Dig Diary – Monday, July 17, 2017

Day Eleven

Braving the elements

Liam and Jair reveal a void in Structure Twenty-Seven – indications of more robbing of its orthostat-clad interior.

The weather has been execrable today, with a howling wind from the west, often accompanied by driving rain.

In such conditions the only decent place to be (other than indoors with a cup of coffee) is in a trench with the weather whistling over your head.

This was scant comfort for the Willamettes, our contingent of students from Oregon, who spent their first full day of excavation wrapped, from head to toe, in heavy-duty waterproofs.

Nor was it much comfort for the two parties of American tourists from one of the Disney cruise ships that arrived in Kirkwall this morning.

They were shown around by Nick and we commend their fortitude, and those of our other tour visitors today, for continuing to display huge interest in what they were seeing despite the conditions.

Over in Trench X, Anne, Colin and their team are opening up a slot trench to one side of the main trench.

They have a suspicion that the post holes evident in the main part of the trench may continue in a curve, thereby outlining a circular structure. Only time, deturfing and trowelling will tell.

Trench T has been as engrossing as ever throughout the day.

At the top of the mound, work continues on the Iron Age ditch fills. Curiously, there are very few finds from the fill — indeed little more than a few pieces of burnt bone.

This is most unusual for an Iron Age ditch as these areas are often rich in debris and artefacts.

There was more of interest further down the trench in the clearly Neolithic contexts. On the right-hand side of the trench as you look up, Liam and Jair found that a void suddenly appeared, much like the one encountered on the other side of the trench last year.

More is revealed in the section through the Iron Age ditch at the top of Trench T.

This appears to be the spot where one of the orthostats from Structure Twenty-Seven had been pulled out during an episode of stone-robbing.

Importantly, inside the void, it is just possible to feel what is probably another of the massive recumbent orthostats, three of which have already been discovered and which are clearly a major part of an extraordinary building.

Meanwhile, in Structure One, it is possible to see the curving secondary wall shrinking as Andy and her team carefully take it down.

Antonia had forecast that decorated stone would be found inside the wall and this afternoon she was proved correct.

Carefully brushing a component of the wall, Marc revealed an incised “butterfly”, one of the most common motifs found on decorated stone at the Ness. There will be more.

Lastly, we wish a very Happy Birthday to Beep 2 (Alette), and to her dad, whose birthday it is also.

Dave instructs more of the new Willamette arrivals in Trench T, through the murk of today’s weather.

Alette wishes it to be understood that only the high winds hindering the launching of Orkney postal pigeons has prevented her card to her Dad reaching the Netherlands in time.

Until tomorrow.

From the Trenches

My name is Elisabeth Holder.

As a retired professor for Applied Arts at the Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences, I can finally follow my passion that has developed over many years of visiting Neolithic sites across Europe.

Together with my friend, and travel companion, Marianne Pollich, I have come to Orkney for the past ten years at least once, and sometimes twice, a year.

From these visits I do know the Ness of Brodgar from outside. Being one of this years’ artists in residence, means that I can get nearer these structures of stone by my angle of view, that is through art.

Southern Entrance to Structure One. (Elisabeth Holder)

I have developed drawing and painting as my approach to the Neolithic remains and in this I use my artistic intuition to grasp something of what those remains tell me, by sketching the stones in their given context again and again.

Now I can apply this for the first time ever to a working site. This, together with the complexity that characterises the Ness of Brodgar, poses a huge challenge.

However, what does not differ from drawing at already excavated monuments is the fact, that I need a lot of time just sitting, observing and drawing what actually is there and what at first sight may appear like an unstructured assortment of stones.

Since I arrived for day one of the dig, I saw the tyres and tarpaulins being removed to gradually reveal the structures, that then have been cleaned carefully and lovingly on the second day, which made for an entirely different atmosphere than the bustling activities of the first day.

I used those first two days to just wander around and to see which of the structures would “speak” to me.

Roundness versus angular in Structure One. (Elisabeth Holder)

Maybe not surprisingly, these were Structures One and Twelve, possibly because of their more clearly discernible layout.

But it was Structure One in particular, that attracted my attention and still holds it.

At first I was attracted by the opposition of angularity and roundness inside, further emphasised by the round and weathered appearance of the outer wall.

When I later learned that the curving wall was an addition of the structure’s second phase of use, it felt to be a contamination of what must have been before a clearly defined and crisp inner space, which was contained in the roundness of its outer shell.

How lucky I am that this year’s plan is to dismantle exactly this wall and to take Structure One back to its previous state.

When having a break from drawing, I wander around the excavation area, stopping here and there to observe work in progress; to witness to the find of a substantial ceramic vessel and the care being taken to lift it in one piece.

Simon, our video blogger, takes advantage of today’s foul weather to edit the video of yesterday’s open day.

I am impressed by and grateful for everybody’s willingness to explain or to draw my attention to interesting details.

This was the case, for example, when Jenny, a longtime volunteer, pointed out to me the movement in the paved area in the centre around the standing stone and reaching up to Structure One.

The tea and lunchbreaks, their beginning and end announced by Nick, provide an extra opportunity for such exchanges and it is for this reason, that I do not want to miss these gatherings of the team.

Two weeks have passed already and I am still busy with Structure One, also in the spatial relation to its neighbouring structures.

So far I have focused particularly on the southern entrance of Structure One, capturing it from different angles, appreciating the stones in the afternoon sun, when it is possible to discern more of the details of worked stone and starting to “reconstruct” parts of it.

Such speculations on paper are attempts to make aspects of the structure comprehensible to myself.

As an artist I can do this, in contrast to archaeologists, who take things down to understand. Occasionally, I pay a visit to Structure Twelve, thus kind of sidling up to it. Yet I do this in the knowledge, that there is still much to discover at Structure One, which, meanwhile, almost feels like home to me.

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