Barnhouse Settlement

The Barnhouse Settlement: The Heart of Neolithic Orkney, part 3

This is the third in a series of five posts I am doing about a collection of Neolithic monuments that can be found in a region of Mainland Orkney known as “the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.” In this post I am going to visit our second Neolithic site of interest, the Barnhouse Settlement. Two earlier posts in this series will provide you with an introduction to the Ness of Brodgar, the region in which most of these sites are located, as well as the Stones of Stenness. Please go and read those two posts if you haven’t already, as they will help provide a fuller understanding of the current topic at hand. I also have a post available about Skara Brae, as well as a historical overview of Orkney that extends beyond the Neolithic era (this is where you’ll find out more about the Vikings!).

View of House 3, one of the earliest residences of the Barnhouse Settlement. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The Barnhouse Settlement, a prehistoric village similar to Skara Brae, can be found a short 200 meters (0.12 miles) north of the entrance to the Stones of Stenness. Barnhouse was occupied for 300 years from around 3100-2800 BCE. It is believed that the people who lived here built and frequented the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe, and the Ring of Brodgar. The village inhabitants may have also socialized with the people who lived at Skara Brae, 10 kms (6.3 miles) northwest. The settlement was discovered in 1984 by archaeologist Colin Richards, and was subsequently excavated from 1986-1991. Both the village and the nearby Barnhouse standing stone are named after the farmland that shared their location. The foundations of up to 14 buildings were unearthed, with evidence that each of them had been reworked and rebuilt several times. The dwellings were similar to those found at Skara Brae in that they featured central hearths, stone furniture, and internal drains. Each small house was home to a family group of up to 7 people. Unlike Skara Brae, the houses were free-standing, although there were mounds of midden (domestic waste) that built up around the homes over time. The houses had turf roofs and stacked turf wall insulation. The centre of the village contained a large open area where inhabitants worked alongside each other in a communal setting. Many artefacts made of bone, wood, and stone were manufactured at Barnhouse. Recovered ceramic fragments indicate that the villagers used Grooved Ware pottery, just like their Skara Brae neighbours. The residents grew barley, and also raised livestock—mostly sheep, with a few cattle.

2009 aerial view of the Barnhouse Settlement and the Stones of Stenness. (↘N) The entrance to the Stones of Stenness was aligned so that it faced the village. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Interpretation board summarizing the occupation evidence from the Barnhouse Settlement. Reconstructions of the foundations of Houses 2, 3, and 6 as well as Structure 8 can be seen onsite. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Artist’s reconstruction of how the Barnhouse Settlement may have looked when inhabited, from an interpretation board located onsite. The suggestion that the roofs consisted of wooden frames thatched with seaweed is based on evidence of later buildings found in the Northern Isles. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

The current Barnhouse Settlement site contains a modern reconstruction of the foundations of four of the excavated dwellings, with the remains of the original walls preserved underneath. Each building represents a different phase of the village’s development. Three of these reconstructions represent houses and a fourth, known as Structure 8, was possibly used for ceremonial purposes. House 3, shown below, is one of the earliest dwellings and has many features that are typical of other late Neolithic houses found in Orkney. Its entrance is orientated from northwest to southeast (around 80% of similar Orcadian dwellings are aligned this way) and leads into a square room with a central hearth. There are large box-shaped features located to the right and left of the hearth, which may have been stone beds. Another stone feature against the back of the wall may have been a dresser. Unfortunately, the houses of the Barnhouse Settlement were not as well-preserved as those at Skara Brae. For some unknown reason, the residences were demolished at the end of the village’s occupation. The site then underwent centuries of agricultural activity so that, by the time it was excavated, very little remained beyond the foundations of the houses. Knowledge of their interiors is based more on theory of what has been seen elsewhere than certainty on what has survived here.

View of House 3, a typical residence in the Barnhouse Settlement. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

House 6, shown below, differs slightly from its counterparts. An earlier version of the house shows that it initially conformed to the traditional cross-shaped layout found in other residences. However, its entrance was positioned at the southwest end of the house rather than the northwest, which suggests it may have had a different function than its neighbours. Archaeologists found pieces of worked flint and pumice, which may indicate that the house was later used as a workshop for handling bone, wood, and/or hide. 

