Neolithic houses
Knap of Howar Neolithic houses on the island of Papa Westray in Orkney © Colin Richards
Knap of Howar Neolithic houses on the island of Papa Westray in Orkney © Colin Richards

New Scientific Dating Research Unravels the Story of Life in Prehistoric Orkney

  • New scientific dating study brings into view how communities in one of the most important Neolithic regions in Western Europe chose to farm, gather together and bury their dead
  • Constant and rapid changes in the settlements and monuments indicate communities with rivalries and tensions between households and other social groupings

A new study, published today in Antiquity journal, is challenging the previously understood narrative for prehistoric life on Orkney. It was led by Professor Alex Bayliss of Historic England and is based on the interrogation of more than 600 radiocarbon dates, enabling much more precise estimates of the timing and duration of events in the period c.3200-2500 BC.

The study is part of a much wider project, The Times of Their Lives, funded by the European Research Council (2012-2017), which has applied the same methodology to a wider series of case studies across Neolithic Europe. That project has demonstrated many other examples of more dynamic and punctuated sequences than previously suspected in 'prehistory'.

Neolithic Orkney is well-preserved and is a time of stone houses, stone circles and elaborate burial monuments. World-renowned sites such as the Skara Brae settlement, Maeshowe passage grave, and the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness circles have long been known and are in the World Heritage Site (given this status in 1999). They have been joined by more recent discoveries of great settlement complexes such as Barnhouse and Ness of Brodgar.

The new study reveals in much more detail than previously possible the fluctuating fortunes of the communities involved in these feats of construction and their social interaction. It used a Bayesian statistical approach to combine calibrated radiocarbon dates with knowledge of the archaeological contexts that the finds have come from to provide much more precise chronologies than those previously available.

Professor Alex Bayliss of Historic England, leader of the Orkney study, said: 'This study shows that new statistical analysis of the large numbers of radiocarbon dates that are now available in British archaeology really changes what we can know about our pasts. People in the Neolithic made choices, just like us, about all sorts of things - where to live, how to bury their dead, how to farm, where and when to gather together - and those choices are just beginning to come into view through archaeology. It's an exciting time to be an archaeological scientist!'

The study indicates:

  • Orkney was probably first colonised in c. 3600 cal BC (cal indicates dates calibrated by radiocarbon dating). There was an expansion and growth of settlement and building of monuments from c. 3300 cal BC.
  • Settlement peaked in the period c. 3100-2900 cal BC
  • There was a phase of decline c. 2800-2600 cal BC, measured by the number of stone houses in use
  • Settlement resumed in c. 2600-2300 cal BC, but only away from the 'core' area of the Brodgar-Stenness peninsula in western Mainland. It was probably about this time that the Ring of Brodgar itself was erected, probably bringing people together from across Orkney but into what was now a sacred, not a domestic, landscape

The study suggests that the period saw competition between communities that was played out in how they buried their dead and in their communal gatherings and rituals.

The study also throws up other complexities in the sequence of development on the island:

  • An overlap between the construction of different kinds of burials tombs - passage graves and large stalled cairns - in the later fourth millennium cal BC
  • An overlap between the emergence of the new pottery style, flat-based Grooved Ware, characteristic of the Late Neolithic in Orkney, and the round-based pottery of earlier Neolithic inhabitants
  • The first appearance of the non-native Orkney vole, Microtus agrestis, c. 3200 cal BC. This is significant as it is found today on Orkney and on the European continent but not in mainland Britain. It was probably introduced via direct long-distance sea travel between Orkney and the continent. The study therefore also considers whether new people from continental Europe were part of this complex cultural scenario.

Professor Alasdair Whittle of Cardiff University, Principal Investigator of The Times of Their Lives, said: 'Visitors come from all over the world to admire the wonderfully preserved archaeological remains of Orkney, in what may seem a timeless setting. Our study underlines that the Neolithic past was often rapidly changing, and that what may appear to us to be enduring monuments were in fact part of a dynamic historical context.'

Professor Colin Richards of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Kirkwall, Orkney, and co-author of the study, said: 'Our study shows how much remains to be discovered in Orkney about the Neolithic period, even though it may appear well known. This applies throughout the sequence, including in the period of decline at its end.'