Dig Diary – Friday, July 21, 2017

Day Fifteen

Special guests and a first for the Ness!

Cameraman Fionn McArthur films site director Nick with Ola Gorie.

Worth the wait! Ray with his star find – a barbed and tanged arrowhead.

Sadly, we must acknowledge that we have a tendency to complain. We object strongly when the wind is howling, when the rain is pelting down and even more vehemently when both happen at once. 

Today the sun is just too strong.

It makes spotting differences between contexts or deposits very difficult and the only way to take a photograph is to have a muddy, smelly length of plastic sheet shading you.

Hence today’s photograph from Structure Eight where an entire team was assembled just to take some images of deposits within an alcove.

There were no such problems for Ray, in his eleventh year of excavation at the Ness, and celebrating today with possibly his best find, a beautiful barbed and tanged flint arrowhead.

This lovely but deadly little artefact was found during the dismantling of the top layers of the remaining central baulk. This lump of midden is infill for the outer passage of Structure Ten, the passageway which was filled with animal bone.

Keen readers may remember that a distinctive piece of pottery was recovered from the same context, in another part of the passage infill, and that it was identified as Beaker pottery from the Early Bronze Age.

With beautiful symmetry, the new arrowhead has also been dated by Hugo, our flint tools expert, to the Early Bronze Age, thus underpinning the dating evidence for one of the most important parts of the Ness.

A close up of the arrowhead – a first for the Ness!

Hugo further points out that the arrowhead has been used, as its tip is broken and that a flake of flint has detached on one side due to the impact with whatever it hit.

Once the upper layers are removed from the baulk, it will be necessary to employ the techniques of the Smart Fauna programme in order to excavate it properly. But the process can probably be speeded up as site director Nick has decided to deploy our student, Jim Bright, with his 3D recording expertise.

Incidentally, Nick has a new hat. From a distance it appears to be decorated with crossed golf clubs and we wondered if it was a present from Donald Trump, that well-known owner of Scottish golf courses. The snag is that Nick wouldn’t know a putter from a four-iron.

Actually, from up close, it is a handsome design by Jeannie Rose of one of the early butterfly motifs and hats like Nick’s can now be bought at the site shop.

In the stone shed, Kate and Becky are completing the arduous task of bringing up to date an inventory of some of the larger pieces of structural stone from Ness buildings.

Sun shade required for Structure Eight photography.

Over in Trench T, we are waving goodbye to the first group of University of the Highlands and Islands students who have completed their Field School placement. They have done a tremendous job and Nick hopes to welcome some of them back in the future.

For now the Willamettes (Field School students from Willamette University, Oregon, USA), who are doing an equally good job, will fill in admirably until the next batch of UHI students arrives.

We had two distinguished visitors today. Ola Gorie is having a new promotional video, filmed by Fionn McArthur, on her life and exquisite jewellery.

Why at the Ness? Because, without the huge support we have received from Ola and her husband Arnie, nothing which has been achieved here would have been possible.

Our other important visitor was Caroline Wickham-Jones, perhaps more at home in the Mesolithic but also deeply involved in sea-level change around Orkney and the archaeological implications which that inevitably raises.

As we had our first Open Day on Sunday, this has been a long week and digger’s boots are now visibly dragging on the ground.

We will be back, refreshed and energetic on Monday.

Until then….

From the trenches 

Maeshowe decorated stone – similar to the one discovered this week at the Ness. (Image courtesy Antonia Thomas)

Hello! I’m Antonia Thomas, and I feel a bit of a fraud writing a blog post “from the trenches”, as I’m not on site very much at all – I’m currently on maternity leave so taking a break from digging this year!

But I just can’t help visiting the Ness whenever possible, usually with baby Henry (five months) and his big sister Lucie (five years) in tow!

My area of interest is the amazing decorated stone assemblage from the Ness. I have been keenly following this year’s discoveries, including the lovely butterfly designs from Structure Twelve, which featured on Tuesday’s blog and which were so beautifully illustrated by Tansy.

One of the incredible things about this particular stone was how ephemeral and difficult to see the lines are – barely visible at all unless the light is right. This is something that we are seeing (or rather not seeing) with the Ness stones again and again.

Although some of these may have been trial sketches, and others may have originally had pigment rubbed into them to make them stand out, it seems like in other cases, the faintness of markings was deliberate.

The fact that the light has to be at just the right angle to see the lines seems to be part of their design. This lends them an

More of the bone deposit around Structure Ten. Each tag marks a separate bone, ready for 3D recording.

animate quality as the play of light and shadow brings them to life, and then makes them disappear again, all adding to their magic and mystery as we encounter them today. 

Indeed, one of the amazing aspects of the carvings, and other decorative elements of the Ness is how they continue to fascinate today, some 5,000 years after they were made.

Mark-making, and decoration are such a fundamentally crucial part of what makes us human that sometimes it feels as though there is a real connection between the Neolithic carvers and ourselves today. Other times, however, what the people who built and used the Ness thought is a real mystery.

Why, for example, would you go to the trouble of making such delicate carvings that they were hardly visible? And why did they hide stones with deliberate carvings inside the walls of the buildings? Was it to bestow a magical protection on these important structures? Or masons marks relating to the architectural process?  

In truth we will never really know.

But we shouldn’t really expect there to be one answer for all the different forms of stoneworking and mark-making found on the site either. In our own lives, we have a variety of graphic and textual forms which we encounter, make, and use every day. And it would have been the same in the Neolithic.

Some of what we categorise as art at the Ness may have been highly symbolic and suffused with meaning; others may have been forms of communication, or markers of tribal identity; other marks may have been mere doodles or casual graffiti, and more besides.

The important aspect is, of course, context, and that is why we are so lucky at the Ness. Because the site is being excavated under modern, scientific, conditions, we can tease apart the stratigraphy of the buildings, and work out when particular stones were placed into buildings, and in this way get closer, perhaps, to why they were there in the first place.  

These links between art and archaeology, both now and then, are what I find truly exciting.

In a few weeks time we will be hosting a summer Art and Archaeology workshop which will explore some of these ideas. Our theme this year, is Ness to Ness. As well as a bespoke tour of the Ness of Brodgar, and the second world war murals at the Ness Battery outside Stromness, there will be studio time and expert printmaking tuition from the renowned Charles Shearer, and a tour of the Pier Arts Centre.

We will also spend time on the beach gathering materials and thinking about how people in the Neolithic would have made art.  

Art and archaeology, then and now – why don’t you join us? We still have a few places left on the workshop, which will from August 17-20. For more information, click here.

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