Orkney's Stone Age Temple A History of Ancient Britain


Orkney's Stone Age Temple

Using 3D graphics, Neil Oliver explores a recently-discovered 5,000-year-old temple in Orkney that has triggered new thoughts about the beliefs of Neolithic people.


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Transcript


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Britain is a land rich in ancient history.

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Many of the world's greatest Stone Age monuments

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are spread right across our countryside.

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But right now, a brand new discovery could rival anything

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we have from our distant past.

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It's the discovery of a lifetime,

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unlike anything I've ever seen before.

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The excavation of a vast network of buildings on Orkney

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is allowing us to recreate an entire Stone Age world.

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And 5,000-year-old finds are opening a window

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onto the mysteries of Neolithic religion...

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..and giving rare glimpses into our human imagination.

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The archaeologists believe they've found nothing less

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than a temple complex.

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This may have been the portal between life and death.

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The place where the two worlds met.

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The Orkney discovery could even explain

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the creation of the most iconic ancient monument of them all.

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It's just breathtaking to think that it turns the map of Britain

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through 180 degrees.

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-The heartland's at the other end.

-Yes.

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This is the story of the most important Neolithic excavation

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taking place in Britain today.

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An excavation that's giving new insights

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into one of the greatest questions in the whole of ancient history.

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Just what did our Neolithic ancestors

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believe about their world,

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about life,

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and the cosmos?

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Orkney is a land on the edge of the world.

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Scotland and the rest of Britain are away in that direction to the south.

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Out there, nothing but the cold emptiness of the North Atlantic.

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The locals call Orkney a place between the wind and the water

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and standing here today, you get an idea of why.

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Over 5,000 years ago, to the north of mainland Britain,

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the islands of Orkney were home to a thriving community.

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Neolithic people who created some of the most

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remarkable monuments in all of prehistory.

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These islands are home to the towering Stones of Stenness,

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the remains of one of the earliest stone circles in the world.

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And just a mile to the north, the Ring of Brodgar,

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one of the largest.

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It's over 100 metres across

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and while there are 21 stones standing today,

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in its original form there would have been as many as 60.

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It's been estimated that it would have taken 100 men

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six months just to cut the ditch.

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This is on an epic scale.

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Nearby is Skara Brae.

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A group of incredibly preserved houses

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inhabited by Neolithic farmers 5,000 years ago.

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Right.

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This is the inside of one of the houses.

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What you notice right away is a big square hearth for a big roaring fire.

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These are bed recesses,

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places where people would have laid out their bedding.

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Places like this are magical.

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Conjuring up the distant world of the Neolithic before our eyes.

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You can almost hear the echoes of voices,

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smell the embers of fires,

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almost touch those ancient lives.

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But yet another site reveals what happened

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to a few of them when they died.

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Maeshowe is one of the finest passage tombs ever constructed.

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Fantastic.

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Already you get the sense that you've left one world behind

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and come somewhere different.

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Right away you notice the similarity between the interior of this tomb

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and the interior of the houses in Skara Brae.

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Over here, a recess, similar to a bed,

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but the people put in there are having a much, much deeper sleep.

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But today a new discovery on Orkney

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could prove to be the most evocative of all.

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A place that helps us to really feel

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what the people who once lived here actually believed.

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It lies between two lochs on a narrow spit of land called

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The Ness of Brodgar.

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What the archaeologists have unearthed is extraordinary.

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Walls and doorways of buildings preserved after 5,000 years.

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What's particularly exciting is that so much remains to be discovered.

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I could just get in there myself and start digging it up.

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Is there still stone to come out of there or can we...?

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You can come and have a scrape, just all of this material.

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Hopefully this is going to be the entrance.

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How does this rate for you as an archaeologist, working here?

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It's amazing.

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There's not many buildings in Orkney today on this sort of scale

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which gives you an indication of how much it would have dominated the landscape in the Neolithic.

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Look at that.

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-What's that?

-Whale tooth. Whale ivory.

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Since 2008, archaeologists have been slowly stripping away

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-the layers of history...

-Well done.

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..under the watchful eye of site director, Nick Card.

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This whalebone mace head has been shaped,

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there's a kind of curvature to it.

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We need to get this out as quickly as possible for conservation.

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It's always a bit nerve wracking when you're dealing with something 5000 years old that might be unique.

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Things can go wrong.

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Right, here we go.

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WHISPERS: Well done.

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Well done.

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WHISTLE Just like that.

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With precious objects appearing everyday

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the Ness of Brodgar has become a must-see stop

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on the tour of Orkney's prehistoric past.

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It's probably a whalebone mace head.

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A very unusual object.

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You should all feel very privileged to see this.

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Was there a day early on when you realised

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possibly, what you had got your hands on here?

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That this was something unusual?

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It's an archaeologist's dream site.

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The excitement of this site just never fades.

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There's nothing else like it in the prehistory of North Europe.

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It's more like a site you'd find in Middle East

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or the classical Mediterranean world. This site is a one-off.

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So right up there with the Aveburys and Stonehenges?

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Er, possibly above them.

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Only one place in Britain can rival Orkney

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for its Neolithic monuments -

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The Wessex landscape of Avebury and Stonehenge,

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600 miles to the south.

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For a long time, this was thought to be the centre of Neolithic culture

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but the Orkney discovery could change everything.

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The Ness of Brodgar site is revealing an entire complex of ancient buildings,

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directly between the two ancient stone circles

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and within sight of the passage tomb of Maeshowe.

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Experts are just coming to terms with what this new discovery

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might mean for our understanding of the Stone Age.

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It just blows your mind really

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because it's providing us with structures that are bigger

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than any other structures we've seen before.

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It's posing all sorts of questions.

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It clearly wasn't an ordinary domestic site.

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How does it relate to the other monuments

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Maeshowe and the Stones of Stenness?

