Dig Diary – Sunday, August 15, 2010

Excavation open day. . .

Structure Seven cleaned, ready for excavation to recommence.

For a change, the weather for the excavation Open Day is fine and sunny, with not much wind – a dramatic change from the previous two, when visitors, and diggers alike, were subjected to gales and horizontal rain.

Despite vying for attention with the Vintage Club Rally, the open day at the Bay of Skaill viking site and the Riding of the Marches, in Kirkwall, a very steady stream of visitors have been enthralled by our tours, and the site.

Although advertised as being every half hour, the sheer number of visitors has necessitated an ongoing number of tours as reasonable numbers of visitors assembled. The tours are being conducted by the Historic Scotland Rangers Keith, Sandra and Elaine, and members of the dig staff.

In a job where one often feels divorced from the public, the interaction, and feedback, one gets from the “public” –  not just today, but during all the daily guided tours –  is very positive and uplifting.

You can often gauge the level of interest from the number of questions at the end of the tour. Often, one finds that the “question time” is almost as long as the actual tour, with some questions often being very thought provoking!

As several team members left on Friday, and new recruits not arriving till tomorrow, the site personnel seemed rather sparse on the ground today.

In Structure Eight, this allowed Gavin and Dave to tie up some loose ends, check out some crucial relationships and plan strategy for the last couple of weeks.

Work in Structure Eight (like the rest of the site) has progressed very well, with several of the objectives, set at the start of the season, having already been met. Floor deposits have been revealed in two of the recesses and it would seem that similar deposits may be reached across most of the exposed building. This progress, however, may be “hindered” by further discoveries and the detailed recording of yet more evidence for the stone, slate roofing system.

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Gavin and Dave have a “quiet” day in Structure Eight.

Two new recruits who did arrive today were Ben Chan and Jim Rylatt – archaeologists from England, who are having a ‘busman’s holiday’ on the site.

Ben is used to Orcadian archaeology, having dug with us at Minehowe, whereas this is Jim’s first experience of Orkney.

Together they are continuing excavation within Structure Seven. Large, ashy spreads, that seem to emanate from the central hearth of this horseshoe-shaped structure, have been redefined and excavation commenced.

Will Structure Seven be as ephemeral as it first seemed? Or will it, as its west wall suggests, be based on a far more substantial, earlier structure that certain elements have been incorporated into Structure Seven?

A view from the finds hut

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Ann, the finds supervisor, in her hut.

Over the last few weeks, you’ve read about the finds operation at the Ness of Brodgar and Anne, supervisor, and Marion and Martha, volunteers, have made their presences felt, offstage, in the blog.

It seemed to me (Anne), that we should come centre stage a bit and let you know some more about what we do.

The Ness of Brodgar excavation can have up to 35 folk digging at any time, in a site rich in material evidence of Neolithic Orkney.

The diggers find pot, bone (burnt/cooked and unburnt), antler, flint, decorated and worked stone and pumice, pitchstone, quartz, whalebone and even whale tooth ivory.

They bring in their finds, in great quantity, to the finds hut (two caravans – one small, the other very small) and we process them – at the last count, 1,500 finds and rising fast.

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Ben and Jim discuss strategy on Structure Seven.

You might wonder what kind of state 5,000-year-old objects are in when they come to us. They’ve been buried, tucked away in the ground, and the stone, of the Ness for a very long time; passed over by folk removing building stone; squashed by the build-up of soil over millennia; ploughed over for hundreds of years and some come out of hiding beautifully preserved.

Others are a miracle of the digger’s skill – not only to have found them but to have recovered them from the ground.

Obviously stone survives well, and this year’s thrill has been the painted stone. I closely examined a rough stone, about the size, and shape, of an orange, the other day, and adhering to it are small quantities of a deep, deep red pigment.

Did someone use the stone to grind the colour for paint and the paint powder still sticks to the stone? Did the colour thrill them as much as it did me? I hope so and that it’s not some prosaic leeching of chemical from the stone.

The pots from the Ness are more of a challenge.

”Challenge?”, I can hear Marion say.

”Drop a box of biscuits from 500 feet, jump on it, shake it all around, let it get wet and then lay it all out to dry, to put the biscuits back together, and that’ll give you challenge!”

Some of the pottery, however, is lovely – well-made and decorated, as you’ve seen, and must have been the product of highly skilled potters. But I wonder more about the crumbly, badly-fired, stone-tempered, thick, heavy pot. It was put to the Ness for a reason. Probably a special offering, otherwise they’d have taken the pots away again.

Containing what? Who brought them? Were they specially made for the job asked of them? Did the folk who brought them have any thought that their pots would be vessels across time, to a world where I can sit and write this, for hundreds of you to read, all across the world, within hours of my writing?

It all comes in to us in the finds hut. To be recorded and catalogued; to be taken out of its plastic finds bag; laid out in trays to dry; packed away again when it’s literally bone dry; carefully wrapped up and boxed to be looked at some time in the future by the bone, pot, stone, or whatever, specialists.

They will then try and extract all sorts of information from what has come out of the Ness.

What kind of animals were they bringing to site? What was being put in the pots? Where did the stone and flint come from?

And it’s down to the Finds Team (or the “A Team”, as Nick, the excavation director, calls us!) to hand over these materials to them, safe and sound from their 5,000-year concealment. Sometimes the task is daunting!

A vital aspect of the finds operation is the reciprocal finding we do for the dig team – the bags and trays they need; the tools to lift very precious things; the permanent ink pens, which diggers seem to eat; the site supply of loo paper and plasters, bus timetables, sun cream; bits of wood to prop up special stones and cocktail sticks – don’t ask!

Yes, it’s a busy operation and vital to its success is the support I get from the volunteers and students.

Marion, Martha and Sarah have kept me sane this year, thus far, and so too have Rosemary and Neil, who doggedly produce as many more prenumbered finds bags as I ask of them, day in, day out.

Here’s to them all and next time you read the blog, and the diggers are cock-a-hoop over some precious find, think of us in the finds hut getting it safely recorded and ready for the next stage in its story, after its 5,000 year sleep.

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