Dig Diary – it’s large and made from whalebone. But what is it?

Trench J supervisor Paul Durdin with the whalebone artefact (highlighted in red) in situ in Structure Thirty-Two.

Trench J supervisor Paul Durdin with the whalebone artefact (highlighted in red) in situ in Structure Thirty-Two.

Day Six
Tuesday, July 11, 2022

Trench J at the Ness is the trench which just keeps giving.

You will recall that on Friday, towards the very end of the day, Chris uncovered a hearth under the wall of Structure Thirty-Two, which then revealed a handsome polished stone axe beside the south-eastern hearthstone.

Both side of Friday's polished stone axe from Trench J after washing. (Sigurd Towrie)

Both side of Friday’s polished stone axe from Trench J after washing. (Sigurd Towrie)

Today Ralph was digging just a short distance away when he found a massive piece of worked bone.

It was securely embedded in the ground and not in the very best of condition. In addition, we will not know until more work has been done whether it is associated with Structure Thirty-Two, which overlies Structure Five, or whether it is from Five itself.

The whalebone artefact in Structure Thirty-Two beside trench supervisor Paul. (Sigurd Towrie)

The whalebone artefact in Structure Thirty-Two beside trench supervisor Paul. (Sigurd Towrie)

Paul and Ralph begin the delicate operation to lift the whalebone artefact. (Sigurd Towrie)

Paul and Ralph begin the delicate operation to lift the whalebone artefact. (Sigurd Towrie)

Gently does it.... (Sigurd Towrie)

Gently does it…. (Sigurd Towrie)

Luckily Dr Jen Harland one of the animal bone specialists from the UHI Archaeology Institute was on hand to confirm Nick’s ID that it is in fact whalebone – the largest piece so far recovered from the Ness.

With advice from finds supremo Anne, Ralph and trench supervisor Paul were given the difficult task of lifting it. Using a metal plate to gently undermine it the whalebone they managed to lift it in two pieces, which will now be sent off for conservation and cleaning.

Success. One part of the fragile whalebone object recovered. (Sigurd Towrie)

Success. One part of the fragile whalebone object recovered. (Sigurd Towrie)

We will be scouring the literature to look for potential parallels as to what it might be.

Today sees the return of old friends such as Alette, Alice and Catriona, all of whom are Ness veterans. We also welcomed another group of students from Willamette University in Oregon, together with their intrepid leader, Professor Scott Pike.

Professor Scott Pike and the 2022 Willamette contingent. (Sigurd Towrie)

Professor Scott Pike and the 2022 Willamette contingent. (Sigurd Towrie)

Scott arrived with his portable XRF machine used to analysis the chemical composition of the floors within the structures, and a new drone. The drone was immediately put to use to not only take general aerial shots of the site but also help map the shore of the Loch of Stenness.

Water levels in the loch are presently quite low and Nick is hopeful that the drone may reveal more evidence of submerged archaeology along the shore.

Drone view of the Ness of Brodgar excavation site, flanked by the lochs of Harray (right) and Stenness. Click the picture for a larger version (Scott Pike)

Trench T from the air this morning. Click the image for a larger version. (Scott Pike)

Trench T from the air this morning. Click the image for a larger version. (Scott Pike)

The third public tour of the day - fifth if you include the private tours led by Nick and Sigurd - watch as the Willamette's continue cleaning Trench T. (Sigurd Towrie)

The third public tour of the day – fifth if you include the private tours led by Nick and Sigurd – watch as the Willamette’s continue cleaning Trench T. (Sigurd Towrie)

Scott brings a group every year, although we have not seen them since 2019 due to Covid. They are always enthusiastic and will be working, as usual, in Trench T, which contains the enigmatic Structure Twenty-Seven.

Some of the UHI Archaeology Institute students trowelling down through a new extension to the north-west of Trench J. (Sigurd Towrie)

Some of the UHI Archaeology Institute students trowelling down through a new extension to the north-west of Trench J. (Sigurd Towrie)

Other new arrivals were a group of students from the UHI Archaeology Institute, who will be having their first taste of excavation as part of their field module. Others will follow later in the dig.

Site director Nick and Trench T supervisors Rick – from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), part of the UHI Archaeology Institute – and Charlie met in Trench T this morning to refine the strategy for the excavation there.

They have high hopes of reaching the floor deposits of Structure Twenty-Seven and also intend to uncover more of the building’s entrance passage.

If this can be achieved we will have taken a massive step forward towards understanding the function and possibly even the dating of this building.

In Structures Eight, Ten and One grids are being laid for sampling and the floor deposits from the primary phases of the buildings were cleaned and work started again on removing them .

2019: The suspected path of the massive, trench-spanning drain. Click the image for a larger version.

Alice will be supervising work in the area of Structure Thirty-Four and the very large Neolithic drain which runs there. The plan is to remove more of the Structure Thirty-Four infill and this should allow a better access and view into the drain.

The drain was discovered in 2019, when excavation between Structures Eight and Twelve revealed a hole that led to what appeared to be an extremely large drain. We suspect it stretches across the trench for over 30 metres and suggests the entire Ness complex was carefully planned from the outset.

Alice at worth in the vicinity of the hole leading into the drain. (Jo Bourne)

Alice at worth in the vicinity of the hole leading into the drain. (Jo Bourne)

The drain measures over 50cm wide and seemed to have been drystone built with some of the lintels still in place. The depth remains unknown at present. Further investigation was one of the tasks scheduled for the 2020 season.

Its presence clarified some of the slumping we see at the north end of Structure Twelve – what appears to be a rubble-filled pit within Structure Twelve is possibly also collapsing into the drain beneath. Beyond the south-west corner of Twelve is another pit which is on the same alignment and again is probably collapsing into the same drain.

The entrance to the trench-spanning drain (highlighted in red) discovered in 2019. (Jo Bourne)

The entrance to the trench-spanning drain (highlighted in red) discovered in 2019. (Jo Bourne)

Nick hopes to borrow a new and impressive endoscope which will be lowered down into the drain and which will hopefully give details of the interior.

This means that the plan to send a small child down with a torch has been abandoned. Sometimes Health and Safety can be just too restrictive!

See you tomorrow.

Alette, Pam and Alice in Structure Thirty-Four. (Jo Bourne)

Alette, Pam and Alice in Structure Thirty-Four. (Jo Bourne)

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