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The Ness of Brodgar is definitely of international importance.

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It's characterised by architectures we don't see on this scale.

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The chance to dig, or to work on, or explore buildings in three dimension

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is almost unparalleled.

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But there's more.

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Because so far archaeologists have only dug a small part of the site.

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Geophysics has detected up to 100 separate structures

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that remain hidden.

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A vast area of undisturbed archaeology.

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Nick, can you give me an overview,

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just describe to me what we're looking at?

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What you're looking at is really a tiny percentage

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of the scale of the site.

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The site basically covers almost 250 metres by 100 metres wide,

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five football pitches, so what we're excavating

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is only probably less than ten percent of the whole site.

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So there's buried archaeology everywhere on this promontory.

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Everywhere I think, you know, this whole promontory

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is just chock-a-block with archaeology.

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So just what was this place?

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Why did the community of Orkney go to such trouble to create it?

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And what was it used for?

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Of all the unknown structures detected by the geophysics,

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huge features at either end of the site,

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across the width of the promontory were particularly intriguing.

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A separate trench was dug to investigate them.

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This promontory doesn't just contain buildings.

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There's something else going on here.

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It's unique. You won't see it anywhere else in Britain.

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This is what the archaeologists are calling the lesser wall of Brodgar.

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It's two metres wide.

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It's called the lesser wall because there's another one

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on the other side of the site towards the north.

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It's bigger. That's the great wall of Brodgar.

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Prehistoric walls this big have never been found before.

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It's thought they once stood at over ten feet,

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too great to be domestic, or even defensive.

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So what were they?

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To find out, the geophysics team made a more detailed survey.

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Stones, rocks, bricks all have their own little magnetic signature.

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We collect all this data

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and then process it to produce a map of what's beneath the soil.

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Tracking the line of the wall underground provided an answer.

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What we were trying to do is define how far that wall actually extended.

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With this extra high resolution you can actually see

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that it does curve round and continue into where they're excavating,

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where they're excavating is up here at top.

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That's good news for Nick and his crew because it means the wall is a continuation.

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So the buried walls were in fact a single structure,

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a perimeter of monumental proportions.

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In places, up to 12 feet wide.

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Built from almost 10,000 tonnes of quarried rock.

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All to hide and protect the complex of buildings within.

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I know it's putting you on the spot to ask a question like this at this time,

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but how would you interpret what you're seeing just now?

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Well, I think to begin with it was being viewed at,

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viewed in terms of being a settlement

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but I think the scale and the complexity of the buildings

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coupled with its huge walled enclosure

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make you think along the lines of something like a temple precinct.

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-A temple?

-A temple, yeah.

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That's a big loaded word.

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Very loaded, but I think in many ways it kind of sums up

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what I think is going on here.

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I think it's interesting Nick Card is using the phrase temple complex

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and I think he's probably got something there.

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Clearly it's surrounded by this wall so it's a kind of sacred precinct.

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Yes, it was something special and the fact it is so close

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to the Stones of Stenness and Maeshowe

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and these standing stones suggest to me

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this is all part of a sacred complex.

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Now those walls are effectively built to make a statement

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simply by virtue of their scale, but they're also built to define

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an area within which certain people, certain events,

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certain proceedings, perhaps even certain powers can be contained.

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What Nick and his team have found is something truly unique.

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A monumental structure unlike anything found anywhere else.

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From the evidence of the archaeology and geophysics, we can recreate

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how this place would once have appeared.

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It would have stood three metres high.

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So it would certainly have prevented anyone out here from seeing

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what was going on in there.

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And that's presumably why it was built, to control access,

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to dictate who was allowed inside and who was to remain excluded.

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And it's easy to imagine the world within.

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A Stone Age world of ritual and religion.

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A place set apart from the wild world outside.

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The inner sanctum of a Neolithic temple.

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But when was this temple complex built?

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And how did it relate to other Neolithic monuments in Britain?

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Charcoal samples from beneath the temple's great boundary wall

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could be used to date its construction.

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Every living organism gets labelled with carbon 14

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but because carbon 14 is radioactive, it gradually decays away.

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We know what carbon 14 activity should be in a living organism.

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We know the rate at which it decays.

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We can measure it in a dead organism and therefore the only unknown

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is the time that's elapsed between death and measurement

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and that is what we calculate in the radio carbon measurement.

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After careful analysis,

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the carbon 14 readings revealed just how old this site is.

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Nick sent us three charcoal samples

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from below the foundation of the lesser wall.

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And when we calibrated them they were all in excess of 3,000 BC.

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Carbon dating has revealed that the temple wall was

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built around the same time as the village of Skara Brae,

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the tomb of Maeshowe and the Stones of Stenness.

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This was the beginning of a new ritual landscape

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that pre-dates our other great Neolithic monument...

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far to the South.

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The massive trilithons of Stonehenge might be our most famous

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Stone Age landmark.

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But they're just a third of the weight of

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the Ness of Brodgar Wall...

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and were dragged into place a full 500 years after the Orkney

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temple had been built.

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For Stonehenge expert Mike Parker Pearson,

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the early Orkney dates have huge implications.

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Do you think that people who were building

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and thinking about Stonehenge, were well aware of what was going on

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at Ness of Brodgar and the stones of Stenness and all the rest?

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It's a really difficult question to answer, but the people who are

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building this, were using a type of pottery that we call grooved wear,

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that's because it's grooved, and, um that originates in Orkney and it's

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a style of ceramic which is used throughout Britain by this time.

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-But it starts on Orkney?

-But it starts on Orkney.

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So there's some really important influence that the Orcadians

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had over the rest of Britain.

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It's just breath-taking I think fundamentally to think it,

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it turns the map of Britain through 180 degrees,

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that instead of things spreading north, they spread south

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from that what we consider to be an isolated archipelago.

