Dig Diary – The ‘Great Wall’ emerges from Trench J’s new extension

The Ness of Brodgar excavation site from above this morning. (Scott Pike)

The Ness of Brodgar excavation site from above this morning. (Scott Pike)

Day Six
Monday, July 10, 2023

The start of week two and another batch of diggers gathered on site this morning – a mix of familiar and new faces.

Amid the new arrivals were students from the UHI Archaeology Institute, most of whom, after their site induction talks, were set to work in Trench J.

Their task was to open up the extension running across a section of the northern boundary wall (aka the “Great Wall of Brodgar”).

De-turfing begins on Trench J’s latest extension. (Sigurd Towrie)

This began with the arduous task of de-turfing. I’m sure there are not many archaeologists who consider de-turfing to be fun.

A spade has to cut neat lines in the turf outlining the area to be removed and the turf has then to be peeled back and removed.

Where the weather has been dry – as Orkney’s has (give or take a few deluges) for weeks – the turf and topsoil are hard and the Orkney grass has enthusiastically burrowed its roots deep into the ground in search of moisture.

The turf removed, it's time for the mattocks. (Sigurd Towrie)

The turf removed, it’s time for the mattocks. (Sigurd Towrie)

It’s not an easy job. But with perseverance and gritted teeth the job was completed. Then it was time for the mattocks — think pickaxe with a spade-like business end) — to start loosening the compacted topsoil for carting away in wheelbarrows.

The result of all this hard work was that the upper levels of the wall’s outer wall face was peeking above the surface by close of business.

Trench J supervisor Paul lends his shadow so we can see the outer face of the 'Great Wall' appear beneath the topsoil. (Sigurd Towrie)

Trench J supervisor Paul lends his shadow so we can see the outer face of the ‘Great Wall’ appear beneath the topsoil. (Sigurd Towrie)

The 'Great Wall' emerges...again. (Sigurd Towrie)

The ‘Great Wall’ emerges…again. (Sigurd Towrie)

Elsewhere in Trench J, Sarah and Nate continued work on the floors of Structure Five’s northern extension.

Directly to their south the floor surface of Five’s original rectangular section was successfully gridded out (divided into squares) ready for this year’s floor sampling to begin. This is a complex process that takes time, but which is invaluable for the recovery of information about the use of the building throughout its life.

Chris, Claire and Structure Five's gridded out floor surface. (Sigurd Towrie)

Chris, Claire and Structure Five’s gridded out floor surface. (Sigurd Towrie)

Some of the other new arrivals were despatched to Structure Twelve, which has been dormant so far this season. There, under the watchful eye of Linda, work to clean the interior surfaces began.

This is in advance of excavation resuming when supervisor Jim returns to site and also to get the building ready for a drone photography session.

The cleaning in and around Twelve will continue tomorrow and will expand to take in its neighbour Structure Twenty-Six.

Cleaning begins inside Structure Twelve. (Sigurd Towrie)

Cleaning begins inside Structure Twelve. (Sigurd Towrie)

In Structure Eight, work around the building’s sole entrance continued apace. The team are gradually unpicking the sequence of events around the remodelling of the north-facing doorway that saw it reduced in size considerably.

Eight is the only excavated piered-building on site to have a single entrance. Given it is the largest, measuring over 18 metres long by 9.5 metres wide, its tiny 60cm wide door has long been a puzzling feature.

We had thought the northern entrance belonged to the building’s primary phase, but excavation in 2022 suggested otherwise.

If, as we suspect from its size and multiple hearths, Structure Eight played host to large gatherings then its narrow, single entrance is hardly the most practical – particularly when you consider the size of some of the pottery vessels found on site.

The possible extend of the original Structure Eight entrance marked in red.

The possible extent of the original Structure Eight entrance marked in red. (Sigurd Towrie)

Work in Eight’s northern end last year revealed signs of rebuilding around the doorway, pointing to an original entrance that was much, much bigger – perhaps in the region of two metres wide!

Alette calibrating levels settings outside Structure Eight this morning. (Sigurd Towrie)

Alette calibrating levels settings outside Structure Eight this morning. (Sigurd Towrie)

The stones on either side of the small entrance are not tied in, suggesting a rather unimpressive reconstruction to narrow the access.

This may have occurred during the building’s second phase after the collapse of the roof’s southern end around 3000-2900BC.

Watch this space for updates.

Meanwhile, in the southern end of Eight, Kristina and Ceiridwen’s continued their work in Structure Seventeen – one of Eight’s two predecessor.

They are focusing in the area around the building’s hearth and have revealed a very neat “halo” of yellow clay emanating outwards. This ends sharply and we seem have another yellow clay surface (but this one slightly different) — the significance of which is not yet clear.

Are we looking are repair work around the hearth leading out to the original floor? Or something entirely different? As I seem to say on a daily basis, watch this space.

Work in Structure One has not only continued to focus on the floor deposits but also the socket-holes of the second phase orthostats inserted across the centre of the building.

Vertical shot of Phase Two Structure One. (ORCA)

Structure One, with the curving wall (and orthostats) inserted at the start of the building’s second phase visible on the right-hand side.

Around 2900BC — roughly the same time as Structure Ten was constructed – Structure One was reduced in size when a substantial, curving wall was inserted across the middle of its northern half.

A row of three large orthostats was also inserted into the new wall, creating a series of end cells and side recesses. These gave the remodelled interior a cruciform layout, at the heart of which was a single stone hearth.

Travis at the interface of Structure Ten and its predecessor Structure Twenty. (Sigurd Towrie)

Travis at the interface of Structure Ten and its predecessor Structure Twenty. (Sigurd Towrie)

Talking of Structure Ten, Johanna and Travis have been investigating the interface between it and Structure Twenty – which lies beneath.

It now seems that Twenty’s wall was left to run beautifully towards Ten but dismantled to allow the construction of Structure Ten’s entrance and eastern wall around 2900BC. Technically, it’s a little bit more complicated than that, but it’s been a long, hot day. Rest assured, we’ll keep you posted on developments.

Another welcome face today was Professor Scott Pike, from Willamette University, Oregon, USA. Scott has arrived in Orkney in advance of the Willamette students who begin arriving at the end of the week and will be on site next Monday.

Scott brought his new drone with him and took advantage of the beautiful weather (and practically no wind) to send it skywards and capture some shots for us.

Sigurd and this morning's 11am tour at Trench T. (Scott Pike)

Sigurd and this morning’s 11am tour at Trench T. (Scott Pike)

While the weather is undoubtedly not the only reason, it probably helped swell the number of site visitors today. The first public tour of the day saw a group of around 100 people, led by Sigurd, introduced (or in many cases, reintroduced) to this wonderful site.

The volume of visitors meant there were (by necessity) a few instances of tour shuffling through the day, with site director Nick also giving group tours this morning and a visit from students from the EPSRC and NERC Industrial CDT for Offshore Renewable Energy (IDCORE) in the afternoon.

But we managed and hope that all enjoyed their time on site surrounded by all the glorious archaeology.

We’ll be back tomorrow and look forward to seeing you then.

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