Dig Diary – Monday, August 18, 2014

Day Twenty-Six

A sea of planning frames around the central standing stone.

A sea of planning frames around the central standing stone.

Appeal for volunteers

We have job opportunities today, very rare ones, which only occur just once a year.

Yes, it is time to think again about the job of backfilling the site.

Every year, at the close of the excavation period, the precious remains at the Ness must be carefully wrapped in swathes of black plastic, which are then fastened down by rocks, sandbags and old tyres – many of the latter kindly supplied by Kenny Garrioch of Stromness.

We cannot tell a lie. It is hard, physical work. But it is absolutely essential to the wellbeing of the site and without the protection afforded to the buildings we would return next year to a pile of weather-shattered stone.

Site director Nick is appealing for volunteers from the local community to work alongside the archaeologists on this vital task. All that is needed is a modicum of muscle, some old clothes and a packed lunch.

Anyone who is interested should come along to the site on Thursday morning. You will have the satisfaction of helping preserve 4,500 years of prehistory and you will also have a remarkable and rare opportunity to see the structures from the inside and up close.

Alison takes a well-earned break from sorting the 'Smartfauna' bones.

Alison takes a well-earned break from sorting the ‘Smartfauna’ bones.

Archaeological work continued today, despite the constant nagging presence of a strong wind. Really, this must be the windiest excavation season we have ever had at the Ness.

Seeking phytoliths

We welcomed Lisa Shillito today, back for a second year and, fortunately for her, working mostly in the sheltering depths of Structure T.

Lisa, Nick and Ben have worked out a sampling strategy for the trench, which involves taking samples from throughout the mound.

She will be looking for phytoliths – tiny, long-dead creatures which may give evidence of the type of fuels used in the Neolithic at the Ness.

Neil reveals a drain in the north-east cell of Structure One.

Neil reveals a drain in the north-east cell of Structure One.

Her work will also help to explain the nature of the midden-enhanced soils across the top of the mound and will go some way to solve the problem of whether or not the Trench T mound was constructed – as were other Neolithic monuments – by stripping the soil back to boulder clay foundations.

Floor samples and a drain

More floor sampling is taking place in Structure One and Neil, investigating the north-east cell of the main Phase Two, discovered a drain which appears to exit the back of the building, thus mirroring the drain which Chris found in the north-west cell.

In Structure Twelve, Jim has at last relented and allowed Seb to examine the small box structure he has been working around for days.

Jim had a feeling (and a bet) that this box would contain carved stone balls. Thus far it contains nothing more than some mouldy bone. Can’t win them all, Jim.

We are stopping work a little early today because everyone is worn out by the wind.

We will be back fresh as daisies (well, almost) tomorrow. Until then . . .

The stone box in Structure Twelve reveals its secrets to Seb.

The stone box in Structure Twelve reveals its secrets to Seb.

From the Trenches

Hello again dear readers!

"Butterfly" number two, as recorded by the ????

“Butterfly” number two, as recorded by the Dstretch camera.

This is Chloe Berghausen from Structure Fourteen (of the rambunctious pink shirt fame) who attends the University of San Diego.

I had the pleasure of writing to you in the beginning of the season when I had just begun my DStretch photography project.

By the grace of some benevolent Neolithic deity I have managed to not only keep my advisor Dr Alana Cordy-Collin’s camera intact, but have also found some truly lovely pieces of decoration!

As a quick recap, DStretch (or Decorrelation Stretch) is an algorithm created by Jon Harmon, which takes normal images of stone and puts them through a series of changes that enhances it to show the paint (or petroglyphs) that were once there.

After 3-5,000 years of being weathered, buried, and excavated I think anyone might be a little worse for wear. Now, the majority of rock art on this site is scratch art which is a real doozy to photograph.

The delicate (seemingly random) incised lines are found both on the inside and outside of structures. What is also common (especially on the Structure Twelve piers) are pecked dressed stones that make them appear quite like a spotty adolescent. Though these have served as the bulk of my photographs, the program really is best at detecting paint and deeper carvings.

Which brings me to yesterday’s happy discovery!


A potential swirling design in Structure Twelve.

While poking around in Structure Twelve, under Jim’s supervision, we discovered not one but two “butterflies”! They’re not as large as the famous “butterfly stone” that Jo found last year, but are unmistakable nonetheless.

Flush with victory, I asked Jim to look at some speculative photographs I had taken next to the lovely pictographs. Now this is where DStretch gets a bit tricky; it can pick up paint but can just as easily detect natural oxidization in the stone. If you look carefully at the walls, many of the sandstone have mottled orange and red markings that are nothing more than nature’s handiwork.

It has been proven beyond a doubt that we do have paint on our walls dating back to the Neolithic, but some stones may have been easily overlooked thanks to the common oxidization.

This particular stone called into question, after being run through DStretch (which was today’s project) looks very much like a swirling design. Jim and Nick agreed that this very well could be our next painted wall!

A shot taken farther away shows another 4-5 stones nearby that also display signs of that distinct scarlet colour.

To add credence to this claim, the painted wall unearthed several weeks ago by Ray in Structure Eight looks quite similar.

I am cautiously optimistic and hope that it may benefit the site in some small way.

Regardless of the results, I have been thoroughly blessed by spending my summer here. As eager as I am for the warmth of my sunny home, the dynamic and haunting beauty of the Ness seems to have a very bad habit of bringing us all back.

Finally, thank you again for your support and presence (online or otherwise) throughout this season; we truly could not have done it without you!

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