The Ness – a place of compulsive building, rebuilding and alteration
Diary – Friday, August 14, 2020
The weather saw excavation on this day in 2012 cancelled. Torrential rain lashed the site for much of the day, leaving surfaces dangerously slippy and the soil unworkable.
There were a few brief windows in the weather, however, allowing visiting photographer Adam Stanford to capture some images of Trench P using his vehicle-mounted pole-cam.
We begin 2013 with the discovery of another stone box – a cist – in Structure Twelve.
This example was cut into the floor of the later northern annexe and covered by a capstone. When the capstone was lifted it revealed…yet another capstone!
Around the cist was a high-quality hammer stone (regular finds in Structure Twelve), a polishing stone and a quantity of pottery.
In Structure Twelve itself, the removal of the midden baulk that ran across the middle of the building was beginning to change the perception of the building. The fact there were fewer pier divisions than encountered in other Ness buildings, would have meant Structure Twelve, in its prime, felt like a large, spacious and airy building.
On Thursday, August 14, 2014, excavation of a sondage (small but deep exploratory trench) at the top of Trench T revealed the remains of an incredibly large cow.
Unfortunately, the acidic conditions at the Ness usually means bone does not survive well. That was certainly the case here, with some of the remains little more than mush.
However, the core of a huge horn had been exposed and seemed to be connected to parts of the skull. Around this lay a selection of other large bones. The scale of the remains was one of the first hints that the Neolithic cattle being brought to the Ness were hulking beasts.
The stone’s position between Structures One, Eight and Twelve suggested it may have been integral to the way this area was used and developed. We had wondered whether it had been erected at the same time as Structure One, but now it seemed possible that it pre-dated the nearby structures and that they were carefully constructed around it.
Inside Structure One, a large pit in the floor revealed a shaped stone ball – a suspected grindstone.
The rock had been shaped by pecking all over to a flattened sphere, leaving its circumference slightly faceted and ridged.
Both ends had been flattened by pecking and possible grinding.
We jump now to 2016, and back into Trench T, where another massive orthostat had given rise to a new possibility.
What was originally interpreted as a series of orthostats in a line turned out to be just one enormous stone. Deeply embedded, it was, by the end of the day, more than four metres in length!
We now know these massive orthostats were part of Structure Twenty-Seven, and used to hold the vertical slabs that clad the interior in place.
The size of these prone stones suggested they might have been reused from somewhere else. Could they have come from a dismantled stone circle?
It had been thought that Structure Twenty-Seven was completely robbed-out in the Neolithic but the discovery of its back wall exterior showed that many courses of walling had survived. The width of the new wall section was 2.3 metres – the same width as another surviving section of wall.
In addition, another section of nicely built drain was revealed and which probably connected to the previously uncovered drain. This may have been underneath a flagged passageway running around the building’s exterior – similar to that encountered at Structure Ten.
We love it when apparently unanswerable questions are…well, answered.
On this day in 2017, outside the south-west corner of Structure Twelve, what appeared to be a drain appeared. Further investigation revealed it to be nothing more than a large, rubble-filled pit. Why was it there? What did it relate to?
We now know that this pit, as well as the slumping noted at the north end of Structure Twelve, was the result of the area collapsing into the massive, trench-spanning drain found in 2019.
Moving to Structure Eight, we had more evidence of one of its predecessors, Structure Eighteen.
In the area outside the unblocked northern entrance were more wall lines which related to the earlier building. It had been thought Structure Eighteen was be similar to the much earlier Structure Five, in Trench J, but based on the newly uncovered evidence it seemed more likely that it was a smaller version of the other piered buildings in Trench P.
It had corner buttresses to the north-west and piers like Structure Eight above it. It was not on the same alignment as Structure Eight but lay at a 90 degree angle to it.
Tuesday, August 14, 2018, began with the discovery of another polished stone axe in Trench J.
To be completely accurate, it was more of an adze than an axe (one edge was clearly off-set to one side) and was found in the same area as the previous day’s axe. The adze was also fashioned from camptonite.
But Trench J wasn’t finished. Once again in the same area, a large, dished grinding stone emerged and alongside it the pebble that had been used as the grinder.
Tiny pots were the order of the day between Structures One and Twenty-One.
It began with the discovery of a little thumb pot with incised decoration and was followed by another, slightly taller, example. Closer examination showed the second find to be more of an imitation pot – one which mimicked the form of a larger ceramic vessel.
In 2019, the area around the annexe outside Structure Twelve’s eastern entrance continued produce finds left, right and centre.
Undoubtedly the finest of the day was an small – but intricately incised – stone built into the western wall of the annexe. Click here for more images.
At the start of the season, we were not sure whether the area beyond the two standing stones at the doorway was a cell or passage. Now it was clear it was an cell that appeared to have been carefully subdivided into a number of “chambers”.
Meanwhile, beside one of the standing stones flanking the entrance a flagstone was lifted to reveal a large spread of cattle jawbones. And it came as no surprise to see that the flagstone had been decorated with the same triangular motifs found elsewhere across the site.
The stone was laminating badly, however, with very little of the motif surviving.
In Structure Eight, the relationship between it and its predecessor, Structure Eighteen, was becoming much clearer.
The northern end of the northern hearth in Structure Eight was clearly a later alteration and one of the piers of Structure Eighteen was now partially visible beneath the hearth. This was particularly important as it confirmed, without a shadow of a doubt, that the earlier buildings had piers.
At the south end of Structure Eight, a complete plan of Structure Seventeen and the way in which it was incorporated into Structure Eight was produced. This also clarified the history of Structure Eight, which was originally thought to be a single phase of activity.
Instead, the picture was much more complicated. After a collapse, the rubble at the south-eastern end of Structure Eight was cleared away to allow the construction of Structure Ten. This left the northern half with a roof and the southern half roofless and the site of considerable activity involving extensive use of hearths.
Outside Structure Eight’s southern end, there was also a much better understanding of Structures Thirty-Three, Thirty-Four, Twenty-Eight and Seventeen and a basic timeline for their construction history had been established.
This showed the Ness site could be characterised by compulsive building, rebuilding, alteration and improvement.
The place seems never to have stood still or been “finished” in any real sense.
But while the Ness itself may never have been finished, I’m afraid this six-week forage through the dig archives is.
Thank you all for taking the time to keep the website busy in what has been a rather surreal summer.
Hopefully next year, if we can raise the necessary funds (all donations welcome as ever), we will get back on site and the next Ness dig diary you read will be the real thing – reporting on each day’s discoveries at what is a truly marvellous site.
But although the 2020 diary has reached the end of its season, rest assured we’ll continue to keep the website updated.
One of these updates will be site director Nick’s 2020 talk, which he has been working on but which has been delayed due to work on our interim monograph.
This handsome volume is due out in December. Watch this space for more details of this, and more, over the coming days, weeks and months.