Dig Diary — Monday, August 5, 2013

Day Sixteen

A later phase hearth setting is exposed in Structure Twelve.

A later phase hearth setting is exposed in Structure Twelve.

A law of archaeology . . .

. . . when the sun is beating down and everyone is feeling a little, well, exhausted, things start happening.

Sunny Monday has, indeed, been very busy.

It began with the arrival of more students from the University of the Highlands and Islands and continued with the further arrival of soil scientist/archaeologists Lisa Shillito (with husband and seven-week old baby) and Jo McKenzie and colleague Zoe Outram.

Zoe is an expert in archaeomagnetic dating and is collaborating with Dr Cathy Batt on a programme which involves sampling the hearths at the Ness.

This is particularly interesting as very little archaeomag has been done on the Neolithic and Zoe will, in a sense, be establishing a base line which will be built upon by further studies.

Jo McKenzie, Zoe Outram and Lisa Shillitto have the intricacies of Structure Fourteen explained to them by Hugo.

Jo McKenzie, Zoe Outram and Lisa Shillitto have the intricacies of Structure Fourteen explained to them by Hugo.

Lisa and Jo will be applying their skills as  micromorphologists by banging little open-ended tins (called Kubiena tins) into our very interesting midden areas and also into the floors of the structures.

There are, of course, many floor levels represented in the structures and many episodes of deposition of material in the midden.

Traditional archaeological excavation with trowel and leaf can, perhaps, distinguish three or four floors successfully at micro-level.

Analysis by experts like these can reveal a whole sequence of maybe dozens of layers or floors.

In addition, Lisa’s work will uncover the episodic development of the midden and may even show, through analysis of phytoliths, the different fuel strategies deployed in the Neolithic.

It is all highly-technical stuff but work has already started in identifying areas of interest.

Hearths have been quarter-sectioned and site director Nick, who acknowledges that the aftermath of extracting Kubiena tins from structure floors does not really show the floors to their best advantage, is nevertheless prepared for the compromises which will be necessary.

What they can show, he says, is worth the sacrifice. (Many of you may be surprised to learn that habitually grubby archaeologists love a neat, clean level floor. Indeed, nothing is guaranteed more to send an archaeologist into a paroxysm of rage than standing on his clean floor. Funny, isn’t it?)

Dr Lynn Kelly gives the team an impromptu lunchtime seminar.

Dr Lynn Kelly gives the team an impromptu lunchtime seminar.

We were also visited by Australian academic Dr Lynne Kelly, who talked to the team about her work exploring the mnemonic use of images from all over the world.

This work may also have direct relevance for the study of our inscribed stones and decorated Grooved Ware pottery at the Ness.

And on the subject of pottery, Roy, who is examining the incised pot found beside the magnificent decorated stone from last week, has discovered small patches of carbonised organic material on the interior of the pot.

These may be susceptible to radiocarbon dating and would therefore date the pot.

If an association between the stone and the pot is accepted, it would also date that association and also provide clues to the date of the construction, or reconstruction, of that part of Structure Ten.

Below, we are delighted to have some thoughts by Professor Mark Edmonds, touching on the importance of even the most apparently insignificant finds from the Ness.

Everything has a story . . .


It was last Thursday, the morning after we’d lifted the carved block and only a few hours after images of the inscribed stone had appeared on laptops on the other side of the world.

It had been raining. A lot.

With digging suspended, a few of us were crouched on the edge of Structure Ten, chatting about foundation deposits and about the twists the story had acquired as it spun across the web.

Like stories do. I guess it was the rain, and the fact that I was hunkered down, but a piece of flint caught my eye. Washed clean by the downpour, it was a small and unremarkable flake.

Curved in profile, it had evidently been burnt after being struck from a larger tool or core, intense heat creating a characteristic cracked and finely crazed appearance. Like I said, unremarkable.

But when I turned the flake over in my hand, I saw something that I hadn’t been expecting.

Some of the cortex, the outer ‘rind’ of the stone, was still present, and what made me stop, what made me call to Hugo for a second opinion, was the nature of this rind.

