Dig Diary – Funerary role for Structure Twenty-Seven? Bookan cairn parallels resurface after today’s discoveries
Tuesday, July 25, 2023
There is no doubt that Structure Twenty-Seven is a puzzling building.
Visitors will have heard us declare that it is unique in the Orcadian Neolithic record and that we don’t actually know what it was for.
However, long-time readers will remember that back in the mists of time (July 2015, to be exact), when the first walls began to appear, we considered the possibility it was a chambered, or stalled, cairn of some sort.
Work in Trench T began in 2013, when it was thought to be nothing more than a “monumental pile of rubbish” — a visible example of conspicuous consumption and a reflection of the status and affluence of the Ness left for all to see.
In 2014, however, the stump of a standing stone turned up at the foot of the mound, suggesting there might be more to it.
In 2015, wall sections and orthostats were found at the bottom of the trench, followed, in 2016, by massive stone slabs in the remains of a puzzling structure.
At the time we felt these structural remnants represented a chambered cairn – similar to the one site director Nick had excavated at Bookan in 2002, a mile or so to the north-west of the Ness complex. You can read all about this cairn, here.
By 2017, Nick more convinced than ever that there was a link between Structure Twenty-Seven and the Bookan chambered cairn.
But over the past few years the idea was shelved…
Chris Gee, excavating a deep sondage beside the north-eastern prone orthostat and stone-cladding, found a thick layer of clay underlying what appeared to be Twenty-Seven’s yellow clay floor.
Also like Barnhouse’s Structure Eight, orthostatic features within Twenty-Eight – such as the prone stones and cladding slabs – appear to have been inserted into the clay platform before the building’s floor was laid around them.
This shows the construction was well planned and highlights the preparation and skill of the Neolithic builders.
It has also prompted Nick to revisit his Bookan theory and he now wonders whether Twenty-Seven shared a similar architecture to chambered cairn – albeit on a much larger scale.
“There’s more life in the Bookan comparison than we thought,” he said this afternoon.
Instead of the stone cladding covering all the building’s interior wall face, Nick wonders whether, in some sections, the slabs were much lower, perhaps forming a threshold to a cell – or cells – built into Twenty-Eight’s thick walls.
These, he suggested, might indicate a funerary, or mortuary, nature to the building.
The idea of cells is strengthened by the fact that some of the surviving stones in the robbed-out wall sections seem to be faced – as you would expect if they formed the sides of a potential chamber.
Like Structure Twenty-Seven, the Bookan cairn was almost levelled in prehistory, before a stepped edifice was constructed on top.
But what else was going on today?
Outside Twenty-Seven, we welcomed Jackson Clark, a Masters by Research student at the UHI Archaeology Institute, who will be examining the burnt animal bone from the Ness.
On site, Jackson took over from Nate and is continuing to excavate the animal bone deposit outside the north-western wall.
Talking of which, Nick was commenting today that the quality of the wall continues to have the “Wow” factor. Everyone he has taken around the site is simply astonished, and impressed, by the immaculate stonework.
If you’ve not seen it yet, do drop by. It really is worth it!
Inside the building, work to remove the infill continued apace – but still slowed down somewhat by the roof tiles littering the area. These have to excavated and recorded separately, which considerably slows down the process of removing the deposits.
Structure Twelve is proving to be every bit as stubborn as Twenty-Seven.
It continued to be a pain in the…
Linda continued recording the red ash deposit in the north-western recess and it is now ready to remove and reveal more of the stonework peeping up from beneath Twelve.
The same question can be asked of the stone-built feature that has appeared in Twelve’s south-western recess. Does this relate to Structures Twenty-Eight, Twenty-Three or something entirely different?
And that was before a third, unexpected curving wall section became apparent in the northern section, running across the building. What does it represent? That’s the million-dollar question.
Is it the end wall of Structure Twenty-Eight? If so was this building shorter than we thought? Or not exactly where we thought it was?
We’ll have to get back to you on that one!
You can understand why Structure Twelve’s supervisor Jim had the look of a haunted man as we headed home today.
Before we leave Twelve, Jan finished planning her sondage in the south-western corner recess, while Gianluca began removing the later, scrappy wall in the north-eastern corner.
We’re back to earlier buildings in Structure Ten, where more of Structure Twenty’s earlier pier was revealed. Over in the area of the south-western buttress, the sound of trowels could faintly be hearth over that of gnashing teeth.
The source of the frustration continued to be the disturbed nature of the deposits – it really is a mess of interleaving layers, collapsed floors and patched-up repairs.
But we have every faith that Lisa, Michele and Nick J. will make sense of it. But we don’t envy them.
Work in the north end of Structure One, is producing quantities of pottery and animal remains – including a hefty mandible this afternoon.
At the south end, the excavation of the building’s secondary hearth is all but complete, with the hearthstones meticulously recorded and safely removed.
Outside the south-eastern corner of Structure One, Lena has opened a new section across the rubble overlying the central paved area – the goal to see whether more paving lies beneath and to see whether there more foundation stones can be found at the bast of its walls.
Nearby, Emma continued her hunt for more of Structure Twenty-Nine‘s north-facing section – but any evidence proved elusive.
It was all about hearths again in Structure Eight today, where the team were recording and planning the two they are focusing on.
And in Trench J, all eyes were on the floors. Literally.
In Structure Five‘s original, southern section, Ralph, Siobhan and Catriona were working down through the sondages running up along the middle of the building, while Aaron and Sarah toiled with the tumultuous floor deposits around the removed hearth in the northern extension.
We’ll finish tonight with a plea to drone owners.
Please, please, please do not send your drones skywards over the Ness of Brodgar excavation site.
There was an episode this morning, when an unknown drone buzzed the site, forcing us to ground our own – for safety reasons – and delaying our plans to record and photograph the site.
We’ll be back tomorrow.