A huge Neolithic cathedral, unlike anything else which can be seen in Britain, has been found in Orkney.
Archaeologists said that the building would have dwarfed the island’s landmarks from the Stone Age — the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. Nick Card, who is leading the dig at the Ness of Brodgar, said that the cathedral, which would have served the whole of the north of Scotland, would have been constructed to “amaze” and “create a sense of awe” among those who saw it.
It is about 65ft in length and width and would have dominated the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness which stand on either side. These important sites, dating back about 5,000 years, might have actually been peripheral features of Orkney’s Stone Age landscape. Mr Card said: “In effect it is a Neolithic cathedral for the whole of the north of Scotland.”
The shape and size of the building are clearly visible today, with the walls still standing to a height of more then 3ft — although they would have been far taller when built. They are 16ft thick and surround a cross-shaped inner sanctum in which the 40-strong excavation team has found examples of art and furniture made from stone.
The cathedral was surrounded by a paved outer passage which the archaeologists believe could have formed a labyrinth that would have led worshippers through darkness to the chamber at the heart of the building.
The team has also discovered that a standing stone which is split by a hole shaped like an hourglass was incorporated into the structure, something never seen before in buildings from the period.
“A building of this scale and complexity was here to amaze, to create a sense of awe in the people who saw this place,” Mr Card said. “The perfection of the stonework is beautiful to look at. This is architecture on a monumental scale and the result is the largest structure of its kind anywhere in the north of Britain.
“Today it is still so impressive and when you look down on it from above it is almost jaw-dropping. It is a real privilege to work here and we feel that this was a very special place.”
Colin Richards, reader in archaeology at Manchester University and a leading expert on the period, said that the building would have stood at the heart of Neolithic Orkney. “A structure of this nature would have been renowned right across the north of Scotland — and is unprecedented anywhere in Britain,” he said.
The dig, which has been operating since 2003, involves archaeologists from Orkney College and from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Cardiff universities. Volunteers have also travelled from the United States, Italy, Sweden and Ireland to take part.
Last summer the team established that there was a very large building on the site, but it is only now that the true scale of the cathedral has been unearthed. The Ness of Brodgar site, which covers 2.5 hectares, has been described as potentially as important as the Skara Brae village, the world heritage site on the islands.