Dig Diary – Friday, July 8, 2016

Day Five

Alette and Mark prepare to zap Structure Eleven with the laser scanner.
Alette and Mark prepare to zap Structure Eleven with the laser scanner.

Did Structure Ten have a tiled roof? Looks like it . . .

Back in the stores of the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Island lies the pottery already excavated from the Ness of Brodgar. It is a massive assemblage. Thus far we have more than 40,000 sherds (a conservative estimate) and, as everyone expected, more has started to emerge today.

The south-west corner buttress in Structure Ten, with its foundation of stone roof flags and clay.
The south-west corner buttress in Structure Ten, with its foundation of stone roof flags and clay.

From the midden wall core of Structure Ten, Matthew uncovered a very nice sherd of Grooved Ware and, in Trench X, an interesting rim appeared with a bevelled (sloping) interior and a neatly grooved cordon on the exterior.

Even more intriguingly, in the Central Plaza area – our old friend the Central Midden Area, but now with a fancier name – a broken base sherd was found; not unusual in itself but this one, although knocked about and coated with midden, may have exterior decoration extending down to the base.

Most Grooved Ware pottery has decoration higher up on the vessel and this sherd, which will be examined closely on Monday, may turn out to be important. We will tell you more next week.

In Structure Ten, Mike finally cleared the basal deposits from the south-west corner buttress, which have, until now, given only the smallest glimpse of the foundation deposits there.

Matthew with his large pot sherd at the base of the wall core of Structure Ten.
Matthew with his large pot sherd at the base of the wall core of Structure Ten.

These are now shown to feature a clay-levelling layer, which is covered in roofing slates, which are clearly part of the foundation for Phase Two of this magnificent structure.

Significantly, this discovery strongly suggests that Structure Ten was slate roofed in its original building phase, which is a remarkable thought.

Elsewhere in Structure Ten today the saga of the robber cut dragged on, but this time with an interesting twist.

Excavation thus far had shown just a tiny portion of a sandstone block, which appeared to have pecked decoration.

The large, peck-dressed, yellow-sandstone block revealed by Robert.
The large, peck-dressed, yellow-sandstone block revealed by Robert.

Robert has now revealed the full extent of this remarkable stone, which must have formed part of the original interior wall face.

Four faces of the block are completely covered with pecked decoration, emphasising again the interest the Neolithic people of the Ness had in lavish adornment.

The passageway between Structure One and Structure Seven brought us one of our more unusual finds today.

In a comfortable prone position, on its back and neatly tucked under a stone, lay the perfectly preserved skeleton of a large frog.

It is not, however, a Neolithic frog, indeed it was probably hopping around contentedly last year. But it has now been removed carefully and has been consigned to the reference collection of Dr Jen Harland, who is one of our faunal bone experts. The area is now being referred to as the “Passageway of the Stricken Frog” – which is froggy immortality of a sort.

Tansy and Jan start sampling in Structure Twelve.
Tansy and Jan start sampling in Structure Twelve.

In the Central Plaza, Mark and Alette (the reincarnated Beep One and Beep Two of last year) set up the laser scanner to make a detailed recording of the walls of Structure Eleven.

This less-than-inspiring, and shoddily constructed, late structure is due for dismantling in order to study further the extent of the paved plaza area that lies at the very heart of the site.

It will be a complicated procedure, but will enable us to have a better understanding of a peculiar stone with a neat hole in it which was spotted years ago.

The work will be undertaken by Antonia, our decorated stone expert, who has already discovered a whole sequence of decorated stones hidden from view in walls and, it now seems, fashioned as the walls of structures were being built.

In Structure Twelve, Jim is facing further huge challenges as he prepares his structure for the sampling procedures, which will examine the floor deposits.

As we have already explained, the floors will have 50cm grids, which will be sampled to death by bulk sampling, pollen sampling, XRF sampling and a host of other techniques.

The real problem lies in the complexity of the structure, which means Jim will have to alter the sampling procedures in order to make them work properly. This is a massive headache and we wish Jim a happy and relaxing weekend. He will need it.

As will we. So, until Monday . . .

From the Trenches

Aaron documenting the Ness for his feature with Evan.
Aaron documenting the Ness for his feature with Evan.

The trowels clinked as they slid just below the surface of the topmost layer of sediment.

Methodically the trowels would move, nearly fluidly, through the uppermost material and sift out the unnecessary from the informational. A gloved hand would reach out and place the small find into a bag, labelled, and tagged for recall later.

It was only my third day on an archaeological dig site and my respect for the work of archaeologists had been quickly growing.

Hello all. My name is Evan Cobb and I am a graduate student at the University of Missouri and I am studying photojournalism.

A classmate, Aaron Phillips, and I arrived in Orkney in mid-June and have been working on filming an independent documentary that focuses on the connection of the past and the present in Orkney.

When in Orkney, it would be impossible to leave archaeology out of the story, so we spent a good portion of this past week on site at the Ness of Brodgar with the dig team.

This blog will deal with my personal observations from the few days of observations at the Ness of Brodgar and focus more on the large picture that developed in my mind over the time, rather than focusing on the daily happenings of the excavation team.

There is something quite amazing about a group of people that come together to work on a common goal.

Whether it is the building of a stone structure 5,000 years ago or removing the years of build up from these structures at archaeological digs, the message comes across the same to me, which is – progress comes from consistent small efforts that take place over time.

Alice sports a Go Pro head camera to record her work for Evan and Aaron's film.
Alice sports a Go Pro head camera to record her work for Evan and Aaron’s film.

I will never see how the Neolithic builders worked to create their stone structures, but I have been able to see how the archaeologists at the Ness of Brodgar excavation take on the task of revealing the history that this site holds within, which offers insight into how the Neolithic people experienced life 5,000 years ago. This task is no easy feat and the more I learn about it, the more it captivates me.

It isn’t so much the science that brings me in, but the fact that the whole process seems to be one big game of understanding someone else’s place in history, which in turn, helps us understand our own location in history.

This rather grand aim may not permeate any of the other archaeologists as they sift through the debris from the years, but I can’t help but think that the work that they do creates a connection to an extremely long thread of humanity, which helps us realise/think/understand that the little things in life are important and may be important for thousands of years and that these little things may be all that are left to tell someone else about who we were as a group of people.

To choose to help form that connection may bring a person perspective on their own human experience and where it fits in the present context.

In order for someone to create that connection, there must be a personal choice to learn history, pick up a trowel, deal with the elements, and get ones hands dirty. Choice isn’t only found in how we operate today, but choice is a main feature in how humans operate now and how they have operated in the past.

In archaeology, and in a whole lot of aspects of life, meaning is associated with how things connect and relate.

This means that the context and similarities and dissimilarities between other finds help shape the understanding of what is found. Without a solid foundation of the context, both historically and physical placement, the finds lose some of their information. So, a human choice to use a certain rock to work with or bring a certain rock from the other side of the island offers archaeologists a deeper look into the human decision and the possible reason why a particular decision was made.

This all may be a basic understanding for archaeologists, but for a photojournalist, this was new information.

The thoroughness of documentation and the accuracy with all of the tracking and measurements highlighted the scientific process, but at the end of this research and study there seemed to be an aim to gain greater insight into the person or people that created these structures and spent time within them and the world that they lived within.

In understanding our ancestors, the Neolithic, we can understand the context that they lived within, which may help us understand our own lives within the context that we find ourselves in today.

Aaron and I would thank everyone at the Ness for their information, insight, and openness to our questions and cameras.

We wish you all the best in this year’s excavation.

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