was this all about the emergence of regional elites? What part did communal dimensions and connections have to play?
The Grooved Ware complex on Orkney includes a series of well preserved settlements, apart from Skara Brae. Within the area of the World Heritage Site, there are Barnhouse, adjacent to the Stones of Stenness, and now the stunning, large aggregation of major buildings at Ness of Brodgar. Further afield, on other islands in the archipelago, there are the coastal sites of Pool, Sanday, previously excavated by John Hunter, and Links of Noltland, Westray. We know a lot about these settlements and their associated pottery, and are learning more from the ongoing excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, led by Nick Card, and the Links of Noltland, led by Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson. However, a precise chronology for the development of late fourth and third millennia cal BC settlements and the associated Grooved Ware pottery styles on Orkney has not yet been established.
The Times of Their Lives project, working with excavators and other stakeholders including Orkney Museums, Historic Scotland and National Museums Scotland, now intends to submit a significant number of short-life samples from Orkney Grooved Ware sites for radiocarbon dating and Bayesian interpretation. We hope that results in due course will contribute in the first place to a better understanding of the sequence of development on the islands themselves, and also beyond them, to new insights into the complicated cultural and social changes evident in the Late Neolithic archaeology of Britain and Ireland as a whole. At a general level, this is also a further study in processes of settlement aggregation and cultural change, following the initial establishment of the Neolithic way of life, which several other components of The Times of Their Lives are addressing.(go to: http://www.orkneyjar.com for more information on the Neolithic of Orkney and on many of the sites mentioned here).
Local Partners: Nick Card, Ingrid Mainland and Roy Towers (ORCA, Orkney College), Mark Edmonds (York University), Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson (EASE Archaeology), John Hunter, Colin Richards (Manchester University), Alison Sheridan (National Museums Scotland), Ann MacSween (Historic Scotland), Historic Scotland and Orkney Museums
UK Team: Peter Marshall, Seren Griffiths, Alex Bayliss and Alasdair Whittle