Dig Diary – Human bone in Structure Eight and another (maybe not new) incised stone
Tuesday, July 26, 2022
We begin today with some momentous news.
Excavating an orthostatic box in Structure Eight, Dr Sue Greaney uncovered what appears to be human remains! Well, a bit of a human at least.
The box, cut into the floor of Structure Eight, had long been thought to be another hearth in a building containing many. We now know that’s not the case, but what was it?
It’s yet another Ness puzzle. The orthostatic box is beginning to look more and more like a cist – a stone “coffin” used for the burial of human remains – but there’s one problem. It has no capstone.
To try and clarify the feature’s role Sue was sectioning the box when she came across the upper portion of what appears to be a human femur (leg bone).
Only the ball that connected to the socket in the hipbone had survived, the rest disintegrating in the acidic conditions we have at the Ness.
But why was a human femur placed in a box in the floor of Structure Eight?
Was it alone or were there other remains which have since perished?
Unfortunately we don’t have the answers to those questions. But there must have been a reason.
The treatment of human remains in the Neolithic is a fascinating subject, and the discovery of human bone in non-funerary contexts – in dwellings for example – is not unknown.
Although it is the chambered cairns that have come to be associated with the Neolithic dead, very few have been found to contain human remains.
Where remains have been found, a re-evaluation of the evidence points to fully fleshed bodies being placed within (for example, Quanterness and Midhowe) and left to decay. This process may have been hastened by the deliberate dismemberment of corpses. Decomposition complete, the bones were “reordered and rearranged”.
At the Holm of Papa Westray North, excavator Anna Ritchie had no doubt that human remains were being manipulated — a fact her excavation “proved beyond doubt”.
This interaction with the dead was part of daily Neolithic life, suggested Professor Colin Richards, and perhaps explains the presence of human bone within domestic contexts (e.g. Skara Brae, Knap of Howar).
Were skeletal parts being removed from cairns, relocated and possibly exchanged? Perhaps to bring “life” to a new building, sealing agreements or even regarded as some form of “magical” protection.
However the femur ended up in the Structure Eight box, it is only the second example of a body part being associated with a building at the Ness – the first we encountered being the adult humerus deposited beneath one of the Structure Ten buttresses added, around 2800BC, in the building’s second phase.
From bits of bodies we move on to bits of art!
In this case an incredibly-fine incised design cut into a strange piece of wall jutting from the remains of Structure Eleven.
Sigurd has been working on the last remaining section of Structure Eleven – a later building tacked on the western remnants of Structure Nineteen, which lie across a narrow, paved passageway, to the east of Structure One.
It was while discussing the vagaries of this puzzling wall remnant with Structure One supervisor Andy, that the clouds broke and the sun illuminated the north face of a slab lying at the top.
This revealed a beautiful example of an incised design – spotted by Andy – and which featured the geometric triangles, lozenges and crosses that we all know and love from the Ness complex.
The rightmost section of the decoration features three triangles that are very similar to the incised design recorded in Maeshowe around 1861. Those on the Structure Eleven wall, however, appear as a mirror image of that motif.
Although we were delighted to see the incised stone, we can’t categorically state that it’s a new discovery. Our Neolithic art expert, Dr Antonia Thomas, has undoubtedly spotted, and recorded, it before.
But seeing as we got a nice picture of it, we thought it worth mentioning. Just in case.
Moments later the sun shifted and the design faded from view. Hours later the decoration was very difficult to see at all. Unless you knew where to look.
Structure Eleven is no stranger to Neolithic art.
Antonia has recorded 19 examples of decorated stone in the building, with another four found when its walls were dismantled. The latter were “hidden” stones that would not have been visible while Eleven was in use.
While on the subject of Neolithic art, we should remind you that Antonia’s magnificent book, Art and Architecture is Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context is available to download free here. It’s lavishly illustrated, with photographs of some of the carved stones from the Ness of Brodgar and other sites across Orkney.
At the opposite site of Structure Nineteen’s wall – and for all you Neolithic drain aficionados out there – we’ve got another. Maybe.
This candidate runs along the bottom of the western, interior wall of Nineteen and investigating it will be next on Sigurd’s agenda. If it is a drain, what building does it relate to? Where does it run? Time will, hopefully, tell.
Over in Trench T, cleaning was the order of the day in preparation for a photographic session. The Trench T team completed the job admirably and the archaeology looked spectacular in the afternoon sunshine before Professor Scott Pike’s drone took to the air and the cameras came out.
In Structure One, while Andy and Jenna continued working on the floor deposits in the building’s southern end, Ellen was cleaning around the building’s westernmost orthostat. This was one of three orthostats inserted during the building’s second phase, tied into the curving wall across its middle.
The goal is to find the orthostat’s construction cut – the socket cut into the floor to house it. The next stage will be the excavation and removal of these three stone slabs.
Meanwhile, outside the building a new batch of UHI Archaeology Institute students continued removing the material overlying the “Great Wall of Brodgar”. They are approaching the upper levels of the massive northern boundary wall but already it is clear that sections of it had tumbled into the gap between it and Structure Five.
The “Great Wall” was built around 3300BC, but the archaeological evidence so far suggests it was ruinous by 3000-2900BC.
Stepping back from the current excavations, site director Nick and finds supervisor Anne had an early start this morning, unpacking and checking all the artefacts that had been on loan to the British Museum for their World of Stonehenge exhibition.
The London exhibition ended on July 17 and our artefacts arrived back on site by specialist courier late last night.
This meant Anne and Nick were up at the crack of dawn to ensure the unpacking was complete before the excavation team arrived back on site. But as expected, the artefacts – some of the Ness’s finest – arrived back in perfect condition and are now back in secure storage.
Among the many visitors enjoying the sunshine and archaeology at the Ness today were Professors Jane Downes and Colin Richards of the UHI Archaeology Institute and Paul Clark, the new senior projects manager at the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA). They were joined by the distinguished archaeologist Professor Niall Sharples of Cardiff University.
Also on site was UHI photographer Tim Winterburn and we look forward to sharing some of his stunning images with you in due course.
But it’s been a very busy, but rewarding, day so this diary writer thinks it’s time to sign off, shower and eat.
See you tomorrow.