Dig Diary – Farewells, finds, frustrations and revelations
Friday, July 21, 2023
Here we are at the end of week three!
It has been one of those Friday’s tinged with sadness because we have to bid farewell to those whose time volunteering at the Ness has come to an end.
As we’ve stressed repeatedly, the Ness project is funded primarily by public donation. Our visiting archaeologists, finds team and meet-and-greeters receive no recompense. They come from all over the world and give us their time and expertise for free, covering their travel and accommodation costs themselves.
Without them we simply could not have run the Ness project for so many years.
An added bonus is that we now have a Ness “family”.
Just as it may have been in the Neolithic, friendships are forged within these two fields in Stenness. And every year it’s always a delight to welcome back familiar faces.
So, to all of you heading home, and those already departed – including Louise, Jem, Nate, Eleanor and Bethan – we offer our sincerest thanks for all you have contributed. We really could not do what we do without folk like you.
That uncharacteristic bout of emotion out of the way, lets get on with the archaeology.
It has been another busy day – not to mention interesting, enlightening and frustrating in equal measures.
Structure Twelve’s north-western recess – the “slow cooker” – has turned out to be yet another example of the Ness biting back. Just when we think we know what’s going on, the site throws us a curve-ball. Just to remind us not to think we’re too clever.
The discovery of a large stone slab running at a bizarre angle under the north-western wall saw a lot of head scratching. It really doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t seem to relate to Structure Twenty-Eight, Twelve’s predecessor, nor any features in Twelve. So why place, or leave, it there?
It also lies beside a fairly substantial post-hole in the recess. There will be much debate about this in the coming days.
The south-western corner recess, however, was behaving in an eminently more sensible way.
Jan has now excavated down to what is probably the remains of the corner of Structure Twenty-Eight’s internal south-western corner.
This early building has clearly been extensively robbed – as we already knew from the material from Twenty-Eight re-used in Twelve – and, once again, confirms again that Twelve was not built on anything remotely resembling a firm foundation.
Beside the central pier, on the western side, Eleanor started to reveal a slot that probably held a stone slab separating the south-western recess from the interior of the building. We have encountered these orthostatic dividers elsewhere on site, particularly in Structure Eight.
Outside Twelve, Chris Marshall has been working outside the building’s blocked-up (first phase) north-western entrance. Today he has exposed flagstone paving in the area that is a continuation of the paving around the central standing stone.
We had already exposed the curving, north-eastern end of Twenty-Nine, which pokes from the trench section beside the central standing stone and paved area.
The paving runs up to the walls of Twenty-Nine, respecting them, showing that it was built around the same time the paving was laid.
However, Structure Twelve’s newly exposed outer wall stands on top of the of the paving, confirming that it is slightly later in date that Twenty-Nine.
It’s also abundantly clear that the quality of Twelve’s northern exterior wall leaves a lot to be desired!
They have achieved, admirably, what we tasked them to do – open a trench extension and expose another section of the northern boundary wall, aka the “Great Wall of Brodgar”.
Their work has added to the growing body of knowledge about the Ness complex – one more piece of a jigsaw we can put together to understand this remarkable site.
Although we don’t have steps on the outer wall face, the students have revealed evidence of its deliberate dismantling and its height.
Elsewhere in Trench J, Sarah and Aaron worked away removing the floor deposits in Structure Five‘s northern extension, while Kate and Claire removed the later hearth deposits lying over yet another furniture feature – a probable “dresser” akin to the other six in the building.
Meanwhile, in Structure One, Bethan unearthed a lovely example of a cobblestone hammer stone/anvil.
A larger version of Ray’s “egg” from Structure Eight yesterday, Bethan’s stone has impact marks on all its sides where it has been used to strike something else.
It also bears the tell-tale impact marks of its use as an anvil.
Like Structure Twelve, One was being something of a headache.
We have a yellow clay floor in the southern half, which, in the northern section, comes to an abrupt halt and disappears. The only thing we can think of is that the northern floor was completely removed after the phase two wall was inserted across the middle of the building.
Hopefully further excavation will clarify the situation.
We’ll end today in Structure Twenty-Seven, where there has been great progress under the watchful eye of supervisor Rick.
Today marked the end of the first week of excavation experience for most of the Willamette University students. And we can categorically state that they have been doing a wonderful job.
More evidence of stone features inside the building are beginning to emerge – including another orthostat near the south-western wall.
We’re very hopeful that more such features have survived and will be revealed in the days to come. These will help decipher the role of this decidedly enigmatic building.
Chris Gee has been working on the south-eastern side of Twenty-Seven, looking at the robber-cut where Neolithic stone-hunters not only removed the entire wall but also attempted to remove the prone orthostats that held the stone-cladding against the interior wall face.
Thankfully they abandoned the operation, leaving the prone orthostats in place. But Chris has revealed some very telling clues into the story of Twenty-Seven. The construction cut shows the packing stones used to position the prone orthostats as well as the slabs cladding the interior wall.
Among the finds from Twenty-Seven today was a very fine decorated stone, spotted by Estella. Congratulations to her for noticing the very delicate incised chevrons running along the top of an incredibly small stone slab!
Outside the north-western wall, Nate continued exploring more of the animal bone deposit. His initial observations show that this deposit is not as structured as that surrounding Structure Ten.
The bone outside Twenty-Seven’s wall is also much more mixed – as Professor Ingrid Mainland of the UHI Archaeology Institute suggested after her initial examination last year. The bone assemblage seems to made up primarily of young sheep with a few examples of young cattle.
And last but not least is a find that points to the very human story of people who frequented the Ness.
In the area where Olivia found the hearth-like stone feature earlier in the week, she lifted what initially appeared to be a roof tile. But closer investigation revealed that someone in the Neolithic had attempted to drill a hole through the slab.
Their drilling efforts seem to have failed. The slab fractured, so was abandoned. Olivia and Phoenix did an absolutely stellar job excavating the pieces today and afterwards put them all together before carefully transferring the reconstructed stone to the finds hut.
It has been a difficult week, weatherwise, so time now to rest weary muscles and partake of a refreshment or two.
Have a good weekend. We’ll be back on Monday with more news.