Axes, maceheads and ‘Great Wall’ revelations

Diary – Thursday, July 23, 2020
Day Fourteen

July 23, 2019: Inspecting a new area in Structure Twenty-Seven (Karen Wallis)

July 23, 2019: Inspecting a new area in Structure Twenty-Seven (Karen Wallis)

The second week of the 2012 season got under way with the discovery of a human tooth inside Structure Ten.

The single incisor was found within a midden deposit that had been used to fill a void caused by subsidence in the north-western corner of the building. Because no other remains were found it is unlikely that this was a deliberate deposit but was contained in the midden brought to the area to fill the hole.

Meanwhile, work to excavate Structure Fourteen was put on hold following the discovery of later structures lying over the building.

These ephemeral remains represented much later activity, after the abandonment of the Ness complex. In the case of Structure Fourteen, it was an area of stone paving and some badly preserved wall lines. These had to be planned, recorded and excavated between work on Structure Fourteen could continue.

2013: Dave and Jane unravel Structure Eight — the new hearth can just be seen behind Dave. (ORCA)

On July 23, 2013, it was earlier buildings underneath Structure Eight that were causing problems.

The building is underlain by Structures Eighteen and Seventeen. These, together with Structure Eight’s south end – described as a “morass of deposits and earlier stones”  – were complicating attempts to discern a sequence.

Progress was made, however. Another hearth was discovered and the floor deposits reached, which meant it was possible to deal with the whole of Structure Eight as a single entity. This allowed a much more full and comprehensive picture of the building and, potentially, the activities which took place there.

This day in 2014 can truly be described as momentous.

In Structure Ten, the magnificence of the entrance was finally revealed. It was not 0.6m wide as originally thought but measured 1.8m and defined by a huge threshold stone (raised in 2019). Just inside was an area of fine paving.

2014: Just in front of Amanda and Jan is the edge of the large slab that forms the threshold of the entrance to Structure Ten. (ORCA)

2014: The macehead fragment from Structure Eight. (ORCA)

To the side of the entrance was a large stone, beneath which was a deposit of cattle phalanges – echoing the cattle bones found, carefully deposited after the building’s abandonment, in Structure Ten’s outer passageway.

We have briefly mentioned the next find in already this year. Six sherds, and some fragments, of pottery came from a sondage alongside the north-western wall of Structure Fourteen.

These turned out to belong to a much earlier style of ceramics known as carinated pottery and subsequently radiocarbon dated to c3500BC – some three centuries earlier than the main structures in Trench P.

Meanwhile, Structure Eight’s reputation for producing remarkable artefacts was maintained with the discovery of a broken cushioned macehead.

As usual, it was broken in half across its near perfect perforation. And, as usual, the other half was nowhere to be found.

2015: Looking superb after a light initial wash — the polished stone axe from Structure One. (ORCA)

2015: Andy excavating the polished stone axe in Structure One. (ORCA)

In 2015, a discussion on the lack of high-quality artefacts in Structure One was followed, within minutes, by the discovery of a fine polished stone axe.

The discussion centred on Structures One and Fourteen – two closely contemporary buildings and which both showed evidence of a change of use. But Structure Fourteen had yielded cushion stones and the wonderful “sky” axe while Structure One remained free of such artefacts.

Until now.

Clearing the south recess of the Structure One revealed what appeared to be the butt end of an unremarkable hammerstone.

2015: Incised stone from Structure Fourteen. (ORCA)

Closer investigation showed it was a beautiful, polished stone axe, fashioned from Camptonite rock (our Instagram followers will have seen a series of pictures showing the excavation of this axe recently).

From its position, it was clearly a deliberate deposit, akin to those found at Crossiecrown and the Barnhouse Settlement.

Structure Fourteen wasn’t taking it lying down and produced an incised stone featuring nested triangles and cross hatching!

Because of weekends off, it’s on to 2018 now and the confirmation that the “Great Wall of Brodgar” did not enclose the northern flank of the site as once thought.

Visible in Trench J, the massive northern boundary wall curves beautifully around Structure Five but then stops.

Because the builders went to the trouble of curving the wall, it was thought it continued along the site but had been robbed out – the stone carried away for other projects.

But on July 23, 2018, lifting a selection of the stone forming the surviving section showed that the weight of the wall had caused it to sink into the natural boulder clay, leaving distinctive impressions.

There were no such marks on the north-eastern side, implying the wall stopped abruptly just as its physical remains suggested.

Removing one of the stones forming the 'Great Wall' leaves a distinct impression in the natural.

2018: Removing one of the stones forming the ‘Great Wall’ left a distinct impression in the natural. (Sigurd Towrie)

This, together with the fact that Trench Y had yielded absolutely no evidence of a wall on the Stenness loch side) cast doubt on the idea that the site was totally enclosed by walls.

Instead, it seems there were only walls to the north-west and south-east of the site (the Greater and Lesser Walls of Brodgar respectively) and that the two sides parallel to the lochs were open.

Nonetheless these monumental walls would have been impressive to behold by those approaching the site from either Stenness or Brodgar.

2019 saw the full extent of the decorated orthostat that formed the north-eastern corner of Structure Twenty-Seven revealed.

Previously it disappeared in the trench wall.

In Structure Twelve, the removal of midden supporting one of the flanking standing stones at the eastern entrance revealed yet another cup-mark.

2019: Tristan points out the latest Structure Twelve entrance cupmark. (Sigurd Towrie)

With the individual pecking used to create the design clearly visible it was a splendid piece of work and serves to emphasise that Structure Twelve was probably the most important structure on site during at least one phase of the site’s life.

The discovery also prompted the suggestion that the cupmarks on the stone were used to obliterate earlier decoration.

2019: The arc of socket-holes in Trench X. What does it represent? In 2020, it remains unclear.(Sigurd Towrie)

Trench X was the subject of much debate following its extension to investigate a series of post-holes that may represent a timber structure.

Although we have uncovered more post-holes these have stopped half-way down the extension.

At this point in time there were questions as to whether represented an entrance or other features. But the jury was still out.

Today, a year later, it remains unclear whether the post-holes represented buildings, fences or pens.


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