Diary – Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Day Two

You may be wondering why our first diary of 2020 concentrated only on excavation from 2015 onwards. The reason is that before 2015 our fieldwork seasons lasted only six weeks and started much later in July.

2019: A moat begins to appear at the base of the ‘Great Wall of Brodgar’ in Trench J. (Sigurd Towrie)

One of the problems excavating in Orkney, even in the summer, is the weather. It’s nigh impossible to work in the rain – not only because any attempt to trowel when there’s water running and pooling everywhere could damage the archaeology, but conditions underfoot become incredibly slippery and unsafe.

Rain also plays havoc with the sampling of floor surfaces, which is why you’ll often see buildings on site with black, protective covers lining their interiors.

This was just the situation facing the team in 2015, when “rain of biblical proportions” saw excavators sent home on just the second day of the season.


These interruptions to work are very frustrating – particularly because we only have a few weeks on site each year.

What it does provide, however, is a window for the supervisors to focus on the mountains of paperwork involved in a dig of this size – recording sheets, drawings, planning and the meticulous detailing of the many different contexts present.

2016: Jo McKenzie, our micromorphologist, discusses sampling, next to one of the Structure Twelve hearths, with Ray and Chris. (ORCA)

Conditions on July 7, 2016, were much better (at least for part of the day) and work continued apace. Cleaning and tidying the trenches occupies much of the first few days of a dig season and while this was going on in Trench P, the focus shifted to the new Trench X and Trench T.

At the bottom of Trench X – the end nearest the Stenness loch – plough-damaged stones were found about half-a-metre down. This is very deep for plough damage, which is usually encountered just under the surface. After consulting some old maps of the area, it was suggested the anomaly was perhaps the result of field boundaries being moved many decades before.

2016: Is it a wall? Time will tell whether these slabs in Trench X are part of a structure.

Elsewhere in the trench, an orthostat-edged, box-like structure was uncovered and interpreted, cautiously, as perhaps forming some of the internal furniture of a structure.

Over in Trench T, the “problem of the pits” continued.

For some time, the diggers work had been slowed down by the presence of numerous, apparently pointless, pits dug into the massive mound of ash and midden. These had been dug in prehistory and then promptly filled again with more midden.

The problem is, these archaeological features must be excavated and recorded in meticulous detail. And at the start of the 2016 season there were over 20 of them!

Friday, July 7, 2017, marked the end of the first week of “proper” archaeology and what a week it had been.

Perhaps the most exciting discovery came from the area around Structure Twenty-Six and hinted at links between the Ness and the Wessex area of England. A pottery sherd was found that had vertical cordons very similar to a pottery type from Durrington Walls. There were also distinctly Orcadian features, which suggested the vessel blended decorative elements from both world-renowned sites – but which are hundreds of miles apart.

Fragments of the ‘incense’ cup. Only four others of this style are known and all are from the Stonehenge-Wessex area.

On the surface, the find didn’t seem very significant but, thankfully, Claire Copper, who had completed a research project on the artefacts recognised it for what it was — a beautiful little “incense cup”. There are only four other examples of this particular type of “cup” in the UK and they all hail from the Stonehenge area.

The tiny artefacts are often highly decorated and mostly found in Early Bronze Age contexts, often associated with burials. Their use has been the subject of debate over the years but it has been suggested that they were used to carry embers to a funeral pyre or perhaps the burning of incense during burial ceremonies.

Jim's 3D reconstruction of Structure Twenty-Six.

2018: A screenshot of Jim Bright’s 3D reconstruction of Structure Twenty-Six.

Structure Twenty-Six continued to provide surprises in 2018, with more peck-dressed stone appearing and looking distinctly out of place. Site director Nick suggested it may have been removed from Structure Ten or Structure Twelve. Some of the dressed stone was yellow sandstone and the only place we had found such stone before is in Structure Ten, which lends considerable weight to his theory. Click here for a 3D model of Structure Twenty-Six.

We know stone robbing was rife on site in antiquity, but it is perfectly likely that the purloined stone was built into later Ness buildings rather than being removed from the site entirely.


2019’s first week was plagued by the weather again – with excavation work hit badly and diggers sent home. The sun did reappear though and as you can see from the above video, despite the wind and rain, great progress was made on Trench J’s Structure Five.

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