Dig Diary – Friday, July 22, 2016
Ending week three with a day of discovery
Today was a day of discoveries at the Ness and some of them have been really exciting. The most sensational was the identification of some highly unusual and recognisable pottery sherds from the bone spread – which included the human bone – in Structure Ten.
Two years ago, we uncovered a number of sherds from a pot with a vertical “stitching” motif on the exterior surface. This was interpreted as a possible imitation, in clay, of a leather vessel, a skeuomorph, to use the correct term.
Today, Claire spotted some sherds, while working on the bone spread, and suspected it might be some of the missing parts of the original pot, which had included a neonatal calf bone.
Late this afternoon, Mike and Claire uncovered and cleaned the sherds sufficiently to confirm that they are, indeed, the remaining parts of the original.
To make this even more important, we have a radiocarbon date from the original pot, which, if the association is accepted, will also date the bone spread.
Structure Ten has been the focus of much of the attention in recent days – for obvious bone-related reasons – but another aspect of the use of bone in the later Neolithic has now emerged.
Further exploration of the infill of a robber cut in Structure Ten uncovered a bone pin.
We will not argue that this is the most handsome bone pin ever discovered – in fact, it is pretty average – but, in the context of the Ness, where bone implements seem rarely to survive, it is an important find.
Another fascinating find emerged from the north-east buttress of Structure Ten – a fragment of wood, somewhat smeared and lacking in real form, but demonstrably wood.
This is a first for the site.
We are pretty sure that wood played a large part in life at the Ness, especially as the monumental dimensions of the structures would have required a good deal of wood to form the framework for the roofs.
Almost all of it has failed to survive as it is difficult to imagine organic material, like wood and leather, enduring through thousands of years of post-depositional attrition and damage while enveloped in midden and soil.
But it is really heartening to discover that some fragments can survive, even if in a rather indifferent state.
Our recovered wood will now be handled like the most precious porcelain and taken away for conservation. If done carefully this may, at the very least, discover the type of wood.
This was the last day on site for Hugo, who is supervisor of Structure Fourteen, but who will hand over to Dave, as he leaves to resume work on another major project involving stone implements.
His last act – he’ll hopefully be back next year – was to continue to expand the sondage along the northern edge of the structure.
A couple of years ago, this yielded a few recognisable sherds of early pottery.
Unfortunately, the carbonised material which adhered to it failed the radiocarbon dating process for reasons we still do not understand.
This means that the hunt is now on for more dating material and, by the middle of the afternoon, Hugo had turned up trumps. From the bottom of the sondage he recovered a lovely flint scraper, recognizable by its size and shape as being Early Neolithic.
This fits nicely with the earlier pottery discovery and confirms that in those contexts we are now on reasonable dating grounds. He also found a few sherds of pottery, which may also turn out to be early, although it will be necessary to let them dry naturally before the adhering midden can be removed in order to give a clearer view.
Mark and Alette erected the laser scanner this afternoon and began to scan the inner wall faces of Structure Eleven.
This very late structure includes the mysterious orthostat-with-hole and is being recorded in detail so that Antonia, who will be on site for the next couple of weeks, can dismantle it.
She will be looking for more examples of decorated stone, in and within the walls of the building, and there is little doubt that she will find them, given that the site has already yielded more than 700 examples of decorated stone.
In the south-west buttress of Structure Ten, the human arm bone has now been successfully lifted and will be examined carefully for whatever further information it can give.
The bone spread in which it was included continues to expand as more surrounding stone is lifted. It is definitely animal bone and may include sheep, although the advice of our bone experts will be necessary to confirm this.
We were also visited today by Kevin McKenna who is a senior feature writer for The Observer newspaper. Kevin is preparing a major spread on the Ness for this Sunday’s Observer, so reserve your copies now.
Until Monday . . .
From the Trenches
In the beginning, studying to become an archaeologist seemed like a perilous journey and, to us first years, the end goal can sometimes seem unobtainable. So far, the path seemed paved only with jargon-filled textbooks cemented to the ground with sleep rubbed from the tired eyes of last-minute essay writers.
However, as our time here at the Ness draws to close, that goal appears so much closer.
It has reminded us who study on the Scottish mainland of the benefits of studying archaeology through UHI. The Ness is unrivalled in its importance to understanding prehistory, but more so in the perseverance of its outstanding team of professionals and volunteers. I have never seen so many people smiling while being battered with icy cold rain as I have in this past fortnight.
These past two weeks have brought life and personalities to those characters we see over VC every Wednesday, brought understanding to the diagrams in Renfrew and Bahn and most of all inspired us to shrug off any doubts we maybe had about a future in archaeology.
Through field school we have absorbed so many skills, from excavation to flotation, from planning to recording and from living with complete strangers to entering a beer-drinking competition with them and still making it in on time in the morning!
When you come to the Ness, you immediately get a sense of the overwhelming capabilities of what prehistoric peoples could achieve, and I think being thrown into the deep end quite like we have, has given us the ability to picture the possibilities of what we could achieve and has set our bars pretty high for the future. While this fortnight has truly been an enlightening experience, unfortunately as quickly as we stuck our trowels in the ground for the first time we’re hanging them up for another year of studies.
I’d like to thank everyone at the Ness for making this experience one to remember and I really hope we can all come back and do it all again.
UHI Perth Campus, BA Archaeology and Scottish History student