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Yeah, and the people in the far north are having this huge impact

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on what we might consider the British heartland of Stonehenge.

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So I think we have a lot of debt if you like for the people

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of Stonehenge, to those Neolithic Orcadians.

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And perhaps, if we can understand the Orkney temple, we might

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be able to unlock the wider secrets of Neolithic ritual and belief.

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Just like Stonehenge,

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the stone circles of Orkney located either side of the Ness of Brodgar,

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are open, windswept places, almost stages, set for ceremony.

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But between the two, on its narrow bridge of land,

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the temple site is very different.

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A secret complex of buildings, bounded by a great enclosing wall.

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So what did the buildings look like?

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And how were they used?

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Over the last three years, Nick Card and his team have been slowly

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unearthing the temple itself.

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For the farmers who lived here,

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quarrying, moving, and constructing these stone buildings was a massive

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show of devotion.

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How do you go about making sense of what really just

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looks like a jumble of slabs to me?

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Well, you can see there's wall lines starting to appear and it's

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almost by experience you can start to join up the apparent disparate

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elements of the site and you start to see structures forming outlines.

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It's only by getting to grips with every detail of the stones

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that's its possible to understand the temple...

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and why it was built.

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And here it's being done in incredible detail as lasers scan

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the site to produce the most accurate records possible.

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Once the scan is complete, a computer can recreate every detail

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of the site.

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Once we've acquired the data we are able to generate very precise

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three dimensional models.

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In looking at the Ness of Brodgar what we're able to do is

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move around the data and zoom in, zoom out.

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We can look in here and see the hearth.

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We can also go in and measure particular points.

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The fantastic thing about the scanner, the reason why it's

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so powerful is that you can scan a site in such a short

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period of time, pick up so much information and information that is

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dimensionally accurate, the accuracy is about a millimetre.

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This gives us a perfect snapshot in time of this excavation.

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So at any given time, there would've been a complex of buildings.

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Several buildings, all of which had to function together as a whole.

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-I think so.

-Entrances, connecting passageways, roadways, whatever.

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It worked together.

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It worked. On the whole, a very structured layout to this site.

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To the untrained eye at ground level though,

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the layout of the buildings still isn't clear.

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To really get a sense of what's going on, I've got to go up there.

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Looking down from 50 feet gives you a completely different view.

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Detailed mapping has revealed 14 separate structures.

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But the layouts of three of them have drawn particular attention.

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The excavation team has named them structure one,

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structure eight

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and structure twelve.

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At the moment, the archaeologists are calling this structure

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over on the left structure one.

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This is the first Neolithic building ever to be discovered

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with more than one doorway.

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structure one has three.

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It also has three hearths for fires,

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two within the middle of the building

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and another right in the middle of one of the doorways.

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It all suggests ceremony,

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with one entrance perhaps involving symbolic purification by fire.

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The things that we see in domestic buildings of the time are reproduced

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in the Ness of Brodgar but on a more monumental scale.

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There's a familiar pattern to the way space is arranged

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in these buildings.

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People would've known about it and understood what it meant.

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Furthest away

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is structure number eight.

0:24:190:24:22

In there have been unearthed a lot of artefacts

0:24:220:24:25

made of carved whalebone.

0:24:250:24:27

Structure eight is a long building with a single entrance.

0:24:300:24:35

Like structure one, it also has three hearths.

0:24:350:24:38

Stone piers along its walls

0:24:400:24:43

divide the internal space into alcoves.

0:24:430:24:45

These seem similar to some early Neolithic tombs

0:24:460:24:51

that stored the sorted bones of the dead.

0:24:510:24:53

Around the piers, within the alcoves,

0:24:550:24:59

stone slabs created secret spaces.

0:24:590:25:02

Like a church or cathedral, you don't walk straight to the altar,

0:25:020:25:06

you go through a series of controlled spaces.

0:25:060:25:09

All these things tell me that what you're dealing with

0:25:090:25:14

is some form of approach towards the sacred.

0:25:140:25:17

Nearest to us is structure twelve, which would appear to be

0:25:170:25:22

almost a mirror image of structure eight.

0:25:220:25:25

A mirror image, but different.

0:25:290:25:31

Here, a highly constricted opening controlled access.

0:25:330:25:37

But once inside, like structure eight,

0:25:400:25:43

structure twelve had piers that divided its interior

0:25:430:25:47

into a set of separate, intimate spaces.

0:25:470:25:50

This one is one of the most recent to be exposed by the excavation

0:25:540:25:58

so interpretation of it is a long way off.

0:25:580:26:00

No-one knows exactly what went on

0:26:020:26:04

in these buildings 5,000 years ago.

0:26:040:26:07

But taken together, all those entrances and exits,

0:26:070:26:12

the hearths for fires, such a symbol of life,

0:26:120:26:15

and the separated alcoves so reminiscent of Neolithic tombs,

0:26:150:26:21

all of it seemed to fit with the idea of choreographed ceremony,

0:26:210:26:25

where progress was guided, restricted

0:26:250:26:29

and perhaps sometimes forbidden.

0:26:290:26:32

This wall is over 5,000 years old,

0:26:360:26:38

and yet it looks like it was built yesterday.

0:26:380:26:42

All across the site,

0:26:420:26:45

there are more walls, hearths, recesses, passageways.

0:26:450:26:49

In fact, there's everything we need

0:26:490:26:51

to help us imagine what these place looked like in the Stone Age.

0:26:510:26:56

From the outside, those buildings would have been hidden from view,

0:27:010:27:05

let alone everything that went on inside them.

0:27:050:27:08

Within those massive walls,

0:27:090:27:11

the full splendour of this place would have been revealed.

0:27:110:27:16

A cluster of solid stone buildings,

0:27:160:27:18

even boasting unique stone-tiled roofs.

