Dig Diary – Monday, July 11, 2016

Day Six

Heave-ho - one potential method for moving a megalith.

Heave-ho – one potential method for moving a megalith.

Some timely arrivals . . .

Reinforcements arrived on site today, and not before time. The Ness has developed, over the years, into a site which is both large and complex, and we will have more to say about the complexities in a moment.

But nothing can happen without diggers and the students who tumbled out of the buses this morning were greeted with open arms.

There are nine Willamettes – students from Willamette University in Oregon – and an equal number of our own University of the Highlands and Islands students.

The new Willamette contingent.

The new Willamette contingent.

The Willamettes, under Professor Scott Pike, our long-time collaborator and esteemed colleague, have been in Orkney for a couple of days.

On Sunday, site director Nick took them for his traditional tour of the West Mainland, to visit such old favourites as Skara Brae and the Broch of Gurness. This time there was an additional treat.

As part of the Orkney programmes the BBC is filming at the moment, their producers had dreamed up the idea of a “stone pull” –  an exercise in experimental archaeology designed to see how Neolithic people moved large stones.

The favoured technique was rolling the stone over logs and various Ness diggers had signed up to be the pullers of stone, including several of an age when they should have known better.

Thus far, no hernias have been reported, but matters were helped along by the presence of the Willamettes, who pitched in without hesitation. The results should be in the BBC2 programmes which will be shown in the UK in the autumn.

The UHI students start their archaeological careers in Trench X.

The UHI students start their archaeological careers in Trench X.

The UHI students, supervised by Anne and Dan, will be working in Trench X and the Willamettes were slotted into Trench T and the exterior of Structure Twelve in the main trench. We will tell you about their exploits in the weeks to come.

Now to the complexities.

These centre around the thorny issue of sampling the precious floors of the structures. We touched on this in Friday’s diary but the difficulties and the challenges involved are significant.

Put simply, to extract every last crumb of information from the floors and their contents, the sampling should be precise and almost unbelievably detailed. Yet, to carry our procedures of this intensity, on a large and complicated site like the Ness, and, in particular, on the floors of Structures Twelve and Eight, would be highly expensive and might take several lifetimes.

And all the time we are faced with the knowledge that archaeology is, by its nature, a destructive exercise and that, once such material has been harvested for information, it is gone forever.

David's star find - a large, stone bead.

David’s star find – a large, stone bead.

At a meeting of structure supervisors, Nick decided to employ the rigorous techniques already used at the Ness, but to allow room for reasonable manoeuvre.

We have the most up-to-date technology and we should, by employing it judiciously, recover information of a high resolution without unnecessarily micro-managing the exercise.

That is the decision. We will tell you how it unfolds.

The finds hut has been busy today.

David from Nova Scotia, one of our UHI Masters students, unearthed a handsome, stone bead from the Central Plaza area. It is black, very smooth and has a rather off-centre drilled hole. We are subjecting this to close analysis and will tell you much more about it tomorrow.

A large sherd of decorated Groove Ware potter, discovered by Jo in the Central Plaza area.

A large sherd of decorated Groove Ware potter, discovered by Jo in the Central Plaza area.

Not far away, Jo uncovered a nice piece of pot from what must have been a very large vessel.

It has applied cordons, which branch from each other and the cordons have also been nicked or incised transversally.

Also on site today was Hugo – but only for two weeks, as he is deeply involved in Professor Mark Edmonds’ stone tool project.

He will hand over the supervision of Structure Fourteen, which we hope to finish this year, to Dave Reay.

And last, but by no means least, we were delighted to welcome Jim Richardson, the immensely talented photographer from National Geographic magazine, back to the Ness.

Jim’s beautiful photographs played a major part in getting us the front cover of the magazine in August 2014. He will be taking more photographs and will also set up live streams from the Ness to a National Geographic website.

All in all, an exciting day. See you tomorrow.

From the trenches

A stunning view of the standing stone in the plaza, by Jo Bourne. The original south entrance to Structure One is visible behind.

A stunning view of the standing stone in the plaza, by Jo Bourne. The original south entrance to Structure One is visible behind.

I first learned about the Ness while reading a National Geographic article a couple of years ago, at the insistence of my mother, who knows me better than I know myself.

Although I had my 60th trip around the sun some time ago, this simple, seemingly inconsequential act slowly diverted my interests away from retirement in Nova Scotia, carrying me away to study archaeology at a little-known college off the north coast of Scotland.

It still seems all so surreal that this has happened; and, best of all, the other students have been so generous with their friendship accepting me as one of them.

I have travelled the backcountry of Nova Scotia, by canoe, since I was a boy and have recently learned that the song of the paddle has much in common with that of the trowel.

The paddle sings its soft and subtle melody as its rhythm and pitch find a pleasant harmony with ever-changing wind and current. The trowel finds its own melody, as it seeks its way through earth and over stone with a pleasant lilt and tone for those who are willing to listen.

The knees and back make their familiar complaints, but for those who listen to the quiet songs, there is much to learn both in the deep woods and in the digger’s trench.

For the song of the paddle and the trowel empty the mind of the habitual concerns of the thing that is called life, granting unguarded perception to those who wish to listen.

At the Ness there is a modest and quiet little flagstone paved space, at the back of the trench, adjacent to the spoil heap that has earned a special name.

It is the plaza.

Jenny completes planning in the area around the central standing stone — the plaza, as it's becoming known.

Planning under way in the Central Plaza in August 2015.

And, in the plaza, there is a vertical stone that has been christened a standing stone. We have all learned about the tendency to impart our perceptions and values to the things made by people from other cultures, so we all know this may not be the central public place of the Ness.

However, as I knelt before the central standing stone and bowed my head, while cleaning it, I let my trowel sing its song to take me to the plaza as it once may have been.

The rhythm and pitch waxed and waned throughout the day, while I watched the trowel clean the stones while patiently waiting for its song.

The first verse was uncertainty and worry, desperately seeking an answer from the God of the Stone about a difficult, unspeakable, life-changing decision. And then, as I stood and took in the sky and surrounding landscape, there was joy, friendship and laughter, with big clay pots filled with the timeless luxury of the barleycorn.

As rain threatened, there were earnest and anxious whispers about how the world would be a better place without the folks over at Number Ten. There was also a mother’s forlorn lament to the all-powerful stone as she tried to make sense of the impossible loss of her newborn child, buried nearby.

But, wherever the song wandered, it returned, again and again, to a soothing familiarity with the person who once cleaned these stones long before I took my turn.

In the departing verse, the rhythm grew softer and then disappeared into a fading whisper after I pushed the moment too far and clumsily allowed myself to think rather than be. Did the standing stone comfort those who cleaned the floor, or was it an oppressive weight?

The moment was forever lost in the impulsive pursuit of a certainty that neither the song of the paddle nor the trowel can reveal.

A heartfelt thanks to everyone . . .

David MacInnes

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