All set for 2024 – plans for the final season of fieldwork

Trench J and P looking south-east.  (📷 Tom O'Brien)
Trench J and P looking south-east in 2023. (📷 Tom O’Brien)

How time flies! We can hardly believe that in a week’s time we’re back on site for the final season of excavation on the Ness of Brodgar.

There will inevitably be mixed emotions this year – the Ness has become a major part of our lives – and Orkney life in general – every summer for the past 20 years. But it’s important to stress again that although digging might be over, the project continues with the vitally important post-excavation phase.

As always, archaeologists and diggers from all over the world will be heading to Orkney to take part. So, what’s on the cards this year?

First and foremost, we’ll be tying up loose ends before the trenches are backfilled in August. This will involve checking all site records to ensure they are 100 per cent accurate. In addition, we’ll be recording all the structures, planning, photographing and documenting from every angle and creating new 3d models in even greater detail. Busy times ahead!

The location of Trench I in 2005.

Despite it being our final dig season, eyebrows were raised when site director Nick announced plans to open a new trench! Strictly speaking, it’s not new trench. The plan is to reopen and expand part of Trench I, to the north-west of Trench P.

In 2005, it revealed the part of a stalled building, Structure Two, which, based on the visible architecture and stratigraphy is early and pre-dates the later piered buildings in Trench P (e.g. Structures One, Eight, Twelve and Fourteen).

The revisited Trench I will be the focus of this year’s UHI Archaeology Institute field school and the goal is to expose more of Structure Two, reach its occupation deposits and hopefully get dates to see whether it is contemporary with Structure Five, the earliest excavated building on site (c. 3300BC).

Meanwhile, in Trench P work will concentrate on finishing the excavation of all the structures’ primary floor levels. At the same time the diggers will be looking for more evidence of earlier buildings, particularly in Structure Seventeen – one of Structure Eight’s two predecessors. There, as well as carefully sampling the floor, which will allow comparisons between the use of Seventeen and Eight – the team will be keeping an eye out for any indications of earlier activity beneath.

  • Early Piered Buildings
  • Phase One piered buildings
  • Phase Two piered buildings.
Structure Twenty (red) in relation to Structure Ten.
Structure Twenty (red) in relation to Structure Ten.

In Structure Ten, more of its predecessor, Structure Twenty, will be revealed and, again, the goal is to reach its floor level and, hopefully, secure dating material.

Regular readers will recall that in Structure Twelve, the 2023 dig ended with much head-scratching. A narrow sondage inside the building revealed multiple features lying underneath, and pre-dating, Twelve.

Although one definitely related to Structure Twenty-Eight, Twelve’s known predecessor, the others were slightly more perplexing and included what may be part of another earlier building, Structure Twenty-Four, voids potentially relating to the trench-spanning “mega drain” and assorted masonry.

Clearly there was a lot going on in the area before the Structure Twelve was raised around 3100BC, but exactly what could not be fully understood in such a small window.

Things were further complicated by the appearance another wall section emerging from the floor of Structure Twelve and running across the middle of its northern section. This wall does not fit the footprint of known earlier buildings so what it represents remains unclear.

The plan this summer is to finish the floor deposits in Twelve and, hopefully, the situation beneath will become clearer.

The fact that Structure One had not suffered from the subsidence that plagued, and inevitably doomed, its neighbours led to the idea that it was not built over an earlier building. But at the end of the 2023 season, large blocks of stone appeared beneath the primary floor. So, naturally, this summer we’ll be investigating further to see whether these represent a predecessor.

2023: Structure Twenty-Seven at the south-western end of Trench P. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
2023: Structure Twenty-Seven at the south-western end of Trench P. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Over at the south-eastern end of the site, work to reveal more of the floorplan of the magnificent Structure Twenty-Seven will continue. This might include exposing the building’s north-western corner, which is still overlain by deep deposits of midden.

In addition, the Trench T team will be looking to clarify the sequence of the enigmatic building, perhaps using slot trenches running across the interior to expedite the process. Multiple samples of prehistoric timber were recovered from the floor deposits in 2023 and the same seems likely this season. Work will also concentrate on revealing more of the internal furniture features lining the inner walls.

Structure Twenty-Seven reconstruction. (📷 Paul Durdin)
Structure Twenty-Seven reconstruction. (📷 Paul Durdin)

Last, but not least, we turn to Structure Five, where the primary floor level has also been reached. To secure every scrap of information that will help us see how the building was used, 2024 will see the painstaking process of floor sampling continue.

Like the other buildings, hopes are high that we might also glimpse what, if anything, lies beneath this early building and which could turn out to be the earliest evidence of activity on the Ness. Fingers crossed!

Structure Five and the 'Great Wall of Brodgar'.  (📷 Tom O'Brien)
Structure Five and the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’. (📷 Tom O’Brien)

Although our team will be back on site from Monday, June 24, the excavation only opens to the public on Wednesday, June 26. This year’s open days take place on July 14, and August 4, on site and in the Stenness school.

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