Ola Gorie and The Ness of Brodgar
By Nick Card and Anne Mitchell
For this week's blog, we welcome special contributors Nick Card and Anne Mitchell. Nick is the Director of the Ness excavation, and Anne is Project Office at the dig (and co-author, with Nick, of The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands, the definitive guide to the site.) We particularly appreciate them taking time out at the start of the dig season - the covers come off this very week - to share their thoughts on the relationship between their discoveries and our jewellery.
In Spring 2003 Arnie and Ola (Gorie) Tait had the field in front of Brodgar farmhouse ploughed with a view to sowing wildflowers. The ploughman hit a large, notched slab as he worked across the field. Arnie was called to inspect, and he quickly decided to call in Julie Gibson, County Archaeologist. It seemed likely that the slab was part of a prehistoric burial cist and archaeologists were called upon to investigate urgently, in April 2003. No human remains were found but rather, extraordinarily fine walling which spoke of something special in the planned wildflower meadow. And so began the story of the excavations at the Ness of Brodgar and its association with the firm of Ola Gorie, the brainchild of Arnie and Ola, an association which has produced stunning archaeology and stunning silver and gold jewellery in Orkney.
Excavations at the Ness quickly demonstrated something special, on a scale unlike any other Neolithic site in Orkney which of course bleeds archaeology, particularly within the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site where the Ness sits. Those excavations required permission from landowners to proceed and Arnie and Ola have been generous in giving the go-ahead, year after year, ultimately leasing the field for an annual donation by the Ness Trust to Orkney’s Rotary Club. And every summer visits are made to their field to watch proceedings and, particularly in Ola’s case, to look at the finds from the site. Her designer’s eye has always been particularly taken by the incised stone artwork which is found at Brodgar, in unparalleled quantities and forms.
A clue to the quality of what lay under the Brodgar field had first appeared on the narrow face of a slab of sandstone found there in 1925 by Mr Wishart, then owner of the farm. That face was covered in incised vertical and diagonal lines and those lines were repeated across a lot of the stone being excavated from 2005 onwards but also in the Grooved Ware pottery coming from the site in great quantities. Using those simple 5000-year-old patterns as her inspiration, Ola and her team created earrings, brooch, and pendants in both gold and silver. The collection was launched at a special event at the Ness in July 2016 and has gone on to become one of the most successful ranges produced by the firm.
Using Orkney’s archaeology as inspiration for Orkney crafts is not a new departure – Ola’s first line in 1960 was the Maeshowe Dragon. But working with an ongoing excavation team in close association with its discoveries and newly found artefacts has been a different road to go down. That road was certainly made easy to tread by owning the field in which the dig was happening. But you need to be interested and curious and inspired to see that in 5,000 year old activity, design opportunities exist.
Exciting archaeology encourages media attention and tourists, with the one feeding off the other. As the Ness excavations have revealed more and more of a large, ceremonial complex dating from c.3,500BC, television and print media have visited the site and as their reports have spilled out to the world of UK and international tourism, so the visitors have come, and Orkney has benefited both financially and culturally. Archaeological discoveries have made Orkney a place to visit on the world map and it would be easy to find archaeology as the excuse, like so many places around the world, for cheap and cheerful souvenirs, flooding into tourist outlets.
The Ness of Brodgar team was always aware of this possibility and has been actively glad to encourage pieces of the highest quality, made in Orkney. As its on-site shop has developed over the digging seasons, and its online shop expanded with Covid as its driver to do so, we sell items from several Orkney businesses, and we are particularly proud of the line of Ness of Brodgar Ola Gorie jewellery from which we derive a most useful commission for dig and post-excavation funds. We’re happy too to be given a donation for every piece sold through the Ola Gorie Kirkwall shop and online presence. That Kirkwall shop sits opposite St Magnus Cathedral and its beautifully decorated windows (often with the Ness of Brodgar suite of jewellery displayed) is a big draw to visitors whether independent travellers or cruise ship passengers.
It is all a symbiosis between archaeology and artist, bringing great benefit to both the Ness of Brodgar Trust who run the excavations and to the business of Ola Gorie but also creating work, skills, inspiration to others and giving Orkney a name for quality and going that bit further.
It’s been a long association now between Ola Gorie and the Ness of Brodgar and one which set the bar for other Orkney craftspeople to produce beautiful archaeologically-inspired work. Archaeology is not just about digging up the past; it’s also about making opportunities for the present and the future and this association between site and silversmith absolutely demonstrates that case.
Photos by Jim Richardson, courtesy of the Ness of Brodgar Trust.