Dig Diary – Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Day Twenty-Three

A momentous day

Alan investigates the robber trench behind the new 'dresser'.

Alan investigates the robber trench behind the new “dresser”. (ORCA)

We have dredged the bottom of our bucket of superlatives in order to describe what has been happening on the Ness in days past, and every single one of them has been justified.

Today, things have become even more super!

Structure Ten, as regular archaeo-sphere readers may remember, was once called a “cathedral” because of its grandeur, and the red and yellow sandstones built into its dresser, which mirror the coloured sandstone used in Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral.

We backed away from that description somewhat as features emerged within Structure Ten that might be interpreted as domestic, together with the realisation that the building was considerably more complex than originally thought.

The dresser, of course, continued to be special because of its coloured stone, carved stone inserts and the surprising fact that it stands out from the exterior wall. In fact, you can walk round it.

Now things have swung right back again, with the discovery today that we may have, potentially, three “dressers” in the building, and the strong suggestion that they may not be dressers at all but are, in fact, something more esoteric.

The term “dresser” is a hangover from our Victorian forefathers, who first investigated Neolithic structures in Orkney and basically saw these stone edifices as Neolithic display cabinets where the inhabitants put their best pottery and other prized possessions on show.

On the north side of the structure, Claire and Alan were working to reveal the remaining elements of the robbed-out inner wall face.

They found a beautiful, vertically-sided robber cut, which showed that the presumed “bench” against the north wall was actually separated from the wall against which it had previously seemed to be set. In fact, there was a significant gap.

When he saw this, site director Nick had one of his “eureka” moments.

He realised that the “bench” was nothing of the sort. In fact it is another “dresser” with remarkably similar construction details to the beautiful dresser already discovered opposite the entrance, in the west recess.

The northern half of Structure 12.

The northern half of Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

Whether we find evidence for support stones, such as the red sandstone pillar which had to be removed from the site of the first dresser, is questionable. The original one was hardly set down into the earth and was probably held in place by the weight of the stones above it, and those in this dresser may have disappeared.

Ingrid and Rosie getting to grips with the massive bone spread.

Ingrid and Rosie getting to grips with the massive bone spread. (ORCA)

As Professor Mike Parker Pearson has already suggested, “dressers” may not have been a part of normal Neolithic domestic furniture and were probably rather unusual elements in a building, and only incorporated into high status structures.

They may have been accessed by moving in a controlled way round the interior of the building, much as we have already suggested for some of the other structures on site.

Now we have to investigate the possibility that the “bench”, which is set on the south side, may also be a “dresser” or, possibly, altar.

It is not unusual for buildings in the past to have spiritual areas within them.

Mongolian Yurts, for example, have small altars opposite the entrance area and the houses of the Roman Empire often had altars dedicated to the household gods.

However, the scale of Structure Ten is something different.

We won’t call it a cathedral, but there is a strong possibility now that it was a magnificent building which may have had a specifically spiritual purpose.

Seb with his new macehead.

Seb with his new macehead. (ORCA)

Elsewhere, work in the annex/porch of Structure Twelve uncovered a beautiful, decorated Grooved Ware pot, which appears to have a white slip on its exterior surface.

A slip is a slurry of watery clay, applied to the surface before firing – either to hide imperfections in the surface or, more likely, to impart a different colour from the existing clay body.

But not only that, just at the back of the pottery, Seb recovered an extraordinarily beautiful macehead – again broken, like all the others from site, but an exquisite mottled green colour – possibly an igneous olivine basalt.

The Smart Fauna project slipped into first gear with the initial day of recording, by the various methods we have already described.

Ingrid, helped by Rosie, has a hugely complicated task to disentangle the manner in which the massive bone deposit around Structure Ten accumulated.

The post excavation work will continue long after the site has closed down for the winter.

In other areas, Mike discovered a smart flint knife in Structure Ten; another incised stone was noticed by Dave as he recorded Structure Eight and a lovely little thumb pot turned up in the midden outside Structure Fourteen.

A momentous day!

Structure 11 being recorded by Jane and Kim.

Structure Eleven being recorded by Jayne and Kim. (ORCA)

From the Trenches

My name is Kiki and I am from the biggest little city in the world – Reno, Nevada.

I am a student at Willamette University and a biology major. I am here on the Ness because I happened upon a poster in our campus coffee shop advertising the trip as a field school and I just could not believe how amazing it sounded. I e-mailed Professor Scott Pike as soon as I was home and, eleven months later, here I am!

Coming to the site, I had no idea what to expect.

Before this dig, I had no experience on an archaeological site but, after the first few days, I knew that I had signed up for something truly special.

The general feeling and attitude around site was so positive and strong, and the friendships that are formed because of the site are quite amazing. The people I have met here onsite are some of the nicest, friendliest people I have encountered. I am going to miss them all desperately when I return to the States.

Upon arrival, I was initially placed in Structure Twelve, with the rest of my Willamette group, but, as they were scattered about the rest of the site, I stayed in Structure Twelve to help clean up for a photo. Little did I know that Structure Twelve would essentially become my home for the next four weeks.

I have watched, and helped, Structure Twelve go from a pile of rubble into an amazing couple of walls! I have never been more proud of a wall in my life. I am forever amazed by the things that uncovering a bit of dirt can reveal!

As my time here in Orkney is winding down, I find myself never wanting to leave.

Orkney and the Ness of Brodgar now hold a piece of my heart that will forever bring me back here as often as possible.

So, to everyone on site – see you next year!

To everyone else – you should definitely pay ‘the Ness’ a visit!


My name is Elle and I live in Santa Barbara, California.

I am also a student at Willamette University, in Salem, and I am double majoring in environmental science and archaeology.

This is my second year returning to the Ness and it has been an interesting experience to watch it grow over the course of two seasons of excavation.

Kiki mentioned her pride at watching the walls of Structure Twelve emerging slowly from the ground.  I feel that same pride thinking back to my first days, last year, when those walls were still mostly ink splatters on the geophysical reports.

It was my first time excavating and I couldn’t even begin to express how exciting it was to see the walls of the structure exposed for the first time in thousands of years.  Now, in my second year on the site, I find that my excitement hasn’t diminished even a tiny bit.

Watching the walls, and all of the amazing artefacts, emerging is just as exciting now as it was for me a year ago.

Particularly special to me this year was the pot which I excavated. In a fit of perfect timing, I found a pot rim on the last day of excavation last year.  We covered it in plastic and a tray and I was jokingly told that if I promised to come back it would be saved for me.  I was adamant that I would return to see that pot excavated.  Some luck, and help from my family, brought me back to site this year and I was very pleased to find that the trays and plastic were still in place.  I did not imagine, at the time, that I would be spending the next three-and-a-half weeks excavating that pot and another which I found just an arm’s length away.

As exciting as watching Structure Twelve emerge was, there was something special, to me, about these two pots.

There were a number of beautifully decorated bits that we were able to lift in one piece, but, by and large, the pot was not wholly recoverable, due to the state of the badly fired clay.  But there was a short period of time, after I had scraped away all of the dirt and before we started to actually lift the pot, that I was able to see them almost whole.

I am told that, based on the size, they were probably storage vessels of some sort.  Seeing them sitting there, whole, just how they were sat thousands of years ago, is the most amazing thing to me.

I suppose I am just rambling at this point, but it is moments like those that make the excavation more than worth the two days it takes me to travel here.

All I have left to say is that I can’t wait to see you again next year!

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