View of House 6, which did not have a lot of surviving distinctive features. However, archaeological evidence indicates that it may have been used as a workshop later on in its period of occupation. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

House 2 is vastly different from the other residences found in the Barnhouse Settlement. It was clearly distinguished, and may have been used as a special gathering place for feasts and ceremonies. The structure was placed in a prominent location in the village and built on top of a clay platform. It was also twice the size of the other dwellings, and a higher standard of work was applied in its construction using techniques that are comparable to those at Maeshowe. The exterior stonework of House 2 featured very skilled masonry, indicating that it was meant to be admired. The residence was also occupied throughout the entire period of settlement, and seems to have been rebuilt up to five separate times. 

View of House 2. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The interior configuration of House 2 is also more complex, with stone slabs used to partition two separate, but connected, cross-shaped chambers on the eastern and western sides of the residence. The cross-shape comes from six rectangular recesses that were built into the interior wall of the dwelling, with three located in each chamber1. Each of these chambers also featured a central hearth. The eastern chamber seems to have been where food was prepared and consumed, whereas the western chamber was more secluded and could have been where ceremonial objects such as stone mace heads were manufactured. The placement of furniture in the eastern chamber would have required people to move in a counterclockwise direction, whereas the arrangement in the western chamber was different. Archaeologists have tried to indicate the complexity of House 2’s partitions and furniture layout on site by placing a number of modern timber posts in stone sockets that were discovered during the structure’s excavation; these holes may have been where prehistoric wooden uprights were once installed to section off the interior, or for use as furniture. 

View of the interior of House 2 from the main entrance with the west chamber on the left, and the east chamber on the right. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
View of the interior of House 2 with the east chamber in the foreground and the west chamber in the background. Note the modern wooden posts, as well as the wall recesses that form the cross-shapes of the individual chambers. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
2018 aerial view of the Barnhouse Settlement (→N) showing the surviving structures, from L-R: Structure 8; House 6; House 2; and House 3. Note that Houses 2 and 3 both feature a cross-shaped layout, with this layout being double the size in House 2. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

 A stone cist (a small coffin-like box) was situated inside House 2 a short distance from the main entrance. It contained animal or human bones, and was covered with a triangular-shaped stone. The cist was located in a high traffic area, requiring people to cross over it whenever they were entering or exiting the residence, as well as whenever they moved between the eastern and western chambers. Interestingly, House 2 was oriented so that for one hour on midwinter’s morning, a beam of direct sunlight would enter the doorway and illuminate the cover of the cist. This indicates that the contents of the cist were important, and likely played a fundamental role in the function of House 2. 

View of the entrance and eastern chamber of House 2. The triangular-shaped cover of the stone cist can be seen to the left of the hearth. House 3 can be seen in the background. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
View of the western chamber of House 2. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

Structure 8 was the last building to be constructed at the Barnhouse Settlement in 2600 BCE. Curiously, its assembly occurred more than 100 years after the desertion and destruction of the rest of the village. Structure 8 was built on top of a circular platform of yellow clay over the site of a former dwelling, which had the stone slabs of its central hearth removed and potentially relocated to the nearby Stones of Stenness. Structure 8 contains one of the largest known covered spaces in Neolithic Orkney2, measuring around 7 square meters (23 square feet) with walls that were 3 meters (10 feet) thick. Structure 8 was enclosed by a sizeable stone wall, which created an internal courtyard that measured more than 20 meters (65 feet) across. Archaeologists discovered fragments of pots in this courtyard, suggesting that the preparation and consumption of food was conducted outside rather than inside the building.

View of Structure 8 and the stone wall that surrounds it. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
Aerial view of the Barnhouse Settlement (↙N) showing the surviving structures, clockwise from top right: Structure 8; House 2; House 3; and House 6. Note the size of Structure 8 and its exterior wall in comparison to the other residences. Also note the cross-shaped arrangement of House 3 and how it is double that size in House 2. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Closer look at Structure 8 taken while standing just outside the exterior stone wall and courtyard. Note that the entrance through the stone wall faces a different direction than the entrance into Structure 8. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

