Willamette University

Archaeology at the Ness of Brodgar

By Jamie Timbrell '06

Professor Scott Pike took a group of 11 Willamette students to Scotland’s Orkney Islands last summer, but they weren’t there for the views. They were there for the ground beneath their feet. Some of Pike’s contemporaries in archaeology are calling Orkney’s Ness of Brodgar, a long-hidden Neolithic complex of stone buildings, at least as significant as Stonehenge. In fact, the Ness of Brodgar might have been the original model for Stonehenge, which was built 500 years later.

The Orkney site, still largely buried, is defined by several stone-walled structures surrounded by a giant barrier. Painted interiors, a baked clay artifact known as the “Brodgar Boy” (now among the earliest-known examples of the human form represented as a figurine), pottery, cremated animal bones and polished mace heads have all begun to tell the site’s story. The complex lies in between two above-ground stone circles — the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness — and experts now believe that it was an elaborate temple precinct rather than a dwelling.

Far from amounting to a residential site, this find promises to teach about elusive Neolithic religion.

At heart of the place’s mystery is its eventual abandonment by the people who built it. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones indicates that a huge feast ceremony, with around 600 cattle slaughtered, was held around 2,300 B.C., after which the temple site seems to have been essentially decommissioned. Maybe it was a transfer of power, researchers say, or even the mass rejection of a religious system.

Through some handy connections, Pike and his students are the only American university group working on the excavation, and they are returning this summer to excavate more. Pike has worked on many projects over the years, but for him, this one stands apart. “In past sites, we found a wall if we were lucky,” he says. Here, archaeologists are answering remarkable questions every day.


Willamette’s unique role at the site developed after Pike followed a lead from studio art professor James Thompson and invited Orkney project manager Nick Card to Salem to give a lecture at Willamette. Thompson had met Card during a research trip of his own to Orkney the previous summer, during which he got to know the terrain for his art work, which explores the relationship between humans and the landscapes they occupy.

After the lecture, Pike gave Card a tour of the Columbia River Gorge, and Card suggested that Willamette might establish an archaeological field school for its
budding archaeology program. In archaeology programs, field school experience is a big step, and it separates modest curricula from serious ones. Pike, whose summer field work in Italy had just ended, jumped at the chance. After visiting the site the following summer, he brought Willamette’s first field school cohort to Orkney in 2011.

The new field school brings interested students to the site during the summer and teaches them basic excavation techniques, proper note-taking, field drawing, postexcavation processing and both traditional and geophysical field surveying. The surveying incorporates a lot of technology, like ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry, which measures and maps patterns of magnetism in the soil. Willamette is the only liberal arts institution in the West to have such a program.

But for Pike, the work isn’t just about excavating. “It’s about exploration, the careful analysis of space and time required,” he says. “The work is exciting and it is very social. Lots of important friendships are made, and the Ness adds such a strong sense of public archaeology and outreach that I feel is essential for the students to experience and learn.”

One of his former students, alumna Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz ’11, attended the first field school session on a research grant from Willamette’s Center for Ancient Studies and Archaeology. “It was an incredible capstone experience for me as a senior,” she says. “It really brought together the idea of a close-knit Willamette community and being able to benefit from relationships with other groups.”

She spent five weeks on site at the Ness of Brodgar, where she helped unearth pottery, organized the objects found, learned flotation techniques to separate seeds and charcoal from the soil, and received training in the use of ground-penetrating radar.

Now she is working in a yearlong position as an AmeriCorps member at the Nature Conservatory in Eugene, Ore., where, she applies the skills she learned in Orkney in managing cultural resource surveys over lands influenced by Native Americans. After her AmeriCorps job ends in November, she might return to the U.K. for an archaeology/environmental science degree.

“The dig experience itself was the most incredible learning opportunity because the director of the site and the supervisors were so open and willing to teach us and support us,” she says, adding that Nick Card is known as an unusually kind and inviting overseer for such sensitive excavations. “We were really able to take a lot of that with us when we left.”

