Dig Diary – Monday, July 3, 2017

Day One

The delicate floors of Structure Ten remain covered.

We’re off again

We’re back! July is here and so, with a cartwheeling of tyres and a snap and crackle of plastic sheeting, is the Ness of Brodgar.

Should anyone have forgotten, this unique and precious survivor from the Neolithic is swathed in black plastic, held down by hundreds of tyres, rocks and sandbags, to fend off the worst of the Orkney winter weather.

It seems to have worked. The advance guard of the scores of archaeologists from all over the world who will work here this year assembled this morning at what felt like dawn, but which was only really 9am.

Induction complete, together with extensive health and safety warnings (archaeological sites can be dangerous places), and work began in earnest.

Where have all the tyres gone? A new world record for their removal.

It is not glamorous, but it is a considerable achievement to undo the site wrapping, wrestle the billowing plastic into some sort of order and pile the tyres high, and all under a threatening sky and some not-very-refreshing spits and spots of rain. The only real fun to be had is rolling the tyres, and seeing whether the next in line can catch them.

Apart from the gruelling work within the site, the area around is also busy.

At the shop, Christine and volunteers from the Orkney Archaeological Society are preparing and displaying all the goodies which will be on sale, including our handsome new guidebook on the Ness, which is called Digging Deeper, a literal description of what will happen this year. (Receipts from sales go to excavation funds).

Orkney Scaffolding are finishing off the viewing platform which will groan with the weight of visitors when we open for tour on Wednesday and, here, there and everywhere, Bryn the site dog is marshalling the workers and expressing his intense displeasure at the sound of anything mechanical, including Jim’s hand-drill.

Site director Nick is allowing extra breaks for the tired diggers today, although they needn’t expect that to continue over the next eight weeks.

Orkney Zero Waste were the heroes of the hour as they arrived with donations of biscuits and juice which were extremely welcome at break time.

As regular readers will know, we are fortunate to have some of Britain’s very best archaeologists working at the Ness and we are delighted to have their views on the site and its many meanings.

Here we have a contribution from Dr Mike Copper, a Ness veteran and ceramicist, who has fascinating views on what Neolithic society at the time of the Ness may have been like.

The Ness of Brodgar: a personal view

 ‘We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness’ (Joseph Conrad)

At the end of last summer’s excavation at the Ness one of our regular diggers, Jo Bourne, wrote a beautifully crafted, romantic and slightly melancholy piece for this blog describing some of the thoughts that working at the Ness inspired in her.

She presented us with an image of a world in which peat smoke rose languidly in dimly lit halls while outside the cries of oystercatchers echoed across the glassy loch.

An old friend, Structure Twelve, sees the light of day again after ten months in the darkness.

In such a place we could imaginatively sketch in characters of our own, perhaps an old man staring into the fire dreaming of past glories, the laughter of children running back from the loch shore after a swim, the gentle sound of a woman singing as she carefully decorates a newly formed pot. 

As we prepare for this season’s work, however, I would like offer up a sharply contrasting and deliberately provocative alternative view.

This is a view designed to inspire debate, for which I offer no apologies  (we archaeologists seldom agree). Each season the site attracts archaeologists and visitors from around the globe, anxious to gaze at the ruins of its great halls. The site is often described as wonderful or magical, yet I would argue that there was another side to the Ness of Brodgar: a much darker one.

In contrast to the way that the Ness is often portrayed in the media, I do not so much find the site “wonderful” as fascinating. If it is to be described as wonderful then the wonders are deeply paradoxical.

Surrounded by what a friend of mine once described as a gigantic “go away” wall (his own choice of words were somewhat more prosaic!) the Ness has produced a number of polished mace-heads and axes. Such are the wonders: defensive walls, axes, maceheads.

All three speak of violence, either planned or feared; and what is more, violence glorified and celebrated through the sinister beauty of the very weaponry used to inflict it. A dark glamour, seductive yet delusionary. In addition, human bones have been found across the site, stuffed into corners and beneath walls in amongst the bones of domestic beasts.

Who were these people?

The admired ancestors, or the downtrodden and expendable unfree?

Did those who toiled to raise the walls at the Ness do so voluntarily? I think it unlikely.

A well-deserved tea break.

The large, often poorly-fired, Grooved Ware pots and the huge quantities of ash and midden material could be interpreted as feasting debris.

Indeed, Structure Ten was surrounded by hundreds of cattle bones: a huge, stinking feasting trophy – conspicuous consumption on a grotesque scale. To me these halls are likely to have rung with the arrogant boasts of testosterone-filled young men, surrounded by the Neolithic equivalent of today’s Kalashnikov rifles and gangland knives, the threat of violence forever hanging in the air. 

Towards the end of the fourth millennium BC something went wrong in Orkney.

Settlements nucleate and close in upon themselves. Large, ostentatious structures and monuments appear.

It has been argued by archaeologists such as Julian Thomas and Colin Richards that “house societies” (new social groupings of fictive and real kin centred around both real and metaphorical houses) emerged. As populations grew so the potential for conflict would have increased.

In a world without overarching legal structures those that could take would have taken. Who could have stopped them?  Strict hierarchies would have developed, and the strongest individuals, those that could co-opt lethal power and organise and command the support of the strongest and most aggressive members of society, would have flourished. I suspect that the prevailing ethic of Late Neolithic Orkney was less peaceful and co-operative than arrogant and martial.

This summer, then, as we gaze out across this “majestic” site, I propose that we consider something more challenging than the usual story: the Ness of Brodgar was not so much “wonderful” as the emanation of a society in which predation, fear, aggression, oppression, inequality, slavery and misogyny were endemic.

A true heart of darkness. 

Mike Copper

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