Dig Diary – A polished stone axe that looks decidedly like a macehead
Tuesday, August 9, 2022
You can always rely on the Ness to wait till the end of the day before yielding an artefact that, quite literally, takes your breath away.
And, surprise, surprise, that’s exactly what happened today.
Excavating around the south-western corner of Structure Twenty-Seven, Tony noticed something rather spectacular on top of the wall. Closer inspection revealed this to be an incredible polished stone axe with an edge that remains as sharp today as it was when created.
We say “axe”, but as site director Nick and stone tools expert Professor Mark Edmonds pointed out, the artefact – although looking clearly axe-like – has more in common with the design and manufacture of maceheads.
Although polished stone axes tend to be wider at the “cutting” end, tapering to the butt, today’s example narrows from the centre to the cutting edge. And, like most maceheads found on site, has been broken across the middle.
Other than that it is remarkably blemish free.
Interestingly, the axe-macehead hybrid – which appears to be fashioned from Lewisian gneiss, from the north-west coast of Scotland or the Outer Hebrides – was found in the same area as a rhodochrosite macehead in 2018. This artefact had also been simply placed near Twenty-Seven’s wall.
That macehead is, by the way, among the finds displayed in our exhibition at the Maeshowe visitor centre, which runs until Friday, August 19. So if you’ve not seen it yet, there’s still a few days left.
The discovery in Trench T was a marvellous end to a day that started rather slowly as we tackled the aftermath of yesterday’s wet weather.
It began with diggers, armed with sponges and scoops, clearing the pools of standing water from the trenches before having to wait until the surfaces dried out sufficiently to allow work to resume safely.
Fortunately, the sun eventually put in an appearance and this, coupled with a brisk breeze, soon began to make a difference.
We have just over a week before excavation stops and the operation to cover the site for the winter begins (see below).
That means there’s a lot to do and as a result each trench was a veritable hive of activity. Plans and section drawings had to be finalised before work begins tomorrow to prepare for the site-wide clean-up ahead of the end-of-season photographs.
Over in Trench J, Andy and Sarah finished excavating the later hearth perched on top of the northern boundary wall (aka the Great Wall of Brodgar) in the extension opened this year. Now fully recorded, this can now be removed and we expect to have the rest of the wall face revealed by the end of the week.
Meanwhile, inside Structure Five, Chris Gee was joined by apprentice archaeologist Callum Edmonds.
Callum’s forthcoming Fereday Project will be looking at Neolithic decoration at the Ness of Brodgar. For non-Orcadians, the Fereday Project is an annual prize for secondary school pupils set up many years ago in memory of Ray Fereday, former principal teacher of history at Kirkwall Grammar School.
As a former pupil of Mr Fereday, this diary writer owes much to a teacher who went above and beyond the call of duty to show his classes that Orkney’s history was second to none. It is heartening to see that 40 years after he helped fan the flame that still burns within me, he is still inspiring youngsters today.
Run by the Orkney Heritage Society, the Fereday prize is awarded for an historical investigation carried out by second-year pupils and copies of the best and most original submissions are kept in the Orkney Library and Archive.
Despite his years, Callum is no stranger to excavation, having worked with his dad (Prof Mark Edmonds) and mum (UHI Archaeology Institute lecturer and zooarchaeologist Dr Jen Harland) on other sites, such as Skaill farm, Rousay.
Chris and Callum were investigating another potential post-hole in Structure Five – to add to the five exposed in the past week. In this case, however, it turned out not to be a post-hole but was instead a shallow depression in the floor. But there are more candidates…
In Structure One, the team continued to excavate the primary floor levels around the building’s southern hearth. And, as happened at the start of the season, they have revealed more stake-holes that probably relate to cooking aids such as tripods and spits.
A short way to the north-east, and having been successfully sampled by Dr Jo McKenzie yesterday, it was full steam ahead in Structure Eight.
Dry weather (eventually) meant the covers protecting the floor deposits could come off and this allowed Kevin to complete his magnificent plan of the building’s northern end.
Meanwhile, in the building’s south-western end, the recording of features in the recess containing a visible section of Structure Seventeen – one of Eight’s predecessors – was completed, meaning that the orthostatic divider could be removed. This will allow the excavators to work down through the floor deposits and expose more of Seventeen.
In the northern end, south-east of the entrance, Ray was able to return to the orthostatic box embedded into the floor. He began work on this earlier in the season and finished today. The box contained the upper yellow floor of Structure Eighteen – the second of Eight’s predecessors – which may be excavated in future seasons.
And in among all this, we were visited by another film crew today – Storyhouse Productions, from Berlin. They are working on a project on prehistoric and megalithic monuments for German television and which, when complete, will also be broadcast internationally.
We end today’s diary with our annual appeal for volunteers to help cover the site next week.
If you can spare a couple of hours (or more) on Thursday, August 18, or Friday, August 19 we’d love to hear from you.
By next Wednesday, the digging will be done and work will start to cover the entire site with huge sheets of black plastic and pinning it all down with hundreds of tyres. It’s hard – but rewarding – work because it ensures the safe survival of the site though the often stormy Orkney winter.
But we need help. If you can spare a few hours, or a couple of days, email Nick beforehand so that he can manage the task. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
We suggest old clothes, waterproofs and strong footwear.