Back to Trench J and the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’
It is a chilly, wet Monday here at the Ness, but something new and exciting is happening.
After slumbering peacefully under its blanket of plastic for eight years, Trench J is about to emerge, blinking, into the light.
It was last excavated, as Lucy tells us below, in 2009 and we have simply been too busy on the rest of the site to pay much attention to it since.
But some of the charcoal samples taken back then have only relatively recently been dated, and they are very surprising indeed.
We knew the structure in the trench was an earlier Neolithic building.
It is architecturally different from the structures on the bulk of the site, which are being excavated at the moment.
Instead of being long with piers, it is oval in shape with orthostatic, radial divisions, marking it out as an early building.
That diagnosis was confirmed by the presence of early flintwork and also by Grooved Ware pottery with shell tempering (burnt, crushed shell is mixed with the clay to make the vessel easier to form). Shell tempering is, again, an early indication.
But the dates were earlier yet.
They are between 4000BC and 5000BC, implying, at the very least a very early Neolithic date, but more probably residual material from earlier activity, reaching back into the Mesolithic period.
The people who have been dated by these samples were, if Mesolithic, not the builders of stone structures but more likely hunter-gatherers, moving around the land, perhaps on a seasonal basis.
Site director Nick has several reasons for opening up Trench J again.
It may be that we will find more residual material from the earliest period still incorporated in the Neolithic structure.
Then again, the fact that this building is not overlain by later Neolithic structures, as in much of the rest of the site, allows a clear and uncluttered window to open into the earlier history of the Ness.
It will not be an easy structure to excavate.
Those of us who worked on it years ago remember vividly thin lenses of ashy material resolving into multiple complex contexts, but also a beautiful, yellow clay floor. Let’s hope it’s still there.
There will be another bonus, because the “Great Wall of Brodgar” carefully curves around the structure and the area to be excavated will open up part of the wall once more.
Another exciting find came from the extension to Trench X.
It is a large body sherd, with a plain applied cordon coloured a very definite black against the orange background of the pot body.
We have had coloured cordons before, but they are usually red and this is our first black one. The colour is probably lamp-black or soot, mixed with something in order for it to adhere.
Our distinguished visitor today was Jackie McKinley, the expert on human bone, whom many of you will remember from Time Team.
Jackie is visiting the Swandro dig, in Rousay, but was keen to see the Ness before flying home.
It is too many years since Jackie graced Orkney with her presence, having worked with Nick at Pool, in Sanday, more years ago than either of them would wish to admit to!
Those of you outside Orkney will probably not have heard of Stromness Shopping Week, a sort of week-long gala in the picturesque town which, as its name implies, encourages commercial activity but also lots of fun such as local football matches of unequalled ferocity.
It concludes with a parade of floats which is always attended by Ness staff and students.
This year they were startled to find themselves featured on the floats, with one depicting Britain’s Ancient Capital, complete with a realistic background painted by our own Jeannie Rose and Colin Wishart.
Another float proudly proclaimed Neolithical Stromness Big Dig.
It was an honour to be featured this way. However, the “diggers” on the floats were just far too clean to be real.
From the Trenches
My name is Lucy and I’ve come to the Ness as part of the second year of my course at UHI.
I come from near Glasgow and study in Perth, so leaving the bad weather there yesterday, I expected it to be a lot worse upon arrival in Orkney.
In fact, it was very pleasant weather to arrive to, and still is now. Wind was to be expected, but the warmth was not (although the latter could be in part due to the hard work I’ve been doing).
I chose to come to the Ness as it is of course part of the heart of Neolithic Orkney. As an archaeology student, it’s not hard to be fascinated by all the history in this place, always providing new information on how people might have lived here all those years ago.
However, this is the first excavation I’ve managed to be a part of, and, arriving on site this morning, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
What would I be doing? Would I be trowelling dirt all day without finding anything? Would I enjoy it as much as I hoped I would?
We started with our induction — a welcome to the site, introductions to important people, health-and-safety briefing, when we get our tea breaks, a tour of the site and its outbuildings. After the tour and our first tea break, we were put to work.
My task today, working with fellow UHI students, was to uncover Trench J, last excavated in 2009.
Despite the task being to take grass and mud from on top of a plastic sheet, it’s been very exciting.
I am, and no doubt the others are too, eager to finish the job so that we can pull off the plastic and reveal the wonder of archaeology underneath.
Our supervisors, Dan and Hugo, are really friendly and are already teaching us how to do even simple jobs that I was otherwise slightly confused by or unsure of.
As it is only my first day, I have yet to experience many other parts of an excavation that I’m sure I will learn about during my two weeks here.
For now, though, I look forward to seeing what the next day brings.