Dig Diary – Monday, July 31, 2017

Day Twenty-One

A meeting of minds

Some of the specialists for the weekend meeting gather for a site introduction by director Nick, nicely arranged against our massive spoil tip.

There is a good deal of yawning on site today, which has nothing to do with the sultry weather.

Neither is it connected, in any way, to weekend visits to pubs — although it would be foolish to deny that this happened.

No, the reason for the general air of lassitude is that site supervisors and specialists spent Friday and Saturday in intense archaeological discussions.

Put simply, they are tired.

The tear drop decorated sherd just after recovery, awaits cleaning and conservation.

Site director Nick gathered 25 of them together, including visiting specialists from other parts of Britain, in order to work out what will be needed in the way of post-excavation of the vast Ness assemblages of artefacts and material.

The issue of academic publication of the results was also discussed, but perhaps the best parts of the meeting centred on the need for collaboration across different disciplines and between different institutions.

This means working with new colleagues, gaining new insights into techniques and possibilities and sharing ideas and capabilities.

It was also an intensely interesting learning experience as archaeologists from various parts of Britain described their latest work and its relevance for the Ness.

Oliver Craig, from the University of York, surprised everyone by describing how pottery can now be dated directly from lipids.

Lipids are the fats from the material, or foodstuff, cooked or stored in the pots and they are often absorbed into the pot walls. They can then be extracted and analysed, identifying the component.

Fortunately for us, a high proportion of the Ness pottery has already been shown to be rich in lipids.

Unfortunately for us, Oliver’s new and exciting technique, which is based on the measurement of changes in the fats, is extremely expensive.

Ray’s unusually decorated sherd with right-angle applied cordons.

The massive Ness ceramics assemblage, probably numbering more than 40,000 sherds, is something of a headache, although the meeting brought good news in the form of Dr Ann MacSween’s decision to join the ceramics team in an advisory and mentoring capacity.

As there is probably nobody alive on the planet who knows more about Scottish prehistoric pottery than Ann, this is a highly important development.

Indeed, today brought more interesting pottery news.

The sherd recovered from the bottom of the Iron Age pit in Trench T (but in a Neolithic context) has an extraordinary exterior decoration featuring tear-drop clay pellets, applied in what appears to be alternate rows.

We will have to search for parallels but can recall nothing like this from other Scottish Neolithic sites.

As today drew to a close, Ray, working in the midden of Structure Twenty-Six, discovered another remarkable pottery sherd, which has plain cordons applied to the exterior of a vessel, but at right angles to each other.

Dan shows Piers Dixon and his family around the site.

This, again, is new for the Ness and the decoration will show up even more clearly when the sherd has dried and been lightly cleaned with a soft, natural-hair brush.

Our visitors today included Piers Dixon, the distinguished Mediaevalist who works for Historic Environment Scotland. Despite his discipline being separated from ours by some 4,000 years, Piers (and his family) were enthralled by the prehistory of the site.

We are now heading for a rest before tomorrow’s activities, when the weather will hopefully be better than the sultry and wet conditions of today.

Until then…


From the Trenches

Hello everyone! My name is Sarah and I’m undergraduate at Willamette University returning to the Ness, with the support of CASA (Center of Ancient Studies and Archaeology), for a second season of exciting Orkney excavation.

Today’s blogger, Sarah.

Beyond my work in Orkney I have spent time in Italy studying architectural and mosaic restoration, osteology, and maritime excavation but just couldn’t stay away from the Ness.

The last time I was excavating at the Ness, I was in Trench T, with Ben and Dave, but this year I have moved to Trench X, with the lovely Anne and Colin.

Moving to Trench X has been quite an adventure. Colin has been nice enough to share his trowel sharpening tools with me to help me upgrade my trowel into being a truly intimidating excavation tool, which is important when excavating the thick Orkney soil.

Today was an especially memorable day in the trench because I received my first gold star from Anne for a good day’s work on Friday, when we opened up a bit more of Trench X.

Even though the entire Trench X team received the honour of a gold star this morning, I have never been more exited to receive a golden sticker in all my life.

It has been a particularly nice day to be in the trenches as the weather has been very agreeable, with sunshine right up until after lunch when we started having a light sprinkling of rain.

Although, I have been in the trenches this last week, I am here at the Ness to complete my undergraduate thesis, which, thanks to the help of Scott Pike, Nick Card, Richard Bates, and Caroline Wickham-Jones, is starting to take form.

I began talking with Nick this past academic year about focusing my project on costal surveying, and with his support that is still the plan.

This morning the site had a nice visit from Richard Bates and Caroline Wickham-Jones, two important figures in the Rising Tides Project exploring the maritime world of Orkney.

The mist rolls in around the hills of Hoy for a day of sultry weather at the Ness.

Thanks to their work in the lochs, especially the Loch of Stenness, I now have a stretch of coastland near the Ness which I will be exploring and sampling from to learn more about the local geology and possible use of local coastlines as quarries in the Neolithic period — when the water level was considerably lower.

They have been very generous with their research and supplies and I cannot thank them enough for that.

Because it is a water activity, I am lucky enough that during the exploration and sample collection in the loch I will be accompanied by a buddy.

I know that on those cold and windy days in Orkney people will be jumping to go out into the water with me, but I am going to have to make the hard decision to pick among the lucky few that get that wonderful opportunity.

I’m really excited to get started on my research and excited for everyone else carrying out projects on site.

There are some very interesting things going on at the Ness this year and I’m very happy to be a part of it!

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