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Wonderful Things Hiding in Plain Sight: Art at the Ness of Brodgar

Blog by Antonia Thomas

Art is meant to be seen. Or at least that’s what we tend to think nowadays. We live in a world saturated with images, where almost everything seems to be done for public display and consumption, whether in an art gallery or on Instagram. But what about 5,000 years ago, in the Neolithic? How did people think about art then?

For the past 15 years or so, I have been studying the art and craft of Neolithic Orkney, and in particular the incredible decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar, much of which has been found in their original positions on the upstanding walls. Nearly 1,000 individual stones with deliberate markings have been recorded from the site, making this the largest collection of its kind from anywhere in northern Europe. There is incredible diversity to the stoneworking styles, with incised, carved, cup-marked, pecked, pick-dressed, chiselled, and even painted examples, found across the site, in all phases, in every area of every building.

The decoration is nearly always abstract and is almost entirely geometric and linear, with marks ranging from simple scratches - which can look like tallies or masons’ marks - to heavily incised elaborate patterns formed by saltires, lozenges, chevrons and zigzags. There are some breathtakingly beautiful examples, and it certainly seems appropriate to call them art. One of the finest examples is this long slab of flagstone, deeply etched along its side with intersecting linear patterns. In the official archive it goes by the functional name of SF23270, the SF a shorthand for ‘small find’ and the trailing number an indication of the staggering quantity of artefacts recovered from the excavations. But we also know it as Georgie’s stone, after Georgie Ritchie, the archaeologist who found and excavated it.

When I first saw this stone, it immediately reminded me of another example from the site - the Brodgar Stone. Found at Brodgar Farm in 1925, it also has fine decoration along its long edge, in the form of patterned bands filled with zigzags, lattices and chevrons. It is usually displayed at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, but this year, it has been featured in the British Museum, as part of The World of Stonehenge exhibition. It will be shown alongside some of the most important Neolithic and Bronze Age artefacts in the world, displayed as art in one of the most high-profile galleries in the world.

Georgie’s stone was found six courses down in the collapsed outer walling of Structure 8, which was exposed to allow the excavation of a later building. Its heavily incised and carved banded pattern is mesmerising, and makes you want to run your fingers along the grooves and ridges. It could have formed a centrepiece in any one of the Ness of Brodgar’s monumental buildings - except it didn’t. Hidden within the wall of Structure 8, it would only have been visible during this building’s construction, when it was placed within the wall. It was then covered up and not seen until it was exposed by our excavations, 5,000 years later.

Although some of the decorated stones on the site were clearly positioned for maximum visual impact and display, the placement of Georgie’s stone at first seems a little puzzling. But across the site, whenever walls have been dismantled, large numbers of decorated stones have turned up, hidden within the fabric of the walls. The location of these stones could be explained by simple re-use. But we know that other objects were also carefully positioned within buildings, in foundations and in walls, in pits and under paving slabs – places where they wouldn’t be seen again. And the sharpness of the carvings suggests that rather than re-using second-hand stone from somewhere else, the decoration and placement of these was deliberate. Perhaps these pieces didn’t need to be seen to be appreciated, it was enough to just know that they were there - rather like the shoes and other good luck charms we can find hidden in the walls of more recent houses today.

Elsewhere at the Ness, we have found hundreds of carved stones that are at floor level, in tight corners or other awkward locations in the buildings, where their visibility is restricted. And even where carvings were placed in prominent positions, the ephemeral nature of the incised lines, or the deliberate overlayering of intersecting parallel and diagonal lines on the surface, means that motifs are only just visible with specialist photography and lighting, effectively hiding in plain sight.

The idea that there are wonderful things hiding in plain sight seems to be a recurring theme at the Ness of Brodgar. Although the 1925 discovery of the Brodgar Stone hinted there was something special about this field, for decades it was just that - a field. It was only when Ola’s husband Arnie Tait ploughed up another interesting stone nearly 80 years later that the site started to reveal its incredible secrets - monumental buildings with some of the finest stonework from prehistoric Europe, containing beautiful polished and carved stones, and finely decorated pottery.

We think of these things as art now, but in the Neolithic, their visual appreciation might not have always been of overriding importance. The craft of making a mark may have been just as significant as the final appearance. This foregrounding of the artistic process is an idea that transcends the millennia, and is one of the themes that we explore at the UHI in our Art and Archaeology courses, from short creative courses to postgraduate degrees. It was during one of the summer Art and Archaeology workshops at the Ness of Brodgar, that the past and present of Orkney’s creative spirit truly came together, as Ola Gorie, Ingrid Tait, and designer Susan Cross joined myself and the other archaeologists on site. Seen through the artistic eyes of Ola, Ingrid, and Susan, Georgie’s stone has now been translated into a stunning collection of contemporary jewellery, re-interpreted as 21st-century art, and definitely meant to be seen.

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