When the (Boot) Fits

Willamette’s archaeology program is housed in the Center for Ancient Studies and Archaeology, one of the five Centers of Excellence established by former Willamette President M. Lee Pelton in 2007. It features a cross-disciplinary concentration in archaeology and the ancient world, and draws from 33 faculty members from different departments. The Hallie Ford Museum of Art and the College of Law also lend their expertise.

As a result, Willamette professors Pike, Ann Nicgorski (art history/archaeology) and David McCreary (classics/archaeology) recently initiated an archaeology minor to add to the College of Liberal Arts catalog — and then they realized there was no reason to stop there, as Willamette already offered enough courses and had enough students interested to establish a major. Over the years, there had been a few students who created their own special major in archaeology, but they have never had options like they do now.

Building on the new major, Pike secured $109,000 from the Malcolm H. Wiener Foundation, allowing him to purchase a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (pXRF) and ground-penetrating radar. The equipment has already been a special win for the excavation, facilitating complex measurements and analyses in real-time. In the soils of one corner of a room, for instance, the team found very high levels of copper and sulfur. This coincided with finding mortars and ores used for pigments in the same area. The archaeologists deduced that the room was a pigment-producing workshop.

Ground-penetrating radar, on the other hand, helped the archaeologists see below the surface and map out the structures at the Ness of Brodgar prior to excavation. But Pike has also been having students use the tool at Willamette to locate sub-surface utilities and building foundations. Staff have a general idea of where these are, but many of the records are not accurate, and Pike is able to educate his students on geophysical survey techniques first-hand in Salem while providing an unforeseen practical benefit to the university.

In the first year of the archaeology major, about six students immediately declared; there are 10 this year. Copes-Gerbitz ’11, an archaeology and environmental science double-major, was one of the first.

Jason Henry ’11, also an archaeology and environmental science double-major, was another. “It was a great experience to go with a couple of my good friends and get to meet people and build relationships,” he says of the field school. “It was one of the highlights of my time at Willamette.”

Henry is pursuing archaeology at the graduate level and is building on his experience at the Ness of Brodgar; now his studies focus on geoarchaeology, which relates to how and when humans first appeared on the continent. Most data supports the idea that people came across a land bridge, but when that occurred is still questioned. Henry and his peers are looking at sites along the Oregon Coast for possible social migration clues, which will help build knowledge of the area’s original settlers and how they interacted with their surroundings.

There will be more like him.

Exchanging Knowledge

This month, Pike, along with three other professors and two students, are presenting a paper at a conference in Orkney that links cultural heritage to sustainability. Because of Willamette’s record of sustainability at the institutional level, the University of Highlands and Islands is interested in learning more about incorporating the various forms of sustainability into its own educational structure. The details are still coming together, but the exchange of knowledge appears to be going both ways.

Of course, the archaeology field school at the Ness of Brodgar is likely to continue as well. There’s a lot of earth left to move.

For More

The excavation story is still unfolding.

To stay caught up:

Additional Details

Gallery of the excavation site


Stone Age Refresher Course

Most of us have taken the class but forgotten — here’s a general refresher of life before metal. Dates are general estimates.

2.5 million – 200,000 B.C. Lower Paleolithic (“Old Stone Age”)

Longest Stone Age period sees the arrival of Homo Erectus and earliest hand tools

200,000 – 40,000 B.C. Middle Paleolithic

Rise of Neanderthal and improved stone tools; signs of ritualized burial

40,000 – 10,000 B.C. Upper Paleolithic

Humans spread across wider portions of the world; evidence of belief in afterlife appears

10,000 – 6,000 B.C. Mesolithic (“Middle Stone Age”)

Composite tools and weapons appear; settlements grow in complexity

6,000 – 3,000 B.C. Neolithic Period (“New Stone Age”)

Agricultural revolution facilitates larger, permanent settlements. Pottery created. Ends with the arrival of metal tools