Dig Diary – Monday, July 4, 2016

Day One


And we’re off . . .

We’re back! After what seems like forever, the Ness of Brodgar is springing into life once more.

Ten months ago, this most iconic of archaeological sites was swathed in sheets of protective black plastic, weighed down with tyres and rocks and put to sleep for the long Orkney winter.

Now, scores of willing hands from all over the globe have rolled away the tyres, peeled back the tarps and allowed sunlight to flood the works of the people who lived here 5,000 years ago.

We should point out right away that this is not easy work.

Buckets and sponges at the ready to mop up the swimming pools covering the polythene sheeting.

Buckets and sponges at the ready to mop up the swimming pools covering the polythene sheeting.

Heavy rain showers in recent days have left pools of water on top of the plastic, most of which has to be removed with buckets and sponges.

The wonderful, cosy habitat that the site provides for local rodents over the winter also necessitates the wearing of protective gloves and gauntlets for all those handling the plastic.

Only those who have never rolled tyres before can see it as a jolly game of hoops, rather than the back-breaking work it really is.

Yet the prospect of the archaeology which lies beneath is enough to drive people on. Many of the excavators are Ness veterans and old friendships are renewed and new ones made.

Rolling back the tyres.

Rolling back the tyres.

The BBC is also here, together with presenter Neil Oliver, to make another programme about the Ness.

This will be part of a wider production, which will feature the natural history of Orkney and which will be on our screens around October. We will tell you the exact dates later.

Much of site director’s Nick’s time was taken up with filming today, but he was particularly glad to see an old friend, and distinguished archaeologist, Mike Parker Pearson, who will also contribute to the programme, perhaps developing the links between the Ness and his own work at Stonehenge.

We will also be visited by other experts over the next two months and we promise to explain their work in detail, and perhaps get them to write something for the diary.

Nick has his own goals for this season of excavation.

A warm welcome back to Neil Oliver, who started filming today.

A warm welcome back to Neil Oliver, who started filming today.

One task is to develop a fuller understanding of the nature of the structure floors.

This is delicate, labour-intensive work, but it shines a light on the activities of the people of the Ness and how they went about their daily lives.

Another aim is to further examine the enormous midden mound on the other side of the dig headquarters at the nearby house of Lochview.

There may, or may not, be the remains of a chambered tomb lurking at the bottom of the trench – perhaps one similar to the unusual tomb at Bookan, not far away, which Nick excavated in the past.

To be honest, there are different views about this, but an archaeology without good, solid disagreements and varying interpretations would be an archaeology not worth having.

To everyone’s delight there is also the possibility of a slot trench, perhaps two or three metres wide, running from the west end of Structure Twelve down towards the Stenness loch.

This should settle the question of whether the intensity of structures already visible within the boundary area of the site carries on in that direction.

Geophysics is not particularly helpful on that point, and the new trench might also show whether there is a boundary wall in that area, or whether it has been robbed out, as in other areas.

All in all, we have an exciting time ahead and will bring every detail to you every day, through the diary, over the next eight weeks.

We have, however, one major concern. The full understanding of our site depends on radiocarbon dating, that ever-more-accurate process which peels back time and pinpoints when artefacts and structures were made and used. This is an expensive process.

Each radiocarbon date costs around £350 and we need lots of them. We have launched a special appeal to raise money for this task and we would be ridiculously happy if diary readers could contribute to it. Any donation, large or small, is welcome and to donate, visit https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/4879.

We’ll thank you in advance and look forward to everything this amazing site will reveal tomorrow, and in the days to come.

Until then…

From the Trenches

A well-earned rest on the stone furniture constructed and frequented by the Structure Twelve team.

A well-earned rest on the stone furniture constructed and frequented by the Structure Twelve team.

Hi. It’s Jay – back in Orkney, from New Zealand, for another season.

It’s great to be back and exciting to know that, undoubtedly, neat things are going to be discovered in the next eight weeks.

So far, the first day has been portentous as Hoy was out to greet us first thing this morning at the Watch Stone, and the weather has been sunny (but not too sunny) and windy (but not too windy).

This ideal weather means that progress is speeding along at a phenomenal rate. Structure Fourteen was uncovered before the first tea break. And there are no flying black-plastic sails headed for Norway either!

The rapid progress was helpful to the TV crew filming here, because most folk aren’t that interested in this 21st century archaeology – the manner by which we sealed the site in last year.

But, in archaeological terms, the top context layer (tyres) has been removed. This overlaid several layers of black plastic (these had multiple contexts as some sheets clearly overlaid others).

We are now down on to the layers of sandbags which is turning into a bit of a nightmare as some sets are not in contact so we are unable to say which sandbags went in first. These sandbags seem to be sometimes encasing objects below, and sometimes used as a type of buttressing.

We can, however, see some wrapped objects projecting through the overall sandbag layer (even if we can’t agree on the number of context layers), and by tomorrow we should be exposing those.

And then it’s on to the real reason we’re all here – the Neolithic archaeology.

I don’t know this year’s excavation focus and plans, but the BBC is going to be filming throughout the season, with Neil Oliver presenting, to create a three-part series.

Mike Parker Pearson has also dropped in for today’s filming. Although Neil was here first thing, I’m not sure when Mike snuck on to site, but as soon as I heard his laugh I knew he was here – I would recognise it anywhere since it always makes me smile: it’s so happy.

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