At the centre…
It’s commonplace to remember the first lines of the Robert Burns poem, To a Louse: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as ithers see us”.
Perhaps less popular is the next line: ”it wad frae mony a blunder free us”.
And so, with a little trepidation, we have an award-winning author digging with us at the Ness for a while, no doubt observing us and, as Alice Albinia explains below, undertaking the difficult task of exploring Britain through her islands.
What will she think of us and will she spot our blunders?
Her best-known book is Empires of the Indus and her list of awards includes the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Awards for non-fiction, the Dolman Travel Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award.
Now she contributes to the Ness of Brodgar Dig Diary Weekend Extra.
It has been a delight to have her. She writes eloquently of our sometimes prosaic tasks and has also contributed to a little piece of archaeological history by uncovering an extremely rare piece of pottery.
Over to Alice…
Orkney is at the centre of the book I am writing, and at the centre of Orkney is the Ness.
This is why, for the past three weeks, I have put aside my pen, notebook and computer, and learned instead to wield a trowel.
Not just a trowel but also a mattock, shovel, bucket, and when the work demands, a thin and elegant “leaf” — as archaeologists call the sharp, silver-coloured trowels made for plastering, or the finishing of fine brickwork.
It was a leaf I was using when I found the little incense burner, or pigmy pot, that everyone was so excited by last week.
Archaeological digging is more like sculpture than writing, or sculptural detective work, Michelangelo crossed with Miss Marple.
You scrape and scrape, wondering, as you excise evocative slithers of rich, dark midden — the semi-ritualised, deliberately-deposited rubbish of Neolithic life — about the nature and purpose of those long-discarded lives.
At the Ness you can see midden most clearly at Trench T, where it is displayed in cross-section, in all the glory of its changing layers and colours.
Everything that biodegrades turns an intense brown-black. The orange-red bands are peat ash. Charcoal glistens black.
For my first two weeks at the Ness, I dug at Trench T.
Part of the midden is overlaid by a chaotic jumble of “hill wash”, detritus of Neolithic life and landscape, unceremoniously swirled downhill, by a rainstorm or river, some four thousand years ago.
All this needs to be scraped away, layer by layer, to reveal walls, structures, deposits—or maybe, who knows, nothing much.
From the outside, it can seem bizarre, what archaeologists do.
There they crouch, for hours on end, staring at little sections of soil, wearing out the knees of their trousers. (In addition to its brisk trade in trowels, Highland Industrial Supplies in Kirkwall also sells many types of knee patch.)
Using a trowel the way archaeologists do, however, soon accentuates the senses. Your eyes quickly learn to distinguish minute gradations in the soil’s hue and texture.
I soon gave up wearing gloves, in order to feel pieces of charcoal, burnt bone, or crumbling sandstone on my skin, between my fingers.
When embedded in soil, burnt stone and pottery can be difficult to distinguish from each other, but they sound different, when you tap them with a trowel.
Probably, by August end, I will be smelling, if not tasting, midden too.
The first interesting thing I found was commonplace, though not to me: a little star of flint, chipped off a larger knife or arrowhead.
Proudly, I filled in my first “small finds” bag, marking the names and numbers of the trench, structure, and context of the find, along with the material, FLINT, and my initials, AA.
That tiny piece of flint, with its milky gleam, the waste left by a dexterous Neolithic flint-knapper, snagged my attention as effectively as the tool it came from must have scraped down cattle hides and divided up portions of cattle flesh.
It is addictive, the almost-totally random process of finding things, unearthing them, from the place where they were laid, or thrown, or lost, all those years ago.
The next thing I found was lovely and this time everyone else thought so too.
My trowel scraped across a piece of stone, the earth fell away, and a piece of smooth greyish stone the model of my finger rolled towards me, leaving behind a perfect imprint of itself in the soil.
I picked it up slowly, as if afraid that, if I blinked, or coughed, the moment and the material might vanish and be lost again, this time for good.
As far as I am aware, there is no word in this language to describe the time travel of a thing from its first life—in this case, the Neolithic—to its second, the present; nor for the feeling that this movement evokes in the finder.
For thousands of years that stone had lain in the soil, securely embedded within the material life it had belonged to since it was first picked up off the shore of the nearby loch and whittled into shape, and then my trowel uncovered it, and it became something else.
WORKED STONE TOOL, I wrote on the small finds bag.
Dave, the trench supervisor, was pleased; he said that the little stone finger was one half of a broken stone spatula. Anne Mitchell, head of finds, speculated that even after it was broken, the spatula may have had a “second life, or second job”: she made me touch it, to feel how it was silky on one side, rough on the other.
Perhaps it had been used to smooth down pottery or objects made of wood.
In week three, I moved to Trench P, where a curious little anomaly of a structure is being uncovered by Claire and her team.
They had already found many pieces of broken pottery, mostly the bold, solid style probably indigenous to Orkney, Grooved Ware, with its distinctive design of parallel lines (incised in the clay by spatulas such as mine).
Somebody near me found a fragment decorated with “grapes”: little globules of clay pressed into the pot to give variety and texture.
They seem to have liked fine things at the Ness. They gave time and energy to pattern and colour.
The soil I was scraping away at had strange indentations at the surface. For hours I removed feather after feather of soil with my leaf. At last I asked Claire to take a look.
She thought it was another piece of pot: probably very thin, and friable, and likely to crumble. She was right.
When we lifted it out, the red disc, barely a centimetre thick, broke into pieces. It was nothing, a dud.
But then, as I was clearing out the soil beneath, I noticed two solid chunks of pottery, with what seemed, to me, a design in black and red.
“Applied ware,” Claire said when I showed her the first piece; but it was when I showed her the second, and she saw how the two pieces fitted together, that she grew excited.
Her mind, with its knowledge of Neolithic ceramic forms, saw something: a small, shallow piece, with a “waisted” outline. There were only four others in the country. Two were from Stonehenge. She thought it was probably an incense-burner.
Early theories about the Ness suggest that it was a ceremonial centre: an almost-island, poised between two strips of water, between two stone circles, aligned with a stone-built tomb that is aligned, in turn, with midwinter sundown.
Here in this sacred and mysterious place, water speaks to stone, sunlight speaks to smoke, humans speak to Nature.
The Ness speaks a mysterious and complex language, that hasn’t yet been deciphered, of Neolithic humanity’s affinity to, harnessing of, and respect for, earth sky and water.
Earth-sky-water. While living, humans are earthbound: but smoke represents an escape, a metamorphosis, a change of form, upward; just as, in the opposite transmission, sunlight pours into Maeshowe to mark the turning of the year.
That little incense burner perhaps played a ceremonial role at the Ness; helping to mark a ritual progression through the landscape; or incarnating, for humans, the inevitable and anticipated moment of their own metamorphosis.
Or maybe it merely made one of those long, stone-roofed rooms smell nice (Neolithic people burned poppy, hemp, even amber, as fragrance and narcotics).
We can speculate long about its role, or use; but it is what it is: a glimpse, both suggestive and ephemeral, of those lives and that culture. A wisp of smoke.
The book I am writing, The Britannias: An Archipelago’s Tale, is a portrait of Britain told through its islands.
From Orkney to Westminster, Anglesey to Shetland, islands have been one of the shaping forces of our culture from earliest times. This is so for everyone who lives in Britain, or visits it, even those who consider themselves totally mainland, as many do.
At various points in its history, different island places were sacred, or central, to the archipelago as a whole. And maybe it is at the Ness that it all began.