Dig Diary – Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Day Twenty-Two

Sponging the tarps - the standard morning warm-up on the Ness.

Sponging the tarps – the standard morning warm-up on the Ness.

Big buildings and another very big beast

So much has happened today that it’s difficult to know where to start. Perhaps the beginning would be best and, as usual, that refers to the weather.

Glory of glories, it has been a nice day. The sun has shone. The air is warm and, around the site, people have been taking layers OFF, instead of piling then on.

Not once today have we heard an Australian voice with that distinctively Australian phrase: “We’ll have to rug up”.

As if to keep pace, the archaeology has been hot.

In Structure Twelve, the sondages have been paying dividends.

Roy examines the unusual sherd of pot - probably related to an earlier building under Structure Twelve.

Roy examines the unusual sherd of pot – probably related to an earlier building under Structure Twelve.

In one of them, Tom discovered a fascinating pot rim. It is very well made, fired throughout and appears to have organic temper.

One small void, at the top of the neatly bevelled rim, even has a scrap of carbonised material wedged within it, and on the exterior surface there are what appear to be random striations.

It does not look like the average Late Neolithic Grooved Ware, which is so abundant on site, and we have to recognise the possibility that it may be earlier.

It has yet to dry and to have the remnants of midden removed from its surface but we will keep you informed.

Just adjacent to the pot, a beautiful wall face has begun to emerge. It lines up with other walls but Jim and Nick are puzzling over whether it is part of Structure Twenty-Four, or Twenty-Eight, a combination of them both or something entirely different.

The quality of the stone in the wall is quite spectacular and it seems to be set at an angle to Structure Twelve; otherwise its orientation is a mystery as some of the elements emerging could be piers. Only further excavation will resolve this mystery and, once more, we promise to keep you informed.

Malou reveals the massive horn core near the top of Trench T.

Malou reveals the massive horn core near the top of Trench T.

If Structure Twelve was exciting today, Trench T has set everybody’s heads spinning.

As regular readers will remember, at the top of the trench a deep sondage uncovered, a year or so ago, the horn core and skull fragments of a very big beast.

It is probably within the size range for an aurochs – a very large prehistoric cow – but it is still in the ground and will have to be lifted as a block.

Today, and just alongside, something even larger emerged. It is another huge horn core, but even bigger than the original one. In fact, it looks for all the world like a rhinoceros horn and may very well be confirmed as aurochs.

Those big beasts were probably reaching the end of their span of existence around the time of the Ness complex so we may, if confirmed, have the remains of one of the last examples to walk the earth.

If the top of Trench T is fascinating, the middle and bottom is just sensational.

Where Catherine has been excavating, around the middle of the trench, a hole suddenly opened up. The void is not vertical but runs along at an angle for about a metre and there at the back of it is a wall face.

Supervisor Jim's tool roll - metal dental tools, plastic spatulas and four leafs!

Supervisor Jim’s tool roll – metal dental tools, plastic spatulas and four leafs! We call this decadent!

Jim, who keeps the fabric of everything up and running, has an endoscope for the plumbing end of his business, but even that, with its light glowing at the end of the bendy stem, could shed little light.

It was all down to feel, and extending an arm into the void it is possible to feel seven courses of walling, although of fairly small tabular stones.

We are now into uncharted waters.

If this new wall face is (as it appears to be) parallel to a wall at the south end of the trench, we may have an enormous building which would be over 12 metres across.

Could it really be that big, or could it, in fact, be two buildings. But if so, why are they aligned in this way?

It is all a mystery, but one which will only be solved by further excavation. This may, however, take some time.

Even the BBC are joining in! Cameraman Ed couldn't resist trying his hand with a trowel. We may convert him yet!

Even the BBC are joining in! Cameraman Ed couldn’t resist trying his hand with a trowel. We may convert him yet!

In Trench X, which is adjacent to Structure Twelve, and which runs down to the Stenness loch edge, a rubble spread has now been well defined. Anne, Colin and Nick think it may be the remnants of wall robbing but, if so, from what?

The best bet at the moment is that a new, large building is beginning to emerge. Again, time will tell, but with less than four weeks of excavation time left, the pressure is on.

And on that subject, tomorrow, Wednesday, is forecast to be horribly wet, at least for the morning.

The car park is not in the best condition because of the wet weather at the weekend, although we will be working hard to repair it.

For this reason the site will be completely shut tomorrow morning at least. Thereafter we hope for better weather and normal activities, including tours, will resume.

We hope to see you then. . .

From the Trenches

Scoops for cleaning-between-stones - Jo’s, from a London catering supplier. Alice actually made hers in Design and Technology at school!

Scoops for cleaning-between-stones – Jo’s, from a London catering supplier. Alice actually made hers in Design and Technology at school!

How do you dig a site like the Ness?

In a word: carefully.

For such a large site, the diggers use one of the smallest tools in archaeology – the leaf trowel (or to give it its technical name, a plasterer’s leaf and square).

The tempered steel blade slices through the midden with far more precision than a standard 5 cm trowel; cutting rather than smearing and giving a super-sharp picture of the undulating and intercutting deposits that formed over time.

It provides immaculate clarity on sections, making for superb photographs and easier drawings.

Barrowing water. Yes. It's a thing!

Barrowing water. Yes. It’s a thing!

In addition to leaf trowels, many diggers have their own special kit, scavenged from kitchen cupboards, catering suppliers and art shops.

Across the site there are spoons, sweet scoops, wooden pottery sculpting sets and dental picks, often adapted to specific jobs such as cleaning midden crumbs between flagstones and removing precious pot sherds without damage.

But this year one of the most useful tools on site has been the big, yellow car sponge.

At the end of each day, working structures are covered with large black plastic tarpaulins to protect the ongoing archaeology below. And each morning, early visitors to the site will see us crawling across those tarpaulins with yellow buckets and large sponges, squeezing rainwater from the puddles that formed from the rainstorms overnight.

Here, too, is more tool innovation with cut plastic milk bottle scoops the best for the deeper pools. The water is barrowed away from the trench edges and sluiced down into the lochs (from where it will evaporate and rain down on us again in a few days time).

Tarp sponging has become the daily warm-up and is, at this point in the dig, a slick operation within each structure.

Then, once the tarps are rolled back and secured by tyres, we can get on with the serious work of unravelling the Neolithic…

Jo Bourne

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