Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney
: Process, Temporality and Context

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by OU/Aberdeen)


This thesis presents a contextual analysis of Neolithic art and architecture in Orkney. Focussing upon the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, it details the results of original fieldwork at three sites with in situ dressed and decorated stonework: Maeshowe, Skara Brae and the Ness of Brodgar. It combines the re-interpretation of known architecturally-situated carvings with primary data from new survey and excavation work, and reports the discovery of many previously unrecorded examples.
This study reveals a diversity of stoneworking practices at these three sites which contradicts a broad catch-all term of ‘art’, demanding a more nuanced investigation. Previous studies have discussed the in situ decoration at Maeshowe and Skara Brae, but these have never been compared in detail, and the long histories of attention at these sites have led to questions over the authenticity of their carvings. The discovery of hundreds of comparable, in situ decorated stones from sealed Neolithic deposits during excavations at the Ness of Brodgar demolishes these doubts. The insight that this fieldwork has allowed is crucial. Excavation exposes aspects of the architecture which normally remain hidden, and allows the recording of decoration and stoneworking in situ, and as it is first revealed.
This takes the discussion beyond the surface to allow an understanding of how stones were worked and decorated as part of the processes of construction and occupation. This challenges many narratives of Neolithic art and architecture, which have tended to focus upon superficial aspects of visual form, overlooking the ways in which buildings and stones came to be worked, carved, built and appreciated. It allows an exploration of how buildings and carvings emerge though process, and how the temporality of the working, decoration and appreciation of particular stones relates to the wider context of art and architecture in Neolithic Orkney.
Date of Award11 Feb 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
SponsorsArts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
SupervisorJane Downes (Supervisor) & Mark Edmonds (Supervisor)

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