0:27:180:27:21

Around 3,000 BC the community of Orkney laboured to create

0:27:230:27:27

this vast temple complex,

0:27:270:27:30

within which the mysterious rites of Neolithic beliefs were enacted.

0:27:300:27:35

Around 5,000 years ago, The Ness of Brodgar site was built

0:27:550:28:00

at a time when life was undergoing a radical transformation.

0:28:000:28:05

The arrival of the New Stone Age, the Neolithic,

0:28:050:28:09

was the single most momentous shift in all of our history.

0:28:090:28:14

It was the moment when we stopped being hunter-gatherers

0:28:140:28:17

and became farmers tied to the land and the seasons.

0:28:170:28:21

Everything we consider part of the modern world,

0:28:210:28:24

towns and cities like this one, lofty buildings,

0:28:240:28:27

people going about their business on the streets,

0:28:270:28:30

all of that has its roots in the Neolithic.

0:28:300:28:33

The coming of farming also brought new beliefs.

0:28:370:28:40

Tombs were built to the ancestors

0:28:420:28:45

and then, from around 3,000,

0:28:450:28:47

monumental stone circles

0:28:470:28:49

began to appear across Britain.

0:28:490:28:52

These farmers had arrived at an understanding.

0:28:550:28:58

They knew just how much they their lives depended

0:28:580:29:02

on time and the seasons.

0:29:020:29:04

With that understanding came new authority.

0:29:070:29:10

Those people who claimed to divine, maybe even control the motions

0:29:120:29:16

of the sun and the moon, became powerful.

0:29:160:29:19

The Orkney excavation has unearthed polished stone axes and mace heads.

0:29:260:29:31

Symbols of power.

0:29:310:29:33

'At the National Museum of Scotland, Neolithic specialist

0:29:350:29:39

'Alison Sheridan has been studying them.'

0:29:390:29:42

What is a mace head for technically?

0:29:420:29:45

Well, you could use it as a weapon. You would have it on a hath.

0:29:450:29:49

Theoretically, I could deal you a good blow on the head.

0:29:490:29:54

But it's also a weapon of power,

0:29:540:29:56

just as the Queen has an orb and sceptre. The sceptre could be

0:29:560:30:00

used as a weapon as needs be,

0:30:000:30:02

but obviously it's much more important ceremonially.

0:30:020:30:05

Why are you able to say that that's a ceremonial item

0:30:050:30:10

rather than just a tool?

0:30:100:30:12

Because they're very finely made.

0:30:120:30:15

Very few of them have any traces of wear.

0:30:150:30:19

Only the most powerful, the most important people

0:30:190:30:21

would be allowed to have one of these things,

0:30:210:30:24

-to commission it.

-Just like a badge of office?

-Absolutely, yeah.

0:30:240:30:28

Mace heads are rare. But at the Ness of Brodgar site,

0:30:290:30:33

four have been found within structure eight alone.

0:30:330:30:36

But all of them had been broken.

0:30:380:30:41

-Does this suggest religion to you?

-Yes, it certainly does.

0:30:410:30:45

I think the fact that you have a huge proportion of them

0:30:450:30:48

that have been broken across the perforation there

0:30:480:30:50

suggests that this was all part of the religious rituals of the day.

0:30:500:30:55

So we're not talking about lords,

0:30:550:30:59

kings, warriors?

0:30:590:31:01

The people at the top were the people who had influence

0:31:010:31:05

-over the otherworld.

-Correct.

0:31:050:31:08

It's more likely we're dealing with a theocracy.

0:31:080:31:11

So their power is based on their ability to communicate with the gods

0:31:110:31:16

and the ancestors and also to control them to some extent.

0:31:160:31:20

Does that suggest the Ness of Brodgar site

0:31:200:31:23

was some kind of hub or focal point

0:31:230:31:26

for much of what was going on in the Neolithic?

0:31:260:31:29

Yes, it's a sort of religious HQ, if you like. Absolutely. I think so.

0:31:290:31:33

If you can say this is how things are,

0:31:370:31:40

this is how things will happen,

0:31:400:31:42

then you have that ideological power over people

0:31:420:31:46

to tell them that their lives, their world,

0:31:460:31:50

their universe, is dictated by forces

0:31:500:31:53

which only the people in charge have actual control over.

0:31:530:31:57

If you control ritual, if you operate in a way

0:32:000:32:04

that allows you to speak with some authority,

0:32:040:32:07

both to and perhaps on behalf of the gods,

0:32:070:32:09

then you are a person or a group of some standing within society.

0:32:090:32:13

So we're looking here at centres which are of great spiritual,

0:32:130:32:16

perhaps religious importance, which are always utterly political.

0:32:160:32:21

'What is becoming clear is that on Orkney, 5,000 years ago,

0:32:230:32:28

'our temple complex wasn't only the beginning of a new belief system,

0:32:280:32:32

'but a new social order as well.

0:32:320:32:35

'The people who mediated the beliefs that went with it,'

0:32:370:32:41

the priests, for want of a better word, were in control.

0:32:410:32:45

They were the theocratic leaders of Neolithic Orkney.

0:32:450:32:49

It was the advent of a whole new world order

0:32:490:32:52

of religion, hierarchy and power.

0:32:520:32:56

5,000 years ago, off Britain's northern tip,

0:33:050:33:09

Orkney was home to a Neolithic community at the very forefront

0:33:090:33:13

of technology, society and religion.

0:33:130:33:15

'Today, this place seems so remote.

0:33:180:33:21

'Back then it was a modern place, full of wonder.'

0:33:230:33:27

The temple complex was built long before the Pyramids of Egypt,

0:33:290:33:33

long before the great trilithons of Stonehenge,

0:33:330:33:37

pretty much before any building at all.

0:33:370:33:41

And that required an organised and sophisticated society.

