Diary – Monday, July 6, 2020

Day One

And we’re off.

Believe me it’s really strange to be sitting down to write a Ness “dig” diary while not caked in mud and soaking wet!

Today we should all have turned up on site first thing, had our safety and site briefing, and then started the backbreaking work of removing hundreds – if not thousands – of tyres and sandbags from the trenches.

It’s not the most pleasant of jobs but at the start of each season, and once you get started, you just don’t care. The excavation lies ahead and weary muscles are spurred on by the prospect of weeks of first-class archaeology.

The site has grown considerably over the years, meaning the job of uncovering now takes longer. But while the tyres are being carted to their summer storage and the sandbags wheelbarrowed away from the trench edges, we can see the entire site coming back to life around us. It’s a bustling hive of activity and one which will be sorely missed by many this summer.

Looking out the window today, the almost-constant rain of the last few days has dried up and the wind dropped. All in all, it would have been ideal conditions to start work. Breezy enough to keep the midges at bay and above all, dry.

Back in 2016, we returned to site on July 4 (see video above), so four years ago today excavation had begun in earnest (panorama of Trench P being cleaned shown below). And within hours the first of the finds were coming in – among them the first incised stone of the season.

The first decorated slab of the season, with finely incised lines, from the forecourt of Structure Ten.

The first decorated slab of the 2016 season, with finely incised lines, from the forecourt of Structure Ten.

Before that the arrival of a JCB on site meant one thing – a new trench, in this case the three-metre Trench X which runs from Trench P down towards the Stenness loch.

Trench X was opened to find evidence of the boundary wall we once thought enclosed the site, but which had failed to show up in geophysics surveys. But it, and Trench Y, opened in 2018, found nothing. It now seems the northern and southern boundary walls (aka the Great Wall and Lesser Wall of Brodgar) were not joined.

Do you think he know's what he's doing? It was such an unusual sight to see director Nick with a trowel that supervisors Jim and Anne gathered round to watch and advise!

2016: Dig director Nick in the newly opened Trench X, with supervisors Jim and Anne. (Jo Bourne)

2017's extension over Structure Twenty-Six. The curved wall line just visible in the photograph is Structure Thirty. (ORCA)

2017’s extension over Structure Twenty-Six. The curved wall line just visible in the photograph is Structure Thirty. (ORCA)

July 6 seems to be an auspicious date for Trench extensions because in 2017 the JCB was back on site extending the width of Trench T. This extension was to uncover more of (the still enigmatic) Structure Twenty-Seven. Over in Trench P, plans to extend Trench P to investigate the relationship between Structure Twenty-Six and Twelve got under way after a delay due to the damp weather.

This operation revealed more of the eastern entrance to Structure Twelve, flanked by two standing stones. This was the area that we learned in 2019 was some form of annexe and filled with a puzzling mix of decorated stone, animal bone. Not to mention a third standing stone bisecting the chamber.

This day in 2017 also saw another flake of pitchstone turn up. The nearest source of this volcanic glass is the isle of Arran, off the south-west coast of Scotland and we now know that not only was it being brought to the site, but being worked in Structure Eight.

Trench Y this afternoon, with the sondage area marked at the top corner.

Trench Y, July 6, 2018, with the sondage area marked at the top corner. (Sigurd Towrie)

There was some hope on this day in 2018 that the newly opened Trench Y, by the shore of the Stenness loch, would yield evidence of the elusive connecting wall. At the close of play, rubble had begun to appear in a sondage at the top of the trench. But alas, it was not to be.

Trench J had been reopened and extended in 2018 to investigate Structure Five and its relationship to the “Great Wall of Brodgar”. Stonework had been encountered in the extension which, on this day two years ago, was undergoing its first planning phase.

Over in Structure One, there was a surprise discovery of more roof tiles. These had been left underneath the foundations of the wall inserted into the building during its second phase of use.

Investigating Structure Twenty-Six, which now seems to be later than Structure Ten.

Investigating Structure Twenty-Six in 2018. (Sigurd Towrie)

Decorated pot fragment from Structure Twenty-Six.

2018 was the year that Structure Twenty-Six really began to raise eyebrows. This tiny structure, which appeared poorly built, began to produce artefacts that seemed distinctly out of place.

As the rubble infill came out, a number of dressed and shaped stone blocks appeared, along with quantities of beautifully decorated pottery.

At this point it was becoming clearer that Structure Twenty-Six was late in the sequence of building, probably incorporating stone robbed from its predecessors.

July 6, 2019 was a Saturday, so there were no diggers on site. The previous two days – like many that season – had been hit by the weather. Before the rain closed in though work to further extend Trench T, and expose more of Structure Twenty-Seven, had begun. Plans to extend Trench X to investigate a series of postholes encountered in 2017 had to be put on hold.

One of the two post-hole arcs in Trench X. (Emily O’Farrell)

The postholes, which seemed to follow a parallel, circular path, hinted at the possibility we might have a timber structure on site…but more on that as the 2020 season goes on.

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