In 2002, Ola and Arnie Tait decided they wanted to change the view from their kitchen window. Rather than staring at a sheep pasture, they envisioned looking out onto a wildflower meadow full of poppies, cornflowers, buttercups, and singing birds. Their farm, on Orkney, a remote archipelago of 70 islands 10 miles off the north coast of Scotland, sits in a stunning natural setting, on a narrow strip of land between two sparkling lochs, and is equidistant from two of the most significant Neolithic stone circle monuments: the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, each less than a mile away. In 2003, the Taits plowed their field in preparation for planting that meadow. Just as they rounded the last bend, the plow brought up a surprise: a notched slab of stone. They showed the find to Orkney’s regional archaeologist, Julie Gibson, who thought it might be a side panel from a Bronze Age stone coffin. “This find implied that there were human remains under the field, so a test trench was opened,” says Roy Towers, an archaeologist at the Orkney campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands.
Years have passed and the Taits are still not looking at their wildflower meadow. Rather, they have a prime view of one of the most spectacular Neolithic ceremonial complexes ever discovered. Spanning a millennium of activity beginning around 5,000 years ago, these exquisitely preserved buildings, including foundations and low walls, are revealing how Neolithic society changed over time, and why Orkney—despite its seemingly remote location—was at the center of Neolithic Europe. “Thank goodness the Taits didn’t use a deep plow, or else we’d have been looking at a pile of rubble,” says Towers.