Dig Diary – It’s been a damp day shifting tyres, so here’s our plans for 2023

A chain of diggers and volunteers removing the tyres from Trench P. (Sigurd Towrie)
A chain of diggers and volunteers removing the tyres from Trench P. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Day One
Monday, July 3, 2023

I’m sure we say it every year but this time it seems especially true. It really is hard to believe that it’s been ten months since the covers went bck on! The time’s gone by in the blink of an eye and here we are again – back on site and raring to go.

2023 is a special year on two fronts. It’s not only the 20th anniversary of the Neolithic complex’s discovery but the penultimate season of excavation, with fieldwork coming to an end at the end of the 2024 dig.

Allette, Ray, Paul, Chris, Linda and Jem outside Structure One. (Sigurd Towrie)
Alette, Ray, Paul, Chris, Linda and Jem outside Structure One. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

As always, day one began with the team assembling on site. There were old and new faces – the experienced Ness diggers wincing slightly at the thought of all the tyres, sandbags and covers that must be removed from all three trenches before we can get back to the archaeology.

Fortunately, we were aided in this task by a willing group of volunteers who had answered our appeal for help. There was some relief on site that the rain forecast for the morning didn’t appear in significance quantities. Instead it decided to wait till afternoon to put in an appearance.

So it began. The slow and steady uncovering of the trenches…

Water, water, everywhere...supervisor Paul wading through Trench J. (Sigurd Towrie)
Water, water, everywhere…supervisor Paul wading through Trench J. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

After weeks of dry weather, the concerns that Orkney might be facing a drought were firmly laid to rest at the weekend, when the heavens opened. All that rain meant conditions on site were not particularly pleasant today, with huge volumes of standing water in some of the buildings – particularly in and around Structures Twelve and Five

On the sunniest of days the job of removing the tyres is both dirty and arduous. Today it was not helped by the rainwater. But the team soldiered on and by the time the rain returned, after lunch, the bulk of the tyres had been removed from all three trenches. A magnificent job in some not very summer-like conditions.

The next task will be mopping up the pools of water lying atop the protective covers before they too can be removed.

Ending the day in incessant rain over in Trench T. (Sigurd Towrie)
Ending the day, in incessant rain, over in Trench T. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Rolling the tyres from Trench P to be stacked alongside the spoil heap. (Sigurd Towrie)
Rolling the tyres from Trench P to be stacked alongside the spoil heap. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Site director Nick was delighted with the day’s progress and grateful for the hard work of everyone on site.

Tomorrow, which looks like being drier and less windy (god forbid the sun puts in an appearance), should see the last of the tyres removed and the covers coming off.

Then, on Wednesday, the work of tidying and cleaning the trenches will begin, after which excavation will resume in most areas.

So what are we planning for 2023?

With fieldwork ending after the 2024 season, there are many loose ends that need to be tied up. Post-excavation and phasing analysis have also generated several questions that require answers.

So, for the first time since 2019, the entire site will be uncovered, the goal being complete as much of the excavated buildings as possible, tying in their primary phases with later additions and features.

Drone shot of Structure Twenty-Seven at the end of the 2022 excavation season. (Scott Pike)
Drone shot of Structure Twenty-Seven at the end of the 2022 excavation season. (📷 Scott Pike)

All eyes will be on Structure Twenty-Seven – the enigmatic building that lay buried beneath tonnes of deliberately deposited domestic refuse. This rectangular building is as big as it is perplexing. Whatever it was, it is unlike any other examples of Neolithic architecture excavated in Orkney, or elsewhere, to date.

Unfortunately, Structure Twenty-Seven, which was buried beneath tons of deliberately deposited domestic refuse after it was abandoned, suffered major episodes of stone robbing that resulted in the removal of most of its south-eastern and south-western walls.

It had long been hoped that more of the north-western wall had survived, and in 2022, our prayers were answered. As the overlying layers of midden and rubble were removed, the wall’s stunning masonry shone through.

It was, quite simply, exquisite. This year we’ll be revealing more of this beautiful wall and will hopefully get down to the building’s floor levels.

Another view, this time with the incredible north-western wall face in the shot. (Sigurd Towrie)
Structure Twenty-Seven’s incredible north-western wall face. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

As the 2022 season drew to a close there were hints that Twenty-Seven, like Structure Ten, was surrounded by a paved passageway. The parallels continued with the discovery of large quantities of animal remains in the area.

Fans of the Ness will immediately recall the mass of cattle bone placed around Structure Ten after its “decommissioning feast” around 2400BC.

A preliminary examination of the Structure Twenty-Seven remains, by Professor Ingrid Mainland, of the UHI Archaeology Institute, confirmed it was akin to that around Ten, but made up of made up of different bone. She will return to the deposit this year, excavating and recording it using the same techniques pioneered around Structure Ten.

Ten’s elaborate bone deposit will also be revisited in 2023.

Trench P will be extended to the south-east of Structure Ten to allow Professor Mainland and her team to excavate, record and sample what appears to be another part of the decommissioning feast assemblage first encountered in 2013.

Inside Ten work will continue on its primary floor levels.

Dating to around 3300BC, Structure Five is the earliest excavated building on site. Last year, two large, well-built post-holes were discovered in covered depressions on either side of the south-eastern doorway, with another four found against the interior walls of the original building.

The location of the Structure Five post-holes. (Scott Pike)
The location of the Structure Five post-holes. (📷 Scott Pike)

These substantial posts formed a rectangle approximated seven metres by four metres. If they helped support the roof it is a feature unique to Structure Five. Elsewhere on site, where evidence of post use has been found, it pointed to hasty structural repairs.

One of the five, very substantial, post-holes inside Structure Five. (Jo Bourne)
One of the substantial post-holes inside Structure Five. (📷 Jo Bourne)

Because the post-holes lay beneath Structure Five’s clay floor, this year, we will examine whether they relate to Structure Five and its roof or remnants of an earlier, possibly timber, building.

Whatever their role, the Structure Five posts were carefully removed when the building’s original section went out of use.

The posts gone, artefacts – including stone tools, a decorated stone and a whale vertebra – were deposited in the empty sockets before being carefully covered over.

Structure Twelve. Flanked by Structures Twenty-Six, Thirty and Ten. (📷 Nick Card.)

We last explored Structure Twelve in 2021, and this year, our investigation will focus on its primary floor deposits and how the building, and its use, changed over time.

This year we also hope to reveal more about its underlying predecessor, Structure Twenty-Eight.

In the same area, there are plans to investigate the relationship between Structures Twelve/Twenty-Eight and its unexcavated neighbour, Structure Thirty.

Structure Thirty from the eastern entrance annexe of Structure Twelve. (Sigurd Towrie)
Structure Thirty from the eastern entrance annexe of Structure Twelve. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Stepping out of the trenches, a two-day event in July will bring together most of the specialists involved in the Ness of Brodgar project.

The meeting – at Orkney College UHI and on site – will discuss the next phases of post-excavation and ultimately the overall publication of the dig data.

But before all that, we’ve got more tyres and covers to remove. So we’ll sign off there for today.

Until tomorrow…

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