Next summer I will be artist in residence at the Ness of Brodgar archaeological dig, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This wonder of the ancient world covers 2.5 hectares (6.2 acres) and is located in a spectacular landscape between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, an area known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Between 4000 and 2300 BC, the Ness was a place where people feasted, traded and performed rituals, the evidence of which has been under excavation since 2003. To put this in perspective, not only is it older than the pyramids but it also existed thousands of years before the sacred texts of Buddha, Moses, Lord Vishnu and Jesus Christ.
What I will do
The decision about the form and content of my photos has been left entirely up to me. But intuition tells me to wait with my definitive choice till next July when I will be at the Ness with an open mind and a ready camera. However, I do have some sense of what it will be and it concerns water. The islands of Orkney are constantly at the mercy of the North Atlantic Ocean and its endless onslaught of storms. No surprise then that the tides of the local Pentland Firth are amongst the fastest and most feared in the world. To add to this mix, climate change and the rising sea level mean that the Ness of Brodgar and all of the other 3,000 archeological sites on these islands are now under threat. And ultimately many of them will be swept away because no wall can hold back the sea. As Professor Jane Downes, Director of the Archaeology Institute at the University of Highlands and Islands, remarked in a recent New York Times article: “Heritage is falling into the sea. It’s a very dramatic and obvious sign of sea level rise and increased storminess. We’re focused on coastal sites because they’re going to be gone.”
However, there is also a faint silver lining here: while the sea subsumes, it also reveals, a example being a recently discovered, early Neolithic house on the island of Sanday, which is older than those at the famous neolithic village of Skara Brae.
So loss and gain are much on my mind right now along with memories of my time on Orkney over the past few years, where I have photographed the sea in the worst weather I can remain upright in without suffering camera shake. This is a gut-thumping, visceral experience and if the ocean has taught me anything, it’s how tiny and infinitely insignificant I am in the face of its power. And for that I respect it with a feeling akin to love.
The Ness of Brodgar, Digging Deeper guide book, ©The Ness of Brodgar Trust