Dig Diary — Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Day Twenty-Two

Contemplating an earlier site . . .

Natasha removes floor deposits in Structure One.

Natasha removes floor deposits in Structure One.

Today was one of those quiet, rather contemplative days, which often characterise the second-last week of an excavation.

The last week is, of course, taken up with frantic last-minute planning, site covering and the inevitable discovery of something really, really important, usually on the very last day of digging.

It was also wet, in part, today. All this put us in mind of the brilliant title for a friend’s PhD thesis on the Bronze Age which runs…”It rained a lot and not much happened.”

Tongue in cheek, of course, and not true of the Bronze Age. Neither is it true of the Neolithic and especially that big chunk of the Neolithic which is the Ness of Brodgar.

The morning rain failed to deter a German television crew, who arrived to interview site director, Nick. He is thoroughly used to this sort of thing by now, and another film crew is due tomorrow.

They may well be interested in the central midden, where a remarkably mud-spattered Owain, and a remarkably clean Chris, have been toiling in the area around the broken, potential standing stone.

Today, however, they uncovered undoubted structural material, which points to an early building potentially predating Structures Eleven, Twelve and One.

So many hints of earlier structures have now been found that it is interesting to contemplate the possibility of an earlier Ness, just as big and under our current site. Time will tell.

Not far away, the world’s fourth luckiest digger, Jenny, found yet another example of a very curious little artefact.

It is a tiny strip of ceramic material, with a rounded bottom and two parallel indentations on the top surface – almost like two eyes. This is the third to emerge, with one coming just last week from Trench T. Frankly, we have no idea as to its purpose.

The baulk in Structure Twelve being removed — hurrah!!

The baulk in Structure Twelve being removed — hurrah!!

In Structure Twelve, and at long, long last, the work has begun on removing the midden baulk which runs right across the building.

The new sense of space and scale which this is already bringing to the structure is noticeable and there is no doubt that this will transform our experience of this enigmatic structure when the last remnants of baulk have gone.

In Structure One, work continues on selecting and removing floor deposits, aided by our latest volunteer, Natasha, who is head of osteology and research co-ordinator MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology).

Over in Trench T, scene of yesterday’s confusion, problems continued to prevail. The uncertainty as to what is happening in the steeply sloping trench was compounded today by the rain which turned it into a large, muddy helter-skelter. This became so dangerous that work had to stop for a while.

So, all-in-all, not much has happened today (relatively!!).

This will give you all the more time to enjoy Antonia’s illustrated blog (below) on her work with incised and decorated stone at the Ness.

Rock art on the Ness

Antonia is interviewed for German Television.

Antonia is interviewed for German Television.

There has been hardly a day gone by since this season’s excavation started which hasn’t seen the discovery of another beautiful carved, or pecked, stone, and so I thought it was high time I wrote something about what I am doing here at the Ness of Brodgar.

My name is Antonia Thomas and I am currently in my second year of an AHRC-funded PhD (at Orkney College UHI) researching rock art and graffiti at Neolithic sites in Orkney.

Although I am looking at some other sites as well, such as Maeshowe and Skara Brae, my research focusses upon the wonderful assemblage of carved, incised and pecked architectural stones from the Ness of Brodgar.

I feel privileged to be able to work with such an important collection, and I believe that the evidence from the Ness will continue to rewrite what we thought we knew about the Neolithic for many years to come.

I have worked on the site since 2006, and have seen the site develop from its infancy to its current international fame.

It was while working as a supervisor on the site that I became intrigued by the numbers of carved, incised and pecked stones that we were finding, and I started to research parallels in Orkney and further afield.

An extremely fine example of peck dressing which has left two raised triangles.

An extremely fine example of peck dressing which has left two raised triangles.

Although there are a handful of examples of carved and pecked stones from tombs in Orkney (including the magnificent Pierowall and Eday Manse stones, both now in the NMS in Edinburgh) the main bulk of comparable examples have until now, come from a domestic context – Skara Brae.

The trouble is, the buildings at the Ness of Brodgar aren’t tombs, so can’t be understood in the same terms as funerary architecture and megalithic art. But nor are they houses in the ordinary sense either, as they are of a scale and complexity that goes far beyond the everyday domestic sphere of life.

To illustrate the size of our assemblage, it is worth pointing out that while there are around 70 examples known from Skara Brae, I have now recorded nearly 500 examples of dressed or decorated architectural stone from the site. And there are more appearing every day!

They range from small fragments with lightly scratched random lines, to elaborately and deeply carved or pecked stones. The range of contexts that the decorated stones are found in is incredible and they are remarkable for their ubiquity as much as anything else. They are literally everywhere across the site, in every structural element of every building, in floor deposits and demolition debris.

What is amazing – and indeed unique – about the Ness assemblage is that the structures are being excavated under modern, scientific conditions.

This allows us to examine the chronology of the buildings in parallel with the biographies of stonecarving, to see how the decorated stones relate to different phases of construction and inhabitation on the site.

Another deeply incised example of art from the Ness.

Another deeply incised example of art from the Ness.

We have stones placed in foundation deposits and incorporated into decommissioning events.

Some of the stones have incised designs which have subsequently been obscured by pecking, and it seems that some of them may have been revisited and added to on several occasions.

I am finding that some of the stones have been reused, perhaps bringing with them the memory from a previous site or place to bear on their current location.

For other examples, the practice or performance of working the stone may have been more important than their finished appearance and these may have been carved or pecked as part of a rite or ceremony. Some pieces are built into walls or floors and hidden from view, while the position of other stones indicates that they served to mark important thresholds or flows of movement.

Some of the larger, more elaborate, pieces were clearly meant to dominate one’s attention during the occupation of the buildings, and we can only imagine the sense of wonder they produced when seen in the Neolithic – the complexity of some of them is truly awe-inspiring today.

I am recording each stone by written descriptions, photographs and sketches, and have created a large database which will hopefully be a useful tool for other researchers in years to come. This contains information on different aspects of contextual information about each stone, the type of rock used, the technique of carving etc.

Once I have completed this, I will be able to interrogate the data to look for any subtle patterns across the site and perhaps even come close to understanding how these beautiful stones were meaningful in the Neolithic.

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