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Gneiss stone axe found on the shores of Loch of Stenness.

Archeologists Unearth Axes and Human Hair at Two Ancient Sites in Orkney


Archaeologists high five in Orkney as a large number of 5,000-year-old stone axes were discovered among 30,000 artifacts, including “pottery, bones and tools” according to a recent report by The BBC.

Ness of Brodgar

Located between the famous Neolithic monuments The Ring of Brodgar and Standing Stones of Stennes, the recently discovered “Ness of Brodgar” has become one of the “largest and most important Neolithic excavations in Northern Europe,” according to archaeologists. It has been described as “a sophisticated complex of monumental stone buildings,” and the entire ritual site was enclosed by walls up to six meters thick, more than 5,000 years ago.

The Beautiful Axe

During recent excavations, which are managed by the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), an Australian archaeology student, Therese McCormick, excavated what has been described as an "object of beauty” which "astonished" the site archaeologists through its "sheer quality of workmanship”.

The first of the two most remarkable axes was uncovered on the shores of Loch of Stenness and had been crafted from a Gneiss stone, “chosen so that the natural colored banding was reflected in the shape of the item” before it was “expertly worked and polished to create an object of beauty,” said UHI archaeologists in the BBC article.

The Well-used Tool

A second, and the largest of the axes found was well crafted but worn with use. Director of Archaeology at Ness of Brodgar Nick Card told reporters: "It is nice to find pristine examples of stone axes, but the damage on this one tells us a little bit more about the history of this particular axe.” He added, “The fact that the cutting edge had been heavily damaged suggests that it was a working tool rather than a ceremonial object.” Speculating as to what it might have been use for Card said: "We know that the buildings in the complex were roofed by stone slabs so this axe was perhaps used to cut and fashion the timber joists that held up the heavy roof.”

The largest Neolithic stone axe unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar in situ, showing damage to the cutting edge. (Image: The Ness of Brodgar Trust/ UHI)

The largest Neolithic stone axe unearthed at the Ness of Brodgar in situ, showing damage to the cutting edge. (Image: The Ness of Brodgar Trust/ UHI)

Ancient Hair Survives in Bowl

Meanwhile, the Iron Age site Cairns Broch was a stone built coastal mega-structure that dominated Windwick Bay in the Scottish archipelago of Orkney, and one served as a fortified house and status symbol between the 1st and mid-2nd century AD. This month researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute announced two singular discoveries: “a 2,000-year-old wooden bowl likely used to serve food or drink, as well as strands of human hair dating to the same Iron Age period,” according to an article on

2000-year-old wooden bowl fragment found at Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay. (UHI Archaeology Institute)

2000-year-old wooden bowl fragment found at Cairns Broch, South Ronaldsay . (UHI Archaeology Institute)

The Scotsman’s Alison Campsie reported that “both the hair and bowl were found in “The Well,” a subterranean chamber of the broch." According to the UHI the “underground space is exceptionally well preserved, boasting an intact roof and stone-cut steps leading down into the heart of the chamber, which is filled with muddy silt.”

The team of archaeologists unearthed “about 20 strands of hair” that had uncommonly survived the 2000 years, and Carruthers told reporters “It looks like human hair” because it “is pliable, if you blow on it, it moves. It is shiny, dark and measures around [three to four inches] long, so potentially it records eight to 10 months of information about diet and the conditions people were living in.”

The alderwood bowl in which the hairs had been preserved measured nearly 12 inches across, featuring "an outward-facing rim, globular body and rounded base”. “In appearance, the bowl is similar in shape to certain of the pottery vessels of the period, and in particular it looks like the sort of vessel we suspect to have been used for serving food or drink,” Carruthers explained a in a statement given to

UHI archaeologists also discovered organic items ranging from pieces of wood similar in design to “modern-day tent pegs” to preserved plant fibers which they believe were “likely woven by human hands.” The UHI blog states “The excavations are ongoing and more waterlogged items are likely to be raised during that time. The next steps will be to conserve and assess the objects.”

Top image: Gneiss stone axe found on the shores of Loch of Stenness. Source: The Ness of Brodgar Trust / UHI

By Ashley Cowie



Interesting article, but that axe head in the photograph is polished? Was this just a glamour shot they took after the excavation?

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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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