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Excavations at the Ness of Brodgar. Source: Ruth_W / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Human Bone Found at Orkney’s Neolithic Cathedral, Ness of Brodgar


Archaeologists excavating a vast Neolithic cathedral at Ness of Brodgar on the Scottish island of Orkney have made the rare discovery of a human arm bone. While the discovery of a single bone might seem less than newsworthy, the reason this discovery is special is because human remains are very rare at this ancient site. This excites experts who now have the chance to learn more about the 5,000 year old civilization who built one of the most magnificent stone buildings of the ancient world.

The Discovery at Ness of Brodgar

The bone was found “deliberately” placed beneath the foundations of a wall in a vast stone built temple, and that wall, according to Dr. Jo McKenzie from the University of Bradford speaking to BBC Radio Orkney, was “rebuilt, possibly multiple times, in pre-history”.

Charlie Scovell is an archaeologist from London who is volunteering at the Ness of Brodgar dig over the summer months and it was when he and Dr. McKenzie removed one of the last slabs they saw “a tiny part of what looked suspiciously human”.

Ancient Temples Of The North

The ancient temple at Ness of Brodgar and contemporary sites like Barnhouse Settlement and stone circles like Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stenness, were all built between 3200 BC and 2500 BC but little is known about the actual monument builders.

As the largest concentration of Neolithic stone structures in Europe, the landscape is collectively known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a name adopted by UNESCO when it proclaimed these four monuments as a World Heritage Site in 1999.

In 2003, situated on a thin strip of land between the Lochs of Stenness and Harray, archaeologists unearthed a series of decorated stone slabs and a massive wall with immense foundations. Within the enclosure, several smaller buildings were found to surround one enormous building and this site is known as Ness of Brodgar, a vast Neolithic religious complex extending over an area of 6.2 acres (2.5 hectares).

Several ancient buildings were discovered at the Ness of Brodgar site. (S Marshall / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The earliest structures at Ness of Brodgar were built between 3300 and 3200 BC and the earliest evidence of habitation at the more well-known Skara Brae is 3180 BC, so both places were occupied at the same time. Archeologist Caroline Wickham Jones of Aberdeen University calculated that people living at Skara Brae “would have been able to walk to the Ness of Brodgar, watch or take part in ritual activity and walk home within a day”.

A “Vast Neolithic Cathedral”

According to a 2011 Current Archaeology article, excavators in Orkney uncovered the largest stone-built Neolithic non-funerary structures in Britain, which are believed to have been constructed around 2900 BC.

The temple-like Structure Ten, beneath which the arm bone was found, was described as a vast “Neolithic cathedral” serving the north of Scotland. It is surrounded by a paved outer passage measuring 82 feet (25 meters) long by 62 feet (19 meters) wide, with 13 foot (4 meter) thick outer walls. At the temple’s entrance a pair of standing stones lead to a cruciform central chamber measuring 20 feet (6 meters) across.

Archaeologists at work on Structure 10, at the Ness of Brodgar dig. (S Marshall / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Archaeologists at work on Structure 10, at the Ness of Brodgar dig. (S Marshall / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Site director Nick Card told the BBC that the woman’s arm bone is being heavily photographed and 3D modeled, and because the bone is human the archaeologists had to report the find to Police Scotland. Card told reporters that the bone “doesn't look like a conventional burial” and that three years ago another human arm bone was discovered that perhaps came from the same woman for it had also been carefully placed in the foundations of a wall connected with the temple.

Card said, “this all seems to have been a kind of votive deposit” where someone or a group deliberately placed it beneath the wall as part of the rebuilding works. The DNA testing will confirm whether the two arm bones came from the same person but Dr. McKenzie hopes that analyzing the bone will “reveal more details about the woman - her height and age, health at the time she died, and even her diet”.

Top image: Excavations at the Ness of Brodgar. Source: Ruth_W / CC BY-SA 2.0.

By Ashley Cowie


Wickham-Jones, C. 2015.  Between the Wind and the Water. Windgather Press.



Can’t wait to hear more about this.

Ed Hanson

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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