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Archaeological excavations aim to uncover the secrets of Orkney's iconic Ring of Brodgar

1 July 2008

One of Western Europe’s most impressive prehistoric sites and the third largest stone circle in the British Isles - Orkney’s Ring of Brodgar - is the subject of a major archaeological project which will start next week.

A month-long programme of investigations will be undertaken by a 15-strong team of archaeologists and scientists from UHI Millennium Institute, the prospective University of the Highlands and Islands, based at Orkney College UHI, University of Manchester, Stirling University and The Scottish Universities Environment Reactor Centre.  Their aim will be to gather information which will enable a much better understanding of the nature of this iconic site.

A Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Property in the Care of the Scottish Government through Historic Scotland, the stone circle and henge of the Ring of Brodgar is part of ‘The Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site, inscribed by UNESCO in 1999.

Very little is actually known about this amazing ancient site, including its exact age and purpose.  The last important archaeological studies undertaken on it were in the early 1970s by Professor Lord Colin Renfrew.  Since then, significant developments have taken place in analytical techniques such as dating.  It is therefore hoped that the new investigations to retrieve datable material and examine archaeological and palaeo-environmental material, will reveal facts about the Ring of Brodgar and help its mysteries to be unravelled.

The project will involve the re-excavation and extension of trenches dug in 1973. Geophysical surveys will also be undertaken to investigate the location of standing stones and other features within the henge monument.

Dr Jane Downes, UHI’s senior archaeology lecturer, and Dr Colin Richards of the University of Manchester are the Project Directors who will lead the programme of fieldwork and subsequent analysis of its findings.

Dr Downes said: “Because so little is known about the Ring of Brodgar, a series of assumptions have taken the place of archaeological data.  The interpretation of what is arguably the most spectacular stone circle in Scotland is therefore incomplete and unclear.

“Although the excavations 35 years ago were undertaken to obtain dating material and establish chronology, they failed due to the limitations of available dating techniques at the time.  The advanced new techniques now at our disposal mean that this time our investigations should establish when the Ring of Brodgar was built and help us learn a great deal more about it.”

Dr Richards said: “At present, even the number of stones in the original circle is uncertain. The position of at least 40 can be identified but there are spaces for 20 more.  Our investigations will therefore also focus on the architecture of this fascinating ancient site.”

The project is being part-funded by Historic Scotland’s Properties In Care division which cares for the Ring of Brodgar and many other ancient monuments on Orkney.  Historic Scotland subscribes to a Management Plan and Research Agenda for these, along with other partners on Orkney.  

Historic Scotland Cultural Resources Advisor Tricia Weeks said: “Discovering exactly when the Ring of Brodgar was built and more about its character will undoubtedly enhance interpretation of this magnificent monument as a whole, and increase people’s understanding and enjoyment of it.  In addition, the findings of the studies being carried out will enable us to ensure that management of the site is guided and informed by appropriate knowledge of the site and its surroundings.”



  • The Ring of Brodgar is situated on a low-lying isthmus, separating the lochs of Harray and Stenness, centrally placed within the large natural bowl of western Mainland, Orkney. As a ‘monument’ the Ring of Brodgar is not alone. Together with the Stones of Stenness, a much smaller stone circle set within an enclosing ditch, it forms part of a Neolithic monumental landscape which also includes Maeshowe and a number of standing stones. In contrast to the Ring of Brodgar, virtually all the other monuments within this group have been examined by modern excavation which has allowed detailed and inclusive interpretative accounts to be created.

  • Historic Scotland cares for 345 heritage properties and sites throughout Scotland, from the Highlands and Islands to the Borders, ranging from prehistoric dwellings to medieval castles, and from cathedrals to industrial buildings. These include some of the leading tourism attractions in the country including Edinburgh, Stirling, and Urquhart Castles, Fort George, Linlithgow Palace and the Border Abbeys. For further details visit:

  • In addition to The Ring of Brodgar, Historic Scotland Properties in Care on Orkney include Skara Brae, one of Western Europe’s best-preserved prehistoric settlements, and Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, one of its finest Neolithic sites.

  • Historic Scotland’s Mission is: to safeguard Scotland’s historic environment and to promote its understanding and enjoyment.

For further information

Laura Adamson
PR Executive
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8959 or 07769 630 763