Behold the ‘Butterfly Stone’

Diary – Friday, July 24, 2020
Day Fifteen

2013: The fabulously incised slab discovered by Jo. (📷 ORCA)
2013: Jo with the decorated slab fragment. (📷 ORCA)

Seven years ago today, what has become one of the most iconic finds from the Ness first saw the light of day.

Clearing the exterior blocking to the later, northern entrance annexe to Structure Twelve, Jo found the first fragment of the “Butterfly Stone” – a slab featuring two sets of deep, and clearly incised, triangles, joined together at the points and resembling butterfly wings.

When the slab was raised and carefully cleaned, it was found to be decorated on both sides, with pecked cup marks and ephemeral geometric designs on the rear.

We had seen this motif at the Ness before but not on this scale.

Later in the season, two more fragments of the slab were found in the vicinity, all three fitting together perfectly.

Given its position it seems the slab, broken and turned upside-down, was placed as part of a closing event perhaps marking the end of Structure Twelve or at least the end of use of the northern entrance.

2013: The cup-marked stone in Structure Eight. (📷 ORCA)

Meanwhile, in an area outside Structure Eight another decorated stone was revealed – this time with four pecked circles.

The stone was at floor level and built into the partially robbed out wall of Structure Eight that had been removed to allow the construction of Structure Seven.

July 24, 2014, was the ninth day of the season and saw Structure Eight proclaimed “star of the show”.

The reason?

2014: The spatulate tool from Structure Eight. (ORCA)
2014: The spatulate tool from Structure Eight. (ORCA)

The midden baulk within the building was being removed this revealing the sheer scale and grandeur of Structure Eight.

Measuring some 18 metres long by nine metres wide, Structure Eight is one of the biggest constructions on site and was continuing to produce some incredibly fine artefacts.

On this day, this included another polished stone spatulate tool – the third found at that point.

It was slightly shorter than its predecessors, but the care and attention put into its creation was equally impressive.

2015: Chris with the cushion stone from the south of Structure Eight. (📷 ORCA)

Roof tiles were under the spotlight in 2015.

Neil Ackerman, a UHI Archaeology Institute student at the time, had secured a Carnegie Vacation Scholarship award to study all the roof tiles at the Ness.

To everyone’s delight, Neil’s work was already giving a much better idea of what happened to the various roofs — especially that of Structure Eight, the building in which by far the majority had been found.

The clues for Neil had been the angle at which the tiles were lying when recovered and their distribution.

2015: The huge stone disc. (📷 ORCA)

This strongly suggested that the roof collapsed in one sudden event – at least in its northern half – rather than gradually fall over time.

Over in the south end of Structure Eight, another cushion stone emerged – although this one was in poor condition.

Elsewhere, a massive stone disc, featuring some lightly incised decoration, was spotted? What was it for? We tend to assume these were pot lids and if this one was, it must have been used on an incredibly large pot!

The fourth week of excavation in 2017 got under way with the resurrection of an old friend – Trench J.

It was last excavated in 2009, but radiocarbon dates received since then had proved very surprising.

Some were between 4000BC and 5000BC, implying, at the very least, a very early Neolithic date, but more probably residual material from earlier activity, reaching back into the Mesolithic period.

2017: Trench J is awoken from its slumber. (📷 ORCA)
Trench J in 2008. The ‘Great Wall’ is shown in red, with Structure Five in yellow.

Site director Nick had several reasons for re-opening Trench J – was there more residual material from the Mesolithic still incorporated in the Neolithic structure?

In addition, the fact that Structure Five within was not overlain by later Neolithic structures would allow a clear window into the earlier history of the Ness. And last, but not least, how did the “Great Wall” relate to Structure Five?

Meanwhile, Trench X yielded another example of coloured pottery.

The large body sherd featured a plain applied cordon that had been coloured a very definite black against the orange background of the pot body.

New polychrome pot from Trench X. (📷 ORCA)

There had been coloured cordons before, but they were usually red and this was one of our first black examples – a colour probably produced using lamp-black or soot as a component.

We stay in Trench J for Thursday, July 24, 2018, where the planning and the removal of more of the overlying layers and collapsed material within Structure Five continued.

2018: Trench Y. The stone-lined hearth is visible in the mid-left of the picture. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

This had revealed some rough pseudo-paving, whose level matched exactly the pseudo-paving found outside the blocked entrance – perhaps another phase for what was becoming an increasingly complicated building.

In fact, post-excavation has since confirmed at least eight phases!

In Trench Y there was still no evidence of an enclosing side wall. What had been found, however, was some insubstantial curving walling at the lip of the trench and part of a stone-lined hearth.

This may be an early Neolithic building, which had been extensively stone-robbed, but after carefully recording the remains it was not investigated further.

We finish off today’s diary with the weather – in particular the weather in 2019, which saw excavation cancelled due to thunder, lightning and incessant rain.

July 24, 2017: Taking measurements for drawing. (Karen Wallis)
July 24, 2017: Taking measurements for drawing. (Karen Wallis)

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