Getting to grips with geomatics
Although to most visitors of the Ness of Brodgar we might appear like either brightly-coloured or darkly-tinted lumps of waterproofs, crouched down in tiny corners to catch less wind, there is more to our stories than first appearances might reveal.
The From the Trenches part of the blog sheds some light on this aspect, but does not always do the job.
Many people know that the team digging on the Ness consists of an international ensemble of professional archaeologists, archaeology students and volunteers simply fascinated by this field.
Even more surprising is that most of us have an actual 9-to-5 (or, usually, longer) job as archaeologists or are full-time students, and we willingly donate our vacation days to contributing to, and learning from, the knowledge about the amazing time depth that the Ness of Brodgar provides.
In order to afford this work-related holiday, archaeologists get quite creative in finding places to stay – which range from hostels to just renting an apartment, and from couch-surfing to wild camping.
It will not soon happen that one has “no place to stay” at night, for there will always be a colleague that has a bed or couch to spare. However, this leads to some of us moving over eight times within six weeks.
This open-armed spirit of the team, and their hospitality, makes it a shame that many tourists do not get a chance to meet us personally, and hear our great and crazy stories about out time here.
When I came to the site for the first time last year, I immediately felt welcome because of the all the smiling faces and kind supervisors.
By that point in my studies, I had not yet gained much experience in actual fieldwork and needed to learn a lot. And belief me, the first time going from Dutch archaeology, without any stone structures, to single-context excavations, all related to inner and outer stone walls of complex overlaying structures, is not easy.
Yet my supervisors and colleagues were most patient with me and eventually taught me enough for me to actually understand what I was doing.
Additionally, I met a ton of new friends and some of the most amazing archaeologists ever. This all contributed to me feeling like I was coming home last month, when I drove from Burwick to Kirkwall and saw Orkney again after being back in the Netherlands for ten months.
Most of three months in Orkney last year was spent digging at both The Cairns (South Ronaldsay) and the Ness of Brodgar. This year, however, I decided to try another side of archaeological fieldwork and am working as the on-site assistant of the geomatics officer, Mark Littlewood, digitally recording everything that happens on site.
Most people now refer to me as “Beep 2”, “Leica Lady” (Leica being the brand of all the machines) or simply “GO 3CM TO THE LEFT” or “SMALL FIND 27539” — those are the things that Mark and I shout at each other across the site.
Without going into my endless button-clicking and beeping too deeply, Mark and I basically record the co-ordinates of the finds that are discovered on the site, samples that are taken and drawing and section lines that are used for non-digital recording.
I most often get to work with the Total Station, a machine that “shoots a laser” from a position of known coordinates to a prism on a staff at the location of a find. The machine then calculates the coordinates of where the prism was held and thus records the co-ordinates of the find.
The next day we import the points into a program (Leica Geo Office and CAD) on the computer that can then visualise them as points within the co-ordinate system of the excavation. Mark will also write an entry for the diary, in which he will discuss what it actually is we do in more detail.
Although we only zap in the points and therefore rarely get to see the actual amazing finds, this map nicely shows where most work so far has taken place – or at least, where most finds have been done so far.
The thick, black L-shaped cluster in the plan, just below the middle, represents a section in Structure Eight where part of the Central Midden Area was taken down in the first two weeks of this season. This was loaded with pottery, flint and different sorts of stone. Additionally, it is quite clear that Trench P has had a good year so far, finding abundant amounts of pottery, flint, stone and bone.
When I am lucky, I get to work with the Laser scanner, which is used to create a 3D model, or “point cloud” of a structure.
Every year this is done at the end of the season to see the progress made in one year. These models can be used to make very accurate drawings of the structures, including each individual stone. Luckily for me, the manual tracing of each of these individual stones is a nice, inside-job for the rainy, cold days.
Anyway, I may do a lot of digital recording and processing this year, but I am not necessarily a digital geek; getting to understand a new phone takes me about half a year.
It’s the repetition of this internship and the endless (…endless) patience of Mark Littlewood that now make me truly understand what I am doing and makes it possible for me to do processing without asking for help after every click. But secretly, I feel very cool every time I see the CAD drawing we made and every time the laser scanner makes a nice 3D model (but I clicked the right buttons!).
To round things up, I know that nearly every From the Trenches diary entry is focused on thanking the people working at the Ness and saying how amazing the site is. But there is simply no doubt about it, digging here would not be possible if people would not voluntarily work here, and therefore also teach new people how to dig and record an archaeological excavation.
From what I have heard, each year is different, but during each year, the team loses people and gains new colleagues, and our limited personal space in our daily work environment makes us into a very strong team that manages to do a fantastic job each year.
I have grown a lot as an archaeologist here, learned many new skills and improved upon those I already had. I have so far greatly enjoy the tea breaks and Friday nights in the pub where people generally tell “campfire stories” about other archaeological digs and experiences and I hope to be able to come back next year again – because I would not miss it for the world!