0:33:410:33:46

One clue to just how sophisticated Stone Age Orkney was

0:33:510:33:54

has been found in cattle bones

0:33:540:33:56

unearthed from within the temple buildings.

0:33:560:33:59

By isolating elements from these bones, stable isotope analysis

0:34:030:34:07

can determine what an animal ate whilst it was alive.

0:34:070:34:12

At the moment, I'm drilling a bit of cow tibia to be sampled.

0:34:120:34:16

That research is telling us

0:34:170:34:20

that Neolithic farmers on Orkney were innovators.

0:34:200:34:23

Analysis from the cattle bones from the Ness of Brodgar

0:34:250:34:28

shows very elevated nitrogen levels.

0:34:280:34:30

There are a number of reasons this could have happened.

0:34:320:34:35

Most likely is the application of manure

0:34:350:34:37

to farmland to increase the fertility of the soil.

0:34:370:34:41

Basically it shows us they had developed very sophisticated

0:34:410:34:45

farming practises that we don't really see in the rest of Britain.

0:34:450:34:49

But these weren't just advanced farmers.

0:34:540:34:57

Other clues to Orcadian culture

0:34:570:35:00

were found within the excavation.

0:35:000:35:02

As well as broken ceremonial mace heads,

0:35:040:35:07

structure eight revealed more.

0:35:070:35:10

Something unexpected and unique on its walls.

0:35:100:35:15

It was thought that in the Neolithic, pigment or paint

0:35:150:35:19

was only used as make-up, to put designs on the skin,

0:35:190:35:24

or for dying textiles. But we don't think that any more.

0:35:240:35:28

This stone here has been painted.

0:35:280:35:32

It's quite hard to see,

0:35:320:35:35

but remember, that was painted 5,000 years ago.

0:35:350:35:39

That stone has been under the ground for almost all of that time.

0:35:390:35:44

This is the first time painted wall decoration

0:35:440:35:47

has been discovered on any Neolithic site.

0:35:470:35:51

Incredibly, even tools used by the artists

0:35:510:35:55

have been found.

0:35:550:35:58

How easily, you think, could that have been overlooked

0:35:580:36:02

in the course of excavating a site this size?

0:36:020:36:04

It's clay, fired clay.

0:36:040:36:08

It's possible what you're looking at here

0:36:080:36:11

is part of an artist's tool kit.

0:36:110:36:13

one of the artists who was painting panels within the structures

0:36:130:36:17

would have had pigment of some kind in a pot like this.

0:36:170:36:21

How modest, but how much it has to say.

0:36:230:36:26

But what was the pigment used to create the paint?

0:36:280:36:32

Orkney is varied geologically.

0:36:340:36:38

And that means that a wealth of unusual surface minerals

0:36:380:36:41

can be picked up all over the islands.

0:36:410:36:44

This is the very stuff.

0:36:450:36:47

A small lump of haematite found on this beach, this morning.

0:36:470:36:51

This was of interest to Neolithic peoples for a very good reason.

0:36:510:36:55

Rub it against another rock

0:36:550:36:58

and you get this rich, rusty red colour.

0:36:580:37:02

Also available to them was another form of iron oxide. Limonite.

0:37:030:37:08

When you rub this, the powder it gives,

0:37:080:37:11

the colour is a warmer, more of an ochre, orangey shade.

0:37:110:37:16

You also get this elsewhere on the Orkney islands.

0:37:160:37:20

This is lead sulphide or galena.

0:37:200:37:22

It gives up a black colour when you rub it against other rocks.

0:37:220:37:25

There's another piece of it here.

0:37:250:37:28

So all of these colours were freely available

0:37:280:37:30

to the Neolithic peoples on the islands.

0:37:300:37:33

'But these Stone Age artists didn't only work in paint...'

0:37:350:37:39

Hiya, Ann.

0:37:390:37:40

'They also used clay.'

0:37:400:37:42

Can I see this artwork of yours by any chance?

0:37:420:37:46

Wait till you see this.

0:37:480:37:51

Now it should be in one piece, but it's broken into two.

0:37:510:37:56

It's baked clay, so it's not strangely-shaped stone.

0:37:560:38:00

Someone set out to make this.

0:38:000:38:03

What you're looking at is a head,

0:38:030:38:05

then the torso and the legs down here.

0:38:050:38:09

Some people here are calling him the Brodgar Boy.

0:38:110:38:15

If they're right that makes it

0:38:150:38:18

a very, very rare representation of the human form.

0:38:180:38:21

So rare, in fact, that there's only one other known in Britain

0:38:210:38:25

or anywhere in northern Europe.

0:38:250:38:27

When I first heard this place being described as a temple,

0:38:290:38:33

as anyone would, I thought the word sounded a bit grandiose.

0:38:330:38:37

Fanciful to use that kind of language. But when you this

0:38:370:38:41

and see the site, then temple complex

0:38:410:38:44

almost isn't a big enough word.

0:38:440:38:47

It's these intimate discoveries that bring us close

0:38:490:38:52

to the people who once lived here.

0:38:520:38:56

People just like us whose natural human creativity

0:38:560:39:00

led them to craft and shape objects and designs.

0:39:000:39:03

We often think of the Stone Age as just that,

0:39:060:39:10

somewhere cold and grey.

0:39:100:39:12

But at that temple complex, we're seeing something else.

0:39:120:39:16

A new Stone Age, A new Neolithic, if you like.

0:39:160:39:20

It's a site of secret places

0:39:200:39:23

linked by many doors.

0:39:230:39:26

A place run by a theocracy of priests,

0:39:260:39:29

moving through rooms where the walls are decorated

0:39:290:39:32

with vivid colours and designs,

0:39:320:39:34

all of it illuminated by the flickering lights of fires.

0:39:340:39:38

It's at a place like the Ness of Brodgar

0:39:380:39:40

that the Stone Age comes back to life.

