Astonished by the finesse of pot sherd decoration
Dig Diary – Day Fifteen
Friday, July 16, 2021
Some of you may have heard of the Simoom, the violent, dry and suffocatingly hot wind which makes life miserable for parts of the Middle East.
Well, today we have had the Orcadian equivalent. Admittedly it has not been particularly hot but the strong, dry south-westerly which has plagued and nagged at us all day has taken a toll on diggers and visitors alike.
One digger said she now knows how a prune feels, then changed her mind and mentioned dessicated coconut. The most common result, though, is simple exhaustion. Thankfully the weekend is now on hand.
But nothing can stop Ness diggers once they get their trowels into some of the best archaeology in the northern hemisphere.
In Trench J morale was high when supervisor Paul decided to remove the unimpressive wall to the west of the Structure Thirty-Two south entrance. This wall lies over Structure Five and runs at right angles to it.
It was probably built of stone robbed from Structure Five but it is a poor thing, loved by nobody and now meeting its end after careful recording, planning and photography.
Before that task could be tackled, an enormous stone lying up against the revealed section of Structure Five wall had to be removed. It is far too big to be part of the building and most probably constitutes part of the “Great Wall of Brodgar” within which Structure Five nestles.
A few metres away Paul is half-sectioning the blocked up east entrance and has uncovered several pieces of cramp together with flints. Both are common finds in the later levels over Structure Five.
Cramp is a vitreous, slag-like material often found associated with prehistoric burials but, as we do not (thus far) have human burials at the Ness we should probably assume that our cramp is associated with some sort of pyrotechnic process.
In Structure Twelve, Jan has been working in the area of the south-east recess and has found a large post-hole which Jim suggests probably relates to efforts to prop up the roof of the building when, at the end of Phase One of its life, things began to crumble and collapse.
A similar post-hole, with a similar purpose, was half-sectioned yesterday by Clare.
Just outside the south wall Ole has abandoned his cameras for the moment and is digging a section against the wall in a search for any traces of the primary wall of the building before it collapsed and was rebuilt.
We will let you know how he gets on but on Monday he will fetch his cameras and take more photographs of the very large pot which Chris excavated outside the north-west blocked entrance to Structure Twelve.
You will recall that the pot, in several large sections, was discovered with the interior surface facing upwards. It was recovered that way but a few stray fragments from the exterior face suggested that it was decorated, and we have already mentioned the group of decorative clay pellets applied to the top of the rim.
Today Nick carefully turned over a large sherd from not far below the vessel’s rim that had become detached from its midden bed.
It was decorated, and very handsomely too.
We can see applied cordons which have been incised lengthwise, with the lower section then segmented with vertical stabs. Above that is another cordon with serpentine decoration, which is a decorative technique where a plain cordon is stabbed alternately on both sides, thereby creating a wavy, or serpentine, line.
Decorations of this sort are not uncommon on Grooved Ware vessels from the latter part of the Late Neolithic, but the decoration on this pot is notably fine for such a very large vessel.
Because of the way in which the vessel had broken vertically we wondered whether it may have been slab built rather than from coils of clay fixed one on top of another.
As we watched the pot today we could see the actual body separating from the midden material which had encased it in the ground as they both dried.
This showed that the wall of the pot was only around 1.5 to 2cms thick, which we think may have been too thin to allow it to be formed without complicated support. It is also quite thin for such a large pot. When the sherds are drier and can be lightly cleaned we might be able to settle this question by close examination of cross sections of the pot wall.
Sigurd is still working around his drain in the interior area near to the blocked north-west entrance of Structure Twelve and has come across some dimpled stones, a classic artefact from this building. On the other side of the structure wall Chris is excavating in the area where the large pot was found, though no more pot sherds have appeared.
In Structure Ten work continues on the interior periphery of the building on the north and west sides in an effort to clarify the overall picture.
Walling and orthostats have appeared but the fiendishly complicated stratigraphy of Structure Ten will make more excavation, and head-scratching, absolutely necessary.
Lastly we have a report on trainee site dog, Tam.
Generally, he is doing very well, if not yet quite up to the standard of his much-loved predecessor, Bryn.
He is, however, an affectionate wee soul and, on catching site of Jenny, he dived out of the portacabin door towards her. Unfortunately, Nick had attached his lead to a chair, so Jenny looked up to see dog and chair hurtling towards her.
All survived the encounter and Tam has now settled down with a bone, for the moment. More reports will follow.
Have a good weekend.