Dig Diary — Monday, August 12, 2013

Day Twenty-One

‘A tremendous mystery’

Trench T — The inner face of the wall that seems to define the midden.

Trench T — The inner face of the wall that seems to define the midden.

Today, we have the revenge of Trench T.

Not through Egyptian-style curses, or even through unexpected and catastrophic falls of rubble. Trench T has just sat there and stuck its tongue out at us.

To be precise, this benighted trench, on which untold man and woman hours of heavy labour have been expended had, it seemed, been resolving itself into quite possibly a very nice chambered tomb. Or so it seemed.

The sondage (or deep and contained trench) along one side of the trench had included the retaining wall, which seemed to contain the expanse of rubble.

Unfortunately, the wall continues downwards on its interior side, but is virtually non-existent on its exterior face. And what it seems to be cut into, and built upon, is the most enormous dump of Neolithic midden, quite possibly the biggest ever seen. The wall, far from being associated with a chambered tomb, now seems to formalise and monumentalise the midden.

We have, now, a tremendous mystery.

As site director Nick puts it: “Is this a chambered tomb, smothered in midden?”

Dave defines the midden dumps with spray paint.

Dave defines the midden dumps with spray paint.

He is thinking of chambered tombs, such as Quoyness and Bookan, which have been monumentalised, or formalised, in the very late Neolithic by having platforms being built around, or over, them. However, characteristics of the Ness mound, like so much else on the site, is unique.

And then there is the “Crack of Doom” — the strange vertical and horizontal crack in two faces of the trench at the north-east end.

Over the weekend, the two sides of the crack have eased apart, with one side now being noticeably lower than the other. This clearly suggests that there is something underneath the feature. Could it be an elusive chambered tomb?

All will be revealed, but maybe not this year.

Apart from the above frustration it has been a relatively quiet day, with UHI students now back home and presumably warm, dry and clean for the first time in a week. And, of course it rained. Heavily.

In Structure Fourteen, Hugo’s sondage through the floors has produced excellent evidence of floor formation processes. The construction cuts for the orthostats and the robber cuts are visible, as is the evidence for the changing configuration of the two hearths.

An internal wall face appears in Structure Twenty-One.

An internal wall face appears in Structure Twenty-One.

In the midden area between Structure Twelve and Structure One, Owain continues to labour.

He has now come down on a large layer of rubble, which seems partially structural, with wall lines edging under Structure Twelve. This, it seems, is yet another earlier structure.

In the far west corner of the site, and alongside Structure One, is Structure Twenty-one.

The very late paving over the top was removed last week and today internal wall faces were revealed. This new structure is at least three-quarters under the spoil heap but, although it seems to have been very badly stone-robbed, Nick has hopes of finding primary floors in situ.

In that same area Andy has hit natural, thereby revealing the various midden deposits on which Structures One and Twenty-one were built. However, he has also found rubble which is also hinting at even earlier structures underneath.

Sometimes it seems as if this site is never-ending so, below, we give you a lighter look at the Ness from Anne, the finds supervisor.

A Stone Age show park?

Covers are removed and play resumes in Structure Twelve.

Covers are removed and play resumes in Structure Twelve.

Hello. Anne Mitchell, from the Finds operation at the Ness here.

My brother, Rognvald, and sister-in-law, Lynn, visited the Ness last week.

I have three brothers – Iain, Rognvald and Alastair – and they share an irreverent interest in my archaeological career, with a specific focus on the Ness of Brodgar.

They believe the site was a gathering place akin to the assembled tents and show rings of modern Orkney’s County Show — where animals are shown, crafts and skills exhibited, alcohol and food consumed and folk gather annually from far and wide to celebrate Orkney’s agricultural industry and to meet up with friends and family.

The County Show then moves into a night of convivial sociability, which often makes for sore heads and vague memories on the following day.

My brothers can cite many examples from the finds and discoveries at the Ness to demonstrate the similarities, with the clinching argument being a comparison of sizes of the main buildings of the Ness with the show beer and food tents.

They then, however, lose sight of the evidence and move into conjecture, with its main focus being a group of dancers, the Brodgar Boogie Woogie Girls, for whom no evidence whatsoever exists but who, they feel sure, must have been a major part of the Ness annual gathering, and the Great Wall a stage unparalleled in the Late Neolithic of Britain.

The Willamette students visit to the Standing Stones of Stenness earlier this evening.

The Willamette students on a visit to the Standing Stones of Stenness earlier this evening.

Rognvald and Lynn were visiting the Ness for the first time.

They were amazed by what they saw, by the skills and knowledge of the people of Late Neolithic Orkney, awed by the size and scope of the site and full of conjecture as to its purposes and meanings.

Their visit allowed me to look at the Ness again, with refreshed eyes. It’s not good, but it is possible after working there for seven years, to become matter of fact about its uniqueness, blasé about its specialness and so immersed in the task of caring for the thousands of artefacts found on the Ness to lose sight of the wonder of the place and the finds.

The carved stone ball found last week also made me reassess my reactions to the Ness.

Mark Edmonds was very much a part of its excavation and literally shook with the excitement of the thing. I, on the other hand, prosaically worried about how to look after it, prepared a box and packaging and concentrated utterly on the practical.

It was only as I fell asleep that night that I began to dream of the ceremony and events which led to its putting to bed deep in the Ness and to wonder at its uniqueness, its role in the story of the Ness and its own journey from chosen, unworked stone to finished, beautiful and then carefully deposited object, imbued with meanings long lost to us.

I made the transition at that stage from the factual to the imaginative, and whilst my dreams didn’t ring with the cheers of Neolithic young men hallooing at the gyrations of the Brodgar Boogie Woogie girls, I did imagine wonderful walls being built, objects of special beauty and skill being hidden away to bring luck and beneficence to the place and its people, and folk across Orkney preparing to visit the Ness, looking forward to who they’d meet up with, what they’d eat and drink there, what trade they’d do, how they’d dance and sing and maybe, go home the next day with sore heads and vague memories of the whole excitement.

Mmmm – maybe that County Show analogy might work, but I’ll not be admitting that to the three Mitchell brothers!

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