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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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