0:39:400:39:42

But just how did the temple precinct

0:39:450:39:47

fit into the bigger ritual landscape of Orkney?

0:39:470:39:50

Just what did it mean to the people who built it?

0:39:500:39:54

And how was it used?

0:39:570:40:00

It's from up here with the benefit of a bird's eye view

0:40:020:40:05

that you see just why this site is so special.

0:40:050:40:08

It sits surrounded by hills, on all sides really,

0:40:080:40:12

so it's in a shallow basin.

0:40:120:40:15

On one side, there's the freshwater loch of Harray

0:40:150:40:18

and on this side, the salt water loch of Stenness.

0:40:180:40:21

Set within this dramatic natural landscape is the passage tomb

0:40:220:40:27

of Maeshowe to the South...

0:40:270:40:28

..the Stones of Stenness.

0:40:300:40:32

And to the north, the site of the Ring of Brodgar.

0:40:330:40:36

And here, on this promontory, right at the heart of everything,

0:40:410:40:45

is the temple complex.

0:40:450:40:48

Archaeologists have always been interested in the geography

0:40:510:40:54

surrounding our Neolithic monuments.

0:40:540:40:57

Because the relationships to their natural setting

0:40:580:41:02

may reveal something about their use.

0:41:020:41:04

And there's only one other landscape in Britain

0:41:060:41:09

that bears comparison to Orkney.

0:41:090:41:11

Stonehenge.

0:41:130:41:15

Just like the Orkney monuments,

0:41:170:41:19

Stonehenge isn't an isolated construction,

0:41:190:41:23

but set within something archaeologists call a "ritual landscape".

0:41:230:41:27

Stonehenge was related to another monument known as Durrington Walls.

0:41:320:41:37

And it's thought that the two were connected

0:41:400:41:42

by a processional route along the River Avon.

0:41:420:41:45

A leading theory suggests that the landscape between Durrington

0:41:480:41:51

and Stonehenge marks a boundary

0:41:510:41:54

between a land for the living

0:41:540:41:56

and a land for the dead.

0:41:560:41:58

Mike Parker Pearson, who developed this theory,

0:42:000:42:04

is one of our leading Stonehenge experts.

0:42:040:42:07

What is the theory of land of the living, land of the dead?

0:42:070:42:12

I think it's the idea that you actually create a separate place

0:42:120:42:16

for your ancestors as opposed to where you're living.

0:42:160:42:19

This place is full of burials, cremation deposits.

0:42:190:42:23

We're currently analysing 60 of them,

0:42:230:42:26

and Durrington walls, by contrast,

0:42:260:42:29

there aren't any dead.

0:42:290:42:30

It's about the living, it's full of houses.

0:42:300:42:33

It now seems likely that this idea of a journey to the world of the ancestors

0:42:350:42:40

began not here, at Stonehenge, but far to the north,

0:42:400:42:44

within the earlier ritual landscape of Orkney.

0:42:440:42:48

I think Orkney's probably the first place really to develop this notion.

0:42:490:42:54

What you have is actually a natural avenue.

0:42:540:42:56

That isthmus which links Brodgar on one hand,

0:42:560:43:01

Ness of Brodgar in the middle,

0:43:010:43:04

and then on the other side, the Stones of Stenness.

0:43:040:43:07

So I think we can see that you've got this contrast

0:43:070:43:09

between the Ness of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness,

0:43:090:43:12

AND the great place of the dead at the ring of Brodgar.

0:43:120:43:17

When you consider the massive scale of the place,

0:43:260:43:29

the towering boundary walls, the roofs of stone tiles,

0:43:290:43:33

and then the details, like the painted interior walls,

0:43:330:43:38

you surely have to allow a place for the Ness of Brodgar

0:43:380:43:41

near the very top of the list of Britain's most iconic Stone Age monuments.

0:43:410:43:45

Now we can even suggest how it must have been used.

0:43:480:43:52

It's thought that a processional route

0:43:550:43:58

started at the Stones of Stenness in the land living.

0:43:580:44:01

It then travelled north...

0:44:030:44:05

..to the temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar.

0:44:100:44:13

And then continued to the end of the promontory...

0:44:160:44:19

..to finish at the Ring of Brodgar, in the land of the dead.

0:44:200:44:24

And that begs an even greater question.

0:44:270:44:29

If the temple precinct was the portal between this world and the next,

0:44:300:44:35

just what went on within its walls?

0:44:350:44:39

Structure eight, shaped like a passage tomb, with hidden alcoves

0:44:400:44:44

and structure twelve, with its single constricted entrance, offer clues.

0:44:440:44:49

But it was structure one, with its mysterious doorways

0:44:500:44:54

and purifying hearths that seemed to suggest a processional route.

0:44:540:44:59

Perhaps this was the very point

0:45:010:45:03

where those two separate worlds of the living and the dead collided.

0:45:030:45:07

I see the site at the time of its use as a place of transition.

0:45:090:45:13

The way the architecture guides you in,

0:45:130:45:16

makes you move in particular ways.

0:45:160:45:18

There would have been a couple of hearths here

0:45:180:45:20

that had to be manoeuvred around, and then, unusually, your...

0:45:200:45:25

..you have this, er, choice of exits, one here and one in the side.

0:45:260:45:30

So there's nothing casual about just coming in here,

0:45:300:45:35

it's a building that you come through and are moved through for a specific reason?

0:45:350:45:39

I thinks it's something beyond the normal.

0:45:390:45:42

-Like a portal from somewhere to somewhere else?

-Yes, exactly.

0:45:420:45:46

At the Ness of Brodgar,

0:45:500:45:51

all sorts of different architectural devices are used.

0:45:510:45:55

This is precisely the exactly the sort of construction

0:45:550:45:58

you see in passage graves. I would say you literally are confronting

0:45:580:46:02

your ancestors or deities.

