Dig Diary – Thursday, August 2, 2012

Day Fourteen

The macehead starts to appear in Structure Ten.

Today, we will start with the best, the very best, find we have had in a while.

Professor Mark Edmonds arrived on site late in the afternoon and moved into the middle of the interior of Structure Ten, somewhat to the south of the hearth, and began to clean a small area of midden in preparation for excavating one of the construction cuts for a robbed-out orthostat.

He had hardly been there 60 seconds when a small area of blackish stone began to appear.

Mark is one of Europe’s foremost experts on stone tools and recognised instantly what he had found. The smooth, and slightly mottled, surface of the stone in front of him was absolutely indicative of the type of beautiful igneous rock used in the manufacture of stone maceheads. And that is almost, but not quite, what he had found.

A suitable discovery for Prof Mark Edmonds

A suitable discovery for Professor Mark Edmonds.

It is absolutely one of the most handsome stone tools we have ever seen.

The green mottled surface is polished in the middle, but the slightly swelling ends of the tool have clearly seen duty as they are marked from use.

What is it?

It could have started life being fashioned into a pestle-style macehead, but it does not have a hole drilled through the middle for a wooden haft.

This suggests that it was actually used as a pestle for grinding (though this may have been a secondary use), and that in itself is of considerable interest.

As Mark points out, many Neolithic sites have stone tools in the form of axes and hammers, but what is unusual about the Ness is the quantity of stone tools which are used for grinding and polishing, possibly in the preparation of colour pigment or in the production of other fine tools.

Just as at the nearby Barnhouse Settlement, where the absence of certain types of stone tools is believed to point to the lack certain manufacturing activities, the presence of beautiful artefacts like this pestle points at the Ness to the production of fine goods and a colourful environment.

And the pestle is, most certainly, a product of the Late Neolithic.

This spectacular find soon attracted the attention of the whole site and soon Structure Ten was the focus of a battery of clicking cameras, not least the photographers from National Geographic.

Erica investiates the realignment of the outer wall of St 1.

Erica investiates the realignment of the outer wall of Structure One.

In Structure One, the strange recess in the outer wall face was being investigated by Erica.

This has shown that this recess is, in fact, a realignment of the wall that relates to the insertion of a later curving wall that defines the second major phase of Structure One.

We are also delighted to welcome Adam Stanford with his enormously long camera-on-a-pole.

He will be working with the National Geographic photographers, Jim and Jim, and carrying out three-dimensional imaging and rectified photography. He will also give us tutorials on photography.

In Structure Eight, Dave and his team are removing midden from the far end of the structure and may well come down onto more roof tiles in the next few days.

That will be exciting, but onerous as they have to be recorded and moved with care.

One of the baulks in the structure will also now be sampled and stratigraphically removed, thereby revealing more of the interior of this enigmatic structure.

Roll on tomorrow as who knows what wonders will be revealed . . .

From the Trenches

The miniature flint axe discovered by Woody yesterday.

The miniature flint axe discovered by Woody yesterday.

Introductions first, I suppose. My name is Dylan and I am an American student here on the Ness of Brodgar with Willamette University.

I have only been here about a week-and-a-half but I absolutely love the site. Before I came north to Orkney, I was in south-west Bulgaria on an excavation of a Roman-era Macedonian site. Needless to say the two experiences are quite different.

It was 40 degrees centigrade when I left Bulgaria, which made getting off the plane here a little bit of a shock. The temperature difference, along with the rain and the wind, make for an entirely different dig experience in their own right. However, being from Washington state, which is known for its rain and cooler temperatures, I have been able to adjust fairly readily.

My interest has always been in Greek and Roman era history (hence my attraction to the site in Bulgaria) and so when I signed up to come to the Ness of Brodgar, which is a Neolithic site, I thought it would be great excavation experience, but not necessarily of particular interest to me. I was absolutely wrong.

When one thinks about the Neolithic era, we have a tendency to imagine a bunch of cavemen sitting around a fire, grunting at each other. What can there really be to recover from that far back? A day on the Ness of Brodgar completely flips that idea on its head.

The first thing you notice are the structures, of which there are several clearly defined around the site. Far from being a pile of stones thrown together to keep the wind out, these are structures where people lived for many years, with carefully shaped walls, surprisingly even on the inside,  and with few gaps, which is particularly impressive as they are built with no mortar. The doorway of one of the structure seems to align with the sunrise on the summer solstice, indicating much more forethought into the layout of the buildings than I would have originally guessed.

While they did use stone tools, my image of a man pounding away at a deer hide with a river rock was off-base by more than I could imagine.

While I have been here, I have seen multiple flint and stone tools uncovered, which have been carefully shaped into axes, knives, and other tools, each with a specialized purpose to the owner.

I, myself, have uncovered several very large pieces of pottery, one of which even was graced with decorative lines etched into the outer surface.

Before I arrived here I would not have been able to guess at the incredible complexity of a society that existed several thousand years ago, and whose lives we are trying to reconstruct bit by bit today. My experience at this site is, as yet, limited and I love listening to the site supervisors and those who have been here for longer make connections between different artefacts and structures, which I am only beginning to see.

Each day I get to uncover (and try not to break) tools, pots, and bones which have not seen the light of day in thousands of years, and show me how wrong my original assumptions were. It is an incredible experience which I would trade for nothing.

While my main interest is still Greek history, the Ness of Brodgar is giving that a run for its money every day.

And while I would love to sit here and tell you all about the incredible things I am getting to do, there is a trench out there calling my name, and a pot just waiting to be uncovered.

I can’t wait to go see what will turn up next.

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