Human remains under Structure Ten
Our determination to talk about the weather yesterday has come back to bite us with a vengeance. We had barely recovered from yesterday’s sun-stroke and dehydration when this morning arrived, heralded by louring dark clouds and a fitful, unhappy wind.
By midday, the wind had become a seriously distressed, raging affair, accompanied by horizontal rain, and all of it back-lit by the most eerie brownish-grey clouds. Now there is thunder and lightning.
It is, in short, impossible to work, and almost impossible to walk in an upright position. All excavation has stopped.
None of this alters the very exciting news we promised you at the beginning of the week, so here it is.
Excavation around the south-west corner buttress of Structure Ten has always been recognised as a delicate business in an important area.
The buttresses are part of the remodelling of the structure, which took place around c. 2900-2800BC, when the original squarish central chamber was replaced by a cruciform-shaped chamber.
Two of the buttresses have already produced exciting finds, such as a carved stone ball, the magnificent incised stone and an upright vessel with vertical “stitching”, all of them representing items deliberately deposited, presumably to mark the remodelling.
Today’s news far outreaches all of that.
The removal of several stone roof slabs, re-used in the building works, uncovered a large spread of bone, mostly cattle – some of it articulated and therefore ideal for dating.
Lying alongside it was a long, and more delicate, bone, which instantly aroused suspicion.
It looked human, but was it?
Visits from experts Dr Ingrid Mainland and Dr Dave Lawrence confirmed that the bone was from a mature adult and was a humerus, or upper arm bone.
This is a momentous discovery which raises a myriad of questions.
It is possible that the bone is a deliberate deposition to mark the re-emergence of Structure Ten after extensive remodelling, but is there more human bone, perhaps from the same person, present nearby or at the other buttresses?
Who was this person?
Have they been moved from a chambered tomb, perhaps the one which may lie at the bottom of Trench T? And what is their relationship to The Ness?
Are they the remains of an ancestor, perhaps one of the original founders of the complex or structure, remembered and brought back to celebrate and sanctify its renewal?
It is clear from other Neolithic sites that there was a veneration of those who had gone before and, just as the structures, tombs and monumental buildings like the Ness were remembered, treasured and curated generation by generation, so were the remains of those who had initiated such extraordinary buildings and complexes.
These foundation deposits may, therefore, be the last resting place for one of the original founders?
It is tempting to take things further in our minds, and we all have favourite theories and musings about such things.
But, and this is important, our theories must be founded on scientific truths and so must further work on this extraordinary find.
Perhaps there will be more discoveries, but the task for tomorrow, and the days to come, is to carefully remove, with due reverence, to the remains, assess the evidence and to carry on with the same painstaking excavation which brought it to life in the first place.
Rest assured, if there is more to tell you all, we will.
Now that much of the excavation is concentrated on the floors of the structure, the finds hut is much less busy.
It is clear from the pottery assemblage alone that the bulk of our 40,000 plus sherds was contained within the infilling midden, although the story of how it got there, how it was deposited and why there appear to be special depositions, has still to be told.
Interesting sherds are still turning up and careful cleaning by Olga of an otherwise undistinguished sherd from Trench T revealed a complex pattern of at least three decorative techniques on one small sherd. Hopefully, there will be more to come.
Congratulations, now, to Alette from Leiden University in the Netherlands.
She came here last year as an intern in the Archaeology Institute and quickly established herself as a hard-working and talented excavator.
She is back this year as assistant to our Geomatics officer, Mark, and is busy doing all sorts of recording work with him.
Impressively, she has sailed through her undergraduate final thesis at Leiden with an excellent mark and is now preparing for a research Masters degree in human osteology at the same university. That’s just the sort of expertise we will need in the future if we discover more human bone.
Welcome, also to Sarah Cobain, a long-time veteran supervisor of Structure Ten, who has arrived at an exciting moment for her structure.
Today’s soggy welcome was not ideal, but Sarah will be in the trenches tomorrow and eager to go.
As will we all (lightning permitting).
Until then . . .
The F word
My name is Anne Mitchell and this is my eighth year heading up the finds team at the Ness.
The time I spend here is the most hectic, but enjoyable, of my year – new friends, old friends, fabulous finds, one of the best archaeological explorations currently under way – anywhere.
For the last couple of years, I’ve worked increasingly to help take some of the load from site director, Nick, taking on some of the organising and working towards bringing in funding.
And there it is – the F word.
Funding is the trickiest problem we face and I want here to explain a bit about how we try hard to make a little go a long way.
The majority of the funding for the Ness of Brodgar does not come from local or central government. Neither has major funding for the Ness and we live with that. We are very grateful for the financial and in-kind support both do give. But it means an extraordinary effort to make the books balance annually, and to save for the future work we must do.
The Ness, like all the other digs the Archaeology Institute of UHI, the University of the Highlands & islands is involved in, has an increasing impact on Orkney’s massively important tourist economy and is happy to be a catalyst in bringing large numbers of visitors here in July and August. We get support from businesses across Orkney – even not having to buy hand-wash, means more money for the dig itself.
Every guidebook to the Ness, every postcard sold helps. Every square sponsored on site plays its part in making the science happen, letting the annual excavations take place. Every pound in the site donations box and to the Ness of Brodgar Trust’s online bank account helps.
Many volunteers mean we can spin the funding further, with a tiny proportion of the team on site receiving remuneration for their hard and highest-class work: professional archaeologists join the Ness on busmen’s holidays; students and lay-archaeologists come to pursue their passion for archaeology – some come for a couple of weeks, others the whole eight weeks – a big investment in time and rent (and Orkney’s economy).
The same applies to the volunteer work done outside the digging period – finds work, sample & data processing, the preparation of supplies for the next period on site.
The Ness guidebook was created almost entirely by volunteer effort, with photographs gifted by Jim Richardson of National Geographic, Hugo Anderson-Whymark and many others, while printing was funded by donations to the American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar.
The Ness web-presence is courtesy of Sigurd Towrie and Caz Mamwell, of Orkney Archaeological Tours.
And so the list goes on – a large community of Ness supporters, allowing the work to go ahead, all deserving a rousing cheer for everything you do.
But – and you knew there was one – all of this effort, and magicking of the very most from what we have, still leaves us hard-pushed.
We now have grave concerns about what lies ahead as Britain’s current European relationships are readjusted – grants which we hoped to pursue may prove horribly elusive. We obviously push every possibility but to do that, we need to have time to do so and funds to pay the team of 1.5 people who basically make the thing happen.
Nick is senior projects manager of ORCA, with a myriad of other projects to run, over and above the Ness; I do what hours the project can afford.
And that’s how it is.
It’s the same for archaeological research projects across the UK. We do our very best to make the Ness the best archaeological exploration we can, to raise Orkney’s world-wide profile and to give you the best experience of this amazing place. If we fall short, we apologise, but it’s that F word which trips us up.