0:46:020:46:03

That is an extremely, if you like, dangerous transaction.

0:46:030:46:08

Under those conditions you expect extreme control,

0:46:080:46:12

you would expect to see huge boundaries, huge divisions,

0:46:120:46:16

decoration on divisions, just what you see at the Ness.

0:46:160:46:19

It's showing how the living and the dead are really bound together.

0:46:210:46:25

Rites of passage, remembering important ancestors,

0:46:250:46:29

connecting those ancestors to cycles in the heavens are cheek-by-jowl

0:46:290:46:34

with dwellings, with places where people are living,

0:46:340:46:37

the living and the dead are not apart,

0:46:370:46:39

and the living can't survive without the dead.

0:46:390:46:41

As things stand,

0:46:470:46:49

Nick and his team believe that this site on the Ness of Brodgar

0:46:490:46:52

witnessed the final scenes in the drama of life and death.

0:46:520:46:56

People would have walked down past the Stones of Stenness,

0:46:560:46:59

the land of the living,

0:46:590:47:00

then they would have crossed the water

0:47:000:47:02

before making their way up here, where they were confronted by a huge wall.

0:47:020:47:07

Then they would have entered the temple complex itself.

0:47:110:47:15

Once inside, the stage was set for the final rituals

0:47:220:47:25

celebrating the lives of the ancestors.

0:47:250:47:28

Perhaps they walked reverently through different buildings,

0:47:330:47:36

taking part in different rituals...

0:47:360:47:38

..passing over purifying fires.

0:47:400:47:42

They might have offered thanks and asked for guidance

0:47:470:47:50

as they communicated with their ancestors and gods.

0:47:500:47:55

This may have been the portal between life and death.

0:47:550:47:59

The place where the two worlds met.

0:47:590:48:02

The life of this religious landscape

0:48:110:48:14

extended from around 3,000 BC for almost 1,000 years.

0:48:140:48:19

But as Nick and his team study and date what they're finding,

0:48:210:48:24

they're now able to build up a chronology of the site.

0:48:240:48:27

And they're discovering a sudden change in how it was used.

0:48:270:48:31

After centuries of use, structures one, eight and twelve were all demolished,

0:48:340:48:39

perhaps signalling an abrupt change in belief.

0:48:390:48:43

Then, just one solitary building took their place.

0:48:440:48:48

And it was grander than anything that had gone before.

0:48:500:48:53

The archaeologists have named it, rather unromantically,

0:48:580:49:02

structure ten.

0:49:020:49:04

But it would have been far and away the largest building on the whole site.

0:49:040:49:08

Each side of the building could have been as much as 25 metres long.

0:49:080:49:13

That means when it was complete it would have extended

0:49:130:49:16

beyond and underneath that modern bungalow.

0:49:160:49:20

Uniquely, what you've got here are walls as much as 5 metre thick,

0:49:200:49:25

that's from an inner face here,

0:49:250:49:27

all the way across...

0:49:270:49:30

to the outer face here.

0:49:300:49:31

The roof may have extended out beyond the limits of the walls

0:49:310:49:35

to create a covered walkway.

0:49:350:49:37

The new building even had its own enclosed forecourt

0:49:400:49:44

with two standing stones marking an imposing, ceremonial, entrance.

0:49:440:49:48

When this vast building stood alone,

0:49:520:49:55

it would have been visible for miles around.

0:49:550:49:58

But structure ten's single entrance tells us

0:50:070:50:10

that it was never designed for processional movement.

0:50:100:50:14

For Nick Card, that suggests that the purpose of these ritual buildings was changing.

0:50:150:50:21

You have this kind of massive structure being imposed

0:50:230:50:26

on this site, a site which has perhaps for centuries been very high-status

0:50:260:50:31

in the lives of the people around here.

0:50:310:50:33

Suddenly, structure ten is there, sitting on this very important site.

0:50:330:50:38

So does it...do you think it ceases at that point to be a portal,

0:50:380:50:43

or some way that people were invited through?

0:50:430:50:46

Is structure ten there to say, you know,

0:50:460:50:49

that's the end of it, we're here blocking the way?

0:50:490:50:53

It does seem to kind of be this, you know, statement,

0:50:530:50:56

that is taking away, removing everything that had gone before it.

0:50:560:51:00

So maybe the whole idea of this kind of processional way

0:51:000:51:03

was also changed with the imposition of this structure.

0:51:030:51:06

Around 2300 BC, structure ten was the very last building standing

0:51:090:51:14

within the temple complex.

0:51:140:51:17

It marked the end of an era.

0:51:190:51:21

But it had one more secret to reveal.

0:51:210:51:24

Cattle bones from more than 600 animals have been found

0:51:260:51:29

covering the walkway that surrounds this building.

0:51:290:51:33

And it's these bones that show how this whole site ended its life.

0:51:350:51:40

600 animals suggests there's a mass slaughter of animals going on.

0:51:440:51:49

We can see that the bone is fractured.

0:51:490:51:52

If you can have a look at this, this isn't an entire bone,

0:51:520:51:55

this is...this bone here is what an entire tibia looks like.

0:51:550:51:59

The bone has been fractured in order to extract marrow.

0:51:590:52:03

They're being prepared for food consumption.

0:52:030:52:06

Just one cow can feed over 200 people.

0:52:060:52:10

So finding the remains of 600 indicates something hugely significant.

0:52:100:52:16

Especially since the evidence points to a single feast.

0:52:160:52:21

For thousands of people.

0:52:210:52:24

There isn't any extensive evidence for weathering on the bones' surfaces.

0:52:250:52:29

And this suggests that once the bone was deposited,

0:52:290:52:33

it was very rapidly covered up.

0:52:330:52:35

These things suggest that we may be dealing with a single event.

0:52:360:52:40

Imagine, 600 head of cattle enough to feed 10,000 people,

0:52:460:52:51

all being slaughtered in a single, ritual event.