Most of the cortex that we see on the Ness is very thin and rounded. It looks like this because the flint that people often used back then had been rolled and pounded long before it fell into their hands, first by glaciers and then by the tide. This flake was different. The cortex was thick and fresh, typical of the kinds of skin that we find on flint that has come from primary chalk.

On a site with such astounding architecture, a stone tool has to be pretty special to make the blog. A striped and perforated macehead, an axe the colour of the sky, things like these grab the imagination, just as they did more than five thousand years ago.

They invite speculation about the biographies of things, and the roles that some tools played as tokens of identity and value. The Ness has these in abundance.

But the smaller, and more easily forgotten, things — the things that slip into a finds bag without comment, they also have stories to tell.

Much of the flint that we find on site was probably collected from beaches on one or other of the islands. We can’t yet say exactly where, as flint is stubborn and keeps its origins to itself.

Even so, many worked pebbles at the Ness speak of the shore as a regular source, somewhere to go after winter storms, where flint, like driftwood, was received as a gift from the sea.

It’s a pattern repeated across the region, people working stone that was ready to hand, the balance of assemblages a function of local conditions. The Ness is much the same. But sometimes things were different.

Material also came through other channels; good stone from barter, gifts handed on at a gathering, something carried for the journey. Most sites have a few pieces like this. But even at this early stage, the abundant variety of non-local stone at the Ness confirms that this place was special, a site that brought the wider world in close.

We don’t know where this flake and others like it may have come from, save that it was from beyond the region. Nor do we yet know how the stone made its journey to this narrow spit of land. But that is what makes the Ness such a fascinating place to work. Even the most mundane flake can be remarkable, a reminder that life in the past was never just local, that people lived in a world resolved at many different scales. That even stone may have changed as it travelled. Like stories do.

Mark Edmonds

From the Trenches

Zoe prepares the hearth in Structure Sixteen for archaeomagnetic sampling.

Zoe prepares the hearth in Structure Sixteen for archaeomagnetic sampling.

My name is Sorcha Kirker and I have just finished my second year at the Orkney campus of the UHI studying archaeology (surprise, surprise!).

I am here digging at the Ness for my field school this year and am learning lots of new and exciting things and getting to see the site first hand instead of on Neil Oliver’s programme!

I’m extremely excited to be digging here as it is just absolutely heaving with wonderful Neolithic finds and barely a day goes by that somebody hasn’t found another marvellous incised stone.

So far I have been quite lucky in that I have been doing lots of different tasks around the site and have worked in both of the trenches now.

Last Monday, for instance, I was lucky enough to get to wash some of the large incised and worked stones and was thrilled to see some of the little doodles, as I call them, coming up through all the mud and dust.

We were also treated to a demonstration of flintknapping by Hugo on Tuesday last week, where we were shown how to make scrapers, knives, arrowheads and even an axehead, which was a very interesting thing to watch!

On Friday, I was put to work on the outside wall of Structure Twelve cleaning out the wall for photographs to be taken and then trowelling back to the edge of the trench and I found two lovely examples of Grooved Ware pottery still with obvious grooves on them and low and behold they still fitted together perfectly!

Today however I have been moved to Structure Twenty-One and we are just trying to take it down a bit further before planning it, but there has been a lot of confusing bone and burnt bone coming up, so much so that I had a small mound to clear up before coming in to write this blog entry!

We also had a lovely treat during our lunchbreak this afternoon, Lynne Kelly from LaTrobe University, Melbourne, Australia, gave us a talk on the way in which knowledge is stored in non-literate cultures around the world and how she believes that that was the purpose of places such as Stonehenge, and the Ring of Brodgar.

The weather last week was extremely unpredictable and on Monday it was absolutely boiling! It was so warm that I never even got to eat my sandwiches because the cream cheese curdled in the heat! However the rest of the week was spent with most of the site waterlogged and muddy, which makes for rather uncomfortable digging weather! Today however is another lovely day which is much better and makes my job a lot easier!

This site is an amazing place to do my field school as the archaeology is fantastic and the people are wonderful too, but I had better get back out to work or our very lovely site director Nick Card may have some choice words for me!


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