Dig Diary Extra – Thursday, August 25, 2016

Day Thirty-Nine

The hills of Hoy, viewed over the Stenness Loch.

The season has shifted – goodbye Ness of Brodgar

Over the past days of final planning and section drawing, sandbagging, tyre-rolling and tarping, we’ve had the occasional pleasure of migrating geese flying across the site. The season has shifted. By Sunday, we will all have returned home.

Back at work in London, in previous years, I’ve often been asked what it feels like to dig at the Ness of Brodgar. More specifically, what it feels like to dig such a “magical” Neolithic site.

Well, the ghosts of our ancestors at the Ness have long gone.

Some of the dig team visit the Ring of Bookan at the Sandwick end of the Ness of Brodgar.

Some of the dig team visit the Ring of Bookan at the Sandwick end of the Ness of Brodgar.

This massive deconstruction site is awe inspiring, majestic and mysterious, but as a working environment, with a limited window of excavation each year, work in the trenches is busy, noisy, intense and professional. Added to which there are constant visitors (who we thank), site tours, and often camera crews from Britain and abroad.

The buildings we work in have their “lids” off, and might only have looked like we see them today in their brief period of individual construction.

Even then, five millennia of settlement has led to some of the structure floors looking more like a crust on a particularly rough-cut apple pie, as they ripple over the buildings beneath.

There is little sense of the dark, peat-smoky, flag-roofed halls they would once have been.

We come here, every year, to reveal more of the Neolithic and to record what we find.

The sense of it – and the reconstructed lives of the Neolithic Orcadians – will come with later analysis.

Midwinter sunset over Hoy, from Warebeth, Stromness.

Midwinter sunset over Hoy, from Warebeth, Stromness.

But Neolithic Orkney is still very present in the Orkney of today.

Looking across from the Ness, at the stunning hills on the island of Hoy, we see what the Neolithic people would have seen.

We hear it in the cries of the birds, as they fly over, or the slap of the loch water on the shores.

Then there are places on the wider archipelago of Orkney –  beaches, cliff paths and hill trails, where there are no 21st century sounds at all and you can imagine yourself back at almost any time over the past 5,000 years.

At Kirbuster Farm – an Orkney museum free to visit between March and the end of October, and at limited times November to February – a peat fire burns in a hearth so like those we are excavating, you can almost breathe the Ness five millennia ago.

And while our practical tasks here in the summer override our romanticism, every so often, like when an oystercatcher flies over; when, in a morning of sunshine, tens of tiny spiders riding on the breeze snag our clothes and leave lines of silk drifting out from our hair, coats and fingers; or, when working alone in a side cell, the soft hiss of the wind through the viewing platform whispers something otherworldly.

The hearth at Kirbuster Farm Museum, Birsay.

The hearth at Kirbuster Farm Museum, Birsay.

Then we’re drawn out of our dirty, focused selves and into the sheer awe of it, being out here and touching the world of the ancient Orcadians.

Many of us here have spent eight weeks away from our distant homes to be here this summer.

Thanks to all our incredible friends and colleagues here at the Ness, and the people of Orkney for making us so welcome, and our time here so memorable. Thanks, too, to all the people we left at home who put up with us going missing for so long.

We look forward to the next year…

Jo Bourne

You may also like...