Dig Diary – Monday, July 2, 2018

Day One

Tyre removal under way in Structure Twelve this morning.
Tyre removal under way in Structure Twelve this morning.

Moving tyres in the hot sun…

Bryn, the site dog, keeps an eye on proceedings as director Nick goes through health and safety briefing.
Bryn, the site dog, keeps an eye on proceedings as director Nick goes through health and safety briefing.

And we’re off again. All set for another eight-week season of stunning Neolithic archaeology.

Another year has passed and all the behind-the-scenes work has paid off – funds have been raised (but we’re always needing more), the team assembled and the logistics finalised.

Tackling some of the hundreds of tyres that had to be removed from Trench P
Tackling some of the hundreds of tyres that had to be removed from Trench P.

Over the next eight weeks, our daily dig diary will keep you informed of everything that happens; the fresh insights into the structures, the surprising, and sometimes astonishing, finds and, most importantly, the peeling back of the layers of time so that we can understand more about the remarkable people who were here in the fourth and third millennia BC.

So here we are again — day one of 2018.

A day in which, bathed in glorious sunshine, the Ness was gently awoken from its winter slumber.

The tyre line in operation outside Structure Ten.
The tyre line in operation outside Structure Ten.

At the end of each excavation season, the site has to be carefully covered over with swathes of black plastic, held down by hundreds of tyres, rocks and sandbags.

This is required to protect the delicate stonework from the worst the Orcadian winter can throw at it.

But, you ask, what about Skara Brae? It stands exposed all year round. The difference is the stone used.

Skara Brae was built from beach cobbles which is considerably more durable than the quarried stone used at the Ness.

Clearing up the pools of standing water which gather on the protective sheeting.
Clearing up the pools of standing water which gather on the protective sheeting.

Left open to the elements, this stone deteriorates quickly — the exposed surfaces flaking and laminating.

So the covers go on and have to be removed at the start of the new season to allow work to continue on the archaeology beneath.

Today, this began at 9am, with archaeologists and volunteers from across the world gathering on site to begin the daunting task of “opening up”.

The first protective sheet of the day removed came from the interior of Structure Twelve.
The first protective sheet of the day removed came from the interior of Structure Twelve.

Induction complete, together with extensive health and safety warnings (archaeological sites can be dangerous places), and work began in earnest.

Make no mistake, the job is a gruelling one – each tyre has to be removed carefully from the trench, relocated and stacked safely until the time comes for their return.

As do the infernal sandbags and only once these have been cleared away can the covering be removed.

Structure Twelve begins to see the light of day.
Structure Twelve begins to see the light of day.

But despite the dry spell we have enjoyed in Orkney for many weeks now, there were numerous pools of standing water lying atop the black polythene covers. These have to be removed with buckets and sponges.

Despite the hard work – and it is hard, backbreaking work – there were smiles aplenty and work proceeded remarkably quickly. No doubt aided by the gorgeous weather.

Sheet removal continues at Harray Loch end of Trench P.
Sheet removal continues at Harray Loch end of Trench P.

Today, work concentrated solely on Trench P, at the heart of the site, and gradually the covers came off, allowing sunlight to flood the remains of buildings erected 5,000 years ago.

For those of us who have seen the Ness structures emerge from the ground over the past 15 years, there is a sense of familiarity, mixed with relief, to see them again after months lying dormant.

For newcomers to the Ness, the sight of their faces as the monumental complex is slowly unveiled before their eyes is a sight to behold and a reminder of just how special this site is.

Tomorrow, work will continue in Trench P and Trenches J and T will be tackled.

Apart from the gruelling work within the excavation site itself, the area around is also busy.

The site shop gets ready for business, under the watchful eye of its own canine mascot.
The site shop gets ready for business, under the watchful eye of its own canine mascot, 12-year-old Pirate.

At the shop, Christine and volunteers from the Orkney Archaeological Society are preparing and displaying all the goodies which will be on sale, including our guidebook and Woody Musgrove’s marvellous new book Ness of Brodgar: Open to the Public.

Drop in by the shop when it re-opens on Wednesday. It’s a veritable Aladdin’s Cave and your diary writer today was delighted to learn of the existence of rather splendid Ness of Brodgar baseball caps — one of which now adorns his sun-kissed (i.e. sunburned) head.

Scaffold Orkney is finishing off the viewing platform, which will groan with the weight of visitors when we open for the first public tours on Wednesday and, here, there and everywhere, Bryn the site dog is marshalling the workers and quietly examining all personnel and their belongings in a quest for sausage rolls.

A handful of keen tourists have already popped over to see our progress, and have been met by a hive of activity and animated chatter beneath the afternoon sunshine.

With the bright blue Orcadian sky reflected in the lochs of Harray and Stenness, it looks set to be a glorious summer of excavation.