It is theorized that Structure 8 was used as a ceremonial site rather than a residence, as archaeologists have not found any evidence of domestic occupation. Structural similarities with Maeshowe and the Standing Stones of Stenness seem to support this idea. Both Structure 8 and Maeshowe were built on a clay platform and contained within a stone wall. Notably, the internal floor space of Structure 8 is twice that of Maeshowe. Structure 8 also has two separate entrances, one that leads through its exterior wall into its courtyard and one that provides access into its main building, that relate in interesting ways to the location of Maeshowe. The first entrance, located on the east side of the exterior stone wall, faces Maeshowe directly. The entrance into the main building of Structure 8 is also aligned with Maeshowe, but intentionally faces a different direction for a complementary reason: whereas Maeshowe’s entrance is oriented southwest so that the midwinter sun lights up its passageway and interior chamber, the entrance to Structure 8 looks northwest, to allow the midsummer sun to shine through its passageway. A lot of thought and effort went into connecting these two structures in a purposeful way. Are these two buildings designed to be similarly reciprocal in symbolic meaning, with Maeshowe linked to the darkest time of the year and Structure 8 to the brightest? Is Maeshowe a commemoration of death and Structure 8 a celebration of life?

Satellite view (↑N) of the Barnhouse Settlement and the Maeshowe chambered cairn and passage grave. I couldn’t quite get a screenshot with enough detail to show how the entrances of Structure 8 and Maeshowe are aligned, but if you are interested you can look that up yourself—you can zoom in a couple of more clicks from this vantage point on the individual monuments. In Neolithic times, the waters of the Loch of Harray were lower, so villagers could have walked the roughly 1 km (0.62 miles) distance between Barnhouse and Maeshowe in around 10-15 minutes. Image sourced from Google Maps.
View of Structure 8. The entrance into the main building can be seen on the right, facing northwest. The entrance through the stone wall can be seen on the left, facing east. The Stones of Stenness can be seen in the distance on the right. Photo by Leah, June 2016.
A closer look at the northwest entrance into Structure 8. Image sourced from Wikipedia.

Structure 8 also shares several similarities with the Stones of Stenness. Both sites contain a pair of hearths, one located at the threshold of its entrance and the other centrally placed at its interior. The entrance and interior hearths were both connected by a long, structured passageway that seems to have been designed to control access to the site’s innermost recesses. The entrance hearths at the stone circle and in Structure 8 were both flanked by a pair of standing stones. It is possible that this first hearth7 was used to subject would-be entrants to a purification ritual that, if undertaken successfully, granted them further admittance within the monument. The second hearth could have then been a place where offerings were made. Support for this idea comes with the discovery in Structure 8 of a complete Grooved Ware vessel that had been buried near its interior hearth. An intact ceramic pot of this age is a rare enough discovery in and of itself, but it was made all the more exceptional because it contained 14 pieces of worked flint. Flint was an extremely scarce and valuable resource in Orkney; a collection of this size would have commanded a lot of respect for its owner(s), especially if they were generous enough to make an offering of it.  

View of the entrance to Structure 8, with the hearth located at the threshold. Image sourced from Wikipedia.
Another view of the entrance into Structure 8. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

The interior of Structure 8 also contained a dresser, similar to those found in other Neolithic residences throughout Orkney. This dresser likely served a ritual or religious purpose.

A dresser located in House 1 in Skara Brae. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

It is not known why the Barnhouse Settlement was ultimately abandoned around 2780 BCE, nor why its inhabitants seemingly chose to destroy the residences when they did so, rather than leaving them empty as was the case at Skara Brae. The mystery is deepened by the construction of Structure 8 in 2600 BCE, long after the village’s desertion. One theory is that the purpose of the village transitioned from being residential to ceremonial; perhaps House 2 and Structure 8 reflect this shift. It’s possible that Barnhouse’s proximity to the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe, and the Ring of Brodgar contributed to its continued usefulness as a ritual site, even when it was no longer considered a desirable place to live.

Partial view of Structure 8. Photo by Leah, June 2016.

That concludes my discussion on the Barnhouse Settlement! In my next post I’ll be talking about the Ring of Brodgar. Thank you for reading!


1 The layout of House 2 is similar to the passage graves found at the Quanterness chambered cairn on Mainland, Orkney, as well as at the Quoyness chambered cairn on the Orkney island of Sanday.

2 The excavation of Structure 10 at the archaeological site of the Ness of Brodgar has recently surpassed Structure 8 of the Barnhouse Settlement as the building with the largest interior covered space in Neolithic Orkney.

3 The first hearth located at the threshold of the entrance to Structure 8 may have been paved over, and thus only used symbolically.

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