Dig Diary – Monday, August 21, 2017

Day Thirty-Six


Keith Brown, one of the HES Rangers, assists with the afternoon site tours.


Jaw-dropping visitor numbers

It takes a lot for Ness of Brodgar jaws to drop, but that is what happened today.

Site director Nick has been looking at the tally of visitors to the site since we opened on July 3.

The numbers are astounding.

Up until today we have had 19,452 visitors, and this means that by the end of the week we will easily have topped the 20,000 mark. As an interesting comparison, the total population of Orkney is around 22,000.

For an archaeological site, which does not allow tour buses and which focuses on the quality of the visitor experience, this is amazing, and more than a little humbling.

In addition, the Diary has had 120,000 “hits” over the same period — from all around the world and the number of tweets and re-tweets is literally uncountable.

Martin Gray, one of our exceptional volunteer guides, addressing a large group of site visitors.

Anecdotal evidence from staff who regularly chat to visitors points to large numbers of people from Australia and New Zealand visiting Orkney purely to see the Ness. They are joined by thousands more from just about every other country you can mention.

They will, of course, go on to enjoy Orkney’s many other attractions, but a focus for so much tourism in July and August now seems to be our extraordinary Neolithic site.

We would like, however, to ask for some help from Orcadians or any people visiting who may be free on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this week.

The site is closing for the season, and to protect out valuable structures we must cover them all with huge sheets of black plastic which will be held down by many hundreds of tyres.

Our staff numbers are down as many students have left for new university sessions and numbers of professional staff have also had to return to their jobs.

So, if anyone in Orkney of reasonable fitness can spare us some time on these three days we promise fun with tyres, a free Ness book (or maybe two) and an experience which will bring you as close to the archaeology as the archaeologists ever get.

If you can help, please email Nick at nick.card@uhi.ac.uk, or just turn up at the site for as long as you can manage.

We hope to see you soon.

From the Trenches

Today’s blogger, Alette, with Mark in the ceramics and geomatics room on site.

Alas, here we are, the final week of the 2017 Ness of Brodgar digging season.

Once again the season has been amazing, the weather has been alternating — although mostly good to be honest — and new discoveries have been made, and recorded. It is with the recording, that I come in.

My name is Alette Blom, and I work on the Ness of Brodgar as an assistant geomatics officer.

My first year on the site was in 2015, when I was still smudging myself with mud, finding awkward places to park my knees while not destroying floor deposits and scratching my head over quite a few context sheets.

Close to the end of that season I introduced myself to the geomatics officer on site, Mark Littlewood, with having an interest in his type of work.

The final two weeks of that season I got a brief practical introduction into the use of the Total Station, the GPS and the Laser Scanner.

I happily came back in the 2016 season being Mark’s full-time assistant in the field for eight full weeks and once again this year, slowly taking over the work while Mark prepares for a new adventure at AOC Archaeology in Edinburgh.

I will use this blog to briefly introduce my work at the site, although a bit late with the season coming to an end.

First of all, all small finds found on site while digging need to be recorded in multiple ways.

The find is taken out of the soil, put into a small finds bag and a small plastic tag is put in the ground at the exact location the small find came from. Then I come around and use the Total Station to record this exact location in 3D co-ordinates.

When the find’s location has been recorded, the tag is taken out, and both the small finds tag and small finds bag are taken to the finds hut to be cleaned, documented and stored.

All machines used at site are given a name by Mark, and I will introduce each briefly.

The Total Station I use in Trench P is called (Emperor) Sheev (Palpatine) and the Total Station in Trench T is called Romana.

Both of these machines need to be set up above a specific point for which we know the 3D coordinates. After levelling the machine above that exact, known point, a so-called prism is brought to a “backsight point”, for which we also know the coordinates.

Such a prism consists of mirrors that can reflect the laser that the Total Station sends out back to the Total Station.

The idea is that the set-up of the machine tests if the distance between these two known points is congruent with what we tell the machine it is.

If the values of this test are below millimetre accuracy, we set the orientation as such, and the machine is ready for use. Every time we then “zap” a point the machine sends out a laser to the prism (held on the finds tag) which is reflected back.

The time it takes for the laser to get back, and the angle at which it comes back, tell the Total Station where the find is, compared to its own location, and calculates that into local 3D co-ordinates.

When the weather is bad however — especially when it’s really windy — it can be difficult to get the Total Station level and to keep it level throughout the day.

The machine’s sensitivity allows for its accuracy, but unfortunately during stormy days, also for its inaccuracy. When this happens, we tend to take the GPS, called Nyssa, out.

Although Nyssa is easy to use, she needs a 2G signal to measure points accurately, and even with a good signal, is never as accurate as the Total Stations.

Then there is the problem of getting a good signal. The signal can be obscured by proximity to houses, trees (not much of a problem around here) and phones using internet. Therefore, large tourist groups can influence the accuracy of our measurements — a big problem at a popular site like the Ness.

Additionally, we have Astrid, a very expensive and very big and heavy Laser Scanner.

We can use her to make pointcloud 3D models of all the structures. The data from such models is used later on in the office to see whether all hand-drawn plans are accurate, and if not, they are corrected during digitalisation.

Oh, and yes, all machine names are based on Dr Who and Star Wars, of course.

Although many people believe that the digital recording of a site can be an ‘easy’ job, which provides you with the opportunity to go inside the moment it starts raining, nothing less is true.

Yes, I do spent part of my days inside processing data, but I also have to do that when the weather is nice and other archaeologists are enjoying themselves.

Also, when it does rain, or when it’s windy, other diggers find shelter behind ancient stone walls, while I stand on a little hill peering through the raindrops to see if anyone needs some ‘zapping’.

All that hard work, of both the diggers and the recorders, pays off in the end.

So far, there have been 4,603 points zapped in total, meaning an average of about 150 points are measured in, and processed to a map, every day.

Of these, 3,075 points are small finds numbers, each representing a (piece of) pot, flint, worked stone, incised stone, foreign stone, bone, tools, etc.

Each of these small finds will be processed by me into a digital drawing, and Excel database and files that can later on be used for models. Simultaneously, each find is written down into a record in the finds hut, put into boxes and organized according to finds category and context number.

All in all, I greatly enjoy my work here as it basically means that I get to go around site, chat to all the diggers about what they have found and see the totality of the trenches change day by day.

The people on the site are just as much a reason for me to come back on a yearly basis, as well as the immensely impressive archaeology and breathtaking nature of Orkney.

Even though I am not even home yet, I am already looking forward to the next season.

On a last note, I would like to thank Mark’s patience with me over the years while I was struggling to keep up with his fast mind. Mark, you have taught me a great deal of new things and it is thanks to your teaching that I can carefully step into your footsteps and handle the site now that you are leaving.

All the best to you in Edinburgh, and possibly until a next time.

P.S.: Happy birthday to my mom. I’ll bring gifts home for you!

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