0:52:510:52:54

It would have been an amazing spectacle.

0:52:540:52:57

It's not as though those people were having a big party

0:52:570:53:00

just to celebrate the end of the year.

0:53:000:53:02

The excavated remains suggest it was nothing less than a funeral feast

0:53:020:53:06

for the death of the temple complex itself.

0:53:060:53:09

At the same time, those people were likely commemorating

0:53:090:53:13

the very end of what had been their all-powerful, cosmic religion.

0:53:130:53:18

At the end, towards the history of the site,

0:53:200:53:24

these structures appear to have been deliberately demolished.

0:53:240:53:28

Levelled, filled in with masses amounts of midden.

0:53:280:53:31

In part, bits of wall were demolished.

0:53:320:53:35

It was as though it was an attempt to erase them from the human memory.

0:53:350:53:40

Why go to all that trouble to destroy what had taken decades or centuries to create?

0:53:400:53:46

You do wonder.

0:53:460:53:47

What it reflects is some major change happening in society,

0:53:470:53:51

maybe a change in religion, change in politics.

0:53:510:53:54

The Neolithic system was very dynamic, it wasn't a static society.

0:53:540:53:59

Throughout the Neolithic, 1,500 years of Neolithic activity in Orkney,

0:53:590:54:04

you're looking at major changes happening, developments in that society.

0:54:040:54:08

So all of those, maybe, decades or centuries of work

0:54:080:54:13

were just deliberately wiped out?

0:54:130:54:15

It's like the slate was wiped clean.

0:54:150:54:17

The great era when Orkney was the epicentre of Neolithic culture

0:54:210:54:25

was drawing to a close

0:54:250:54:27

because the Stone Age itself was coming to an end.

0:54:270:54:31

All of this is happening around 2,300 BC,

0:54:330:54:37

around time when the era of stone is giving way to the era of bronze.

0:54:370:54:42

An object, like this one, a beautiful polished stone axe,

0:54:420:54:47

Now, objects like this had held sway for perhaps 2,000 years.

0:54:470:54:52

At this point, they no longer command the power and authority they once did.

0:54:520:54:58

Once you have objects like this one,

0:54:590:55:01

a bronze axe,

0:55:010:55:02

once these are available,

0:55:020:55:05

then metal becomes the hub around which everything else revolves.

0:55:050:55:09

There's a new social order, a new economy,

0:55:090:55:11

and new beliefs to go along with it.

0:55:110:55:14

When it comes to the temple complex on Orkney,

0:55:140:55:18

that cattle slaughter begins to look something like a swansong

0:55:180:55:23

because although that religious centre had been in existence

0:55:230:55:26

for perhaps 1,000 years,

0:55:260:55:28

its life was over, and forever, soon after 2300BC.

0:55:280:55:34

What certainly came next was a different set of values.

0:55:340:55:39

So you have an influx of new ideas from the continent

0:55:390:55:43

and you really don't see this in Orkney.

0:55:430:55:46

Orkney got left behind at that point.

0:55:460:55:49

It is, I think, very clear that Orkney's star is not just in the descent,

0:55:490:55:56

it's positively dipped below the horizon.

0:55:560:55:59

And with it an entire way of life,

0:55:590:56:01

an entire way of thinking about the world, the universe and society.

0:56:010:56:06

The effort involved in demolishing and covering structure ten

0:56:140:56:17

and the massive wall

0:56:170:56:18

would have been almost as great as the effort needed for their construction.

0:56:180:56:23

After 1,000 years of use, the death of temple complex,

0:56:230:56:28

was itself a powerful, symbolic act.

0:56:280:56:31

A year or so after that happened,

0:56:350:56:36

it would have been as though nothing had never existed here at all.

0:56:360:56:40

And that's how it remained for well over 4,000 years.

0:56:400:56:44

Our understanding of Neolithic religion has always been rooted

0:56:460:56:51

in the stone circles and tombs that are spread across our countryside.

0:56:510:56:56

But this temple complex on Orkney allows us

0:56:570:57:00

to glimpse the people who believed in that religion.

0:57:000:57:05

It's showing us a sophisticated farming society,

0:57:090:57:11

ruled by a theocracy.

0:57:110:57:13

And the rituals that connected this world to that of the ancestors.

0:57:130:57:18

In short, it's revealing how the people who built this place,

0:57:210:57:26

celebrated life's great journey.

0:57:260:57:29

And the passage from the land of the living

0:57:300:57:33

to the land of the dead.

0:57:330:57:36

As an archaeologist,

0:57:520:57:55

I've worked on sites where we've found next to nothing.

0:57:550:57:58

A few shadowy marks in the soil,

0:57:580:58:00

some crumbs of pottery, some worked stone.

0:58:000:58:04

The archaeologists working there

0:58:040:58:06

are probably having the time of their lives.

0:58:060:58:09

What Nick and his team have discovered is already astounding.

0:58:090:58:15

I hope that they'll be working there for decades to come.

0:58:160:58:21

And I don't think it's too much,

0:58:210:58:23

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, so far,

0:58:230:58:26

they've really only scratched at the surface.

0:58:260:58:30

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:350:58:37

E-mail us at [email protected]

0:58:370:58:41

Neil Oliver investigates the discovery of a 5,000-year-old temple in Orkney. Built 500 years before Stonehenge, the temple has triggered new thoughts about the beliefs of Neolithic people, turning the map of ancient Britain upside down.

The vast site lies undisturbed until now, set within one of the most important ancient landscapes in the world. There have been some incredible finds, including the first ever discovery of Neolithic painted wall decorations, and even the pigments and paint pots used by Stone Age artists.

Special effects have been used to bring this archaeological evidence to life, creating a three-dimensional model of the entire temple, allowing Neil to walk inside in a bid to understand just how it might have been used.


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