Dig Diary – Thursday, July 18, 2019

Day Fourteen

Weather closing in over Trench T this afternoon. (Jo Bourne)

Revelations and cloud dodging

Oh what would we give for a day of uninterrupted excavation!

Thursday dawned bright and reasonably clear and as the morning wore on the site and digger alike basked in the warmth of the sun. Then it went wrong.

Tour guide Martin points out the uncovered southern orthostat in Structure Twenty-Seven. (Jo Bourne)

Clouds rolled in and within minutes it was a deluge. Rain covers were placed over sensitive areas of the site and diggers sought any shelter available to eat their lunches.

The rain continued and then, almost as quickly as it appeared, it ceased. The sun appeared, some covers were removed and work resumed.

But only briefly. The repeated spells of wet weather plagued excavation all afternoon, with any work taking place in fits and starts as wave after wave of rain washed across the Ness.

Progress was made, however.

Lisa working on the decorated orthostat in Structure Twenty-Seven. (Jo Bourne)

In Trench T, after a morning of removing more midden there was something of a revelation when the extent of the prone orthostat along the inside of the end wall of Structure Twenty-Seven was revealed in all its glory.

The huge slab of stone had been partially uncovered in previous years and the suspicion was that it was big.

We knew it had to be over four metres long (13ft) to fit the symmetry of the massive, rectangular Structure Twenty-Seven. Today it was fully uncovered and our suspicions were correct.

It is huge – 4.2 metres long (13.78ft) long – and adds to the overall sense that this building is truly special.

Where did this monolith come from? It is so long and thin that the care and expertise employed in quarrying it is just mind-blowing.

When rain stopped play, we were amazed at how quickly great pools of water accumulated in the trench, so excavators were pulled out and put to work in the two extensions looking to reveal more of the layout of Structure Twenty-Seven.

It’s faint but it’s there. Decoration on the Structure Twenty-Seven orthostat. Click the image for a larger version. (Jo Bourne)

Trench T was the site of a second revelation today. Site director Nick was examining the large orthostat in the north-eastern corner of the building when the light shifted and revealed something rather incredible.

Not only did he spot “dragging striations” on the outer face of the massive stone – presumably created during the operation to drag the stone to the site and into position – but also incised decoration.

The face of the stone is very badly laminating but an operation to create a 3D model is under way and we will hopefully have this online next week so diary reader will be able to see these up close.

Some of the Structure Eight team record this week’s many decorated stones. (Jo Bourne)

Structure Eight – the source of some stunning decorated stones this week – continued to produce more examples, although the latest to turn up are fairly ephemeral and not that easy to see.

Of particular interest today was the results of research relating to the pitchstone – a volcanic glass, similar to obsidian – found at the Ness.

In total, there are now 31 pieces of pitchstone from the Ness – the largest assemblage found in Orkney to date. The Barnhouse Settlement, the only other Orcadian site with pitchstone, yielded 26 pieces.

An example of some of the paperwork required for every decorated stone found at the Ness. (Jo Bourne)

The presence of pitchstone at the Ness has long suggested that long-distance travel undoubtedly took place in the Neolithic – pitchstone is only found on the island of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland.

Ness of Brodgar stalwart Dr Hugo Anderson Whymark, now of the National Museums Scotland, has carried out a study of all the lithics from the site.

Looking at the pitchstone assemblage, in particular the way it had been worked, he suggests that it may have been brought to Orkney by visitors, who used it to create tools in Structure Eight.

Hugo explained: “What’s really interesting about the 2018 material is a collection of seven pieces from a single occupation layer in Structure Eight. These pieces could all be from the same cobble of pitchstone, although none refit, and the group includes three blades/microblades and three small chips.

“The latter strongly indicate knapping within Structure Eight, while the blade orientated reduction is characteristic of pitchstone knapping further south in Scotland during the Late Neolithic.

Some of the Arran pitchstone found on site. (Hugo Anderson Whymark)

“This is potentially significant as blade reduction is not characteristic of Late Neolithic flintworking in Orkney and, given the challenges of knapping pitchstone, it seems plausible that we are dealing with a knapper familiar with working this material.

“While not a huge revelation, this provides a good indication that pitchstone came up with folk from down south.”

In Structure Ten, Charlie has finished the planning of the south-western buttress and is now ready to start further investigations into the foundation layers underlying it.

Hopes are still high that we’ll find remains of the original clay floor beneath the buttress, which may have slumped under the later addition to the interior.

The Trench X extension has revealed evidence of further postholes – suggesting a large, circular structure. (Sigurd Towrie)

Over in Trench X, the UHI and Willamette students have removed the upper levels of the new extension and careful trowelling has revealed more stone-lined post holes curving round towards the Loch of Stenness.

This is great news as it seems we do have a round post-built structure on site and, given the size of the arc of postholes exposed, it was rather large!

There are no diggers on site tomorrow. The weary, weather-beaten souls have been given the day off in preparation for our first “Special Sunday” at the weekend (more details to follow).

Tours of the site continue as usual tomorrow and Saturday (just two each day at 11am and 3pm) and if you can join us on site (and in the Stenness School) on Sunday, we’d be delighted to see you.

To finish off today’s diary, we must repeat our ongoing plea for financial support.

One fact that has become clear over all the site tours so far this season is that people are astonished to learn that circa 80 per cent of the cost of running the Ness of Brodgar excavations comes from the generous donations of the public. In other words, without the continued support of people across the world, the Ness work simply cannot continue.

If you would like to make a donation, we would be eternally grateful. You can donate here and we really do need your help, otherwise next year we just won’t be here.

Alternatively, pick up a copy of our guidebook, which also goes towards raising money for the excavation fund.

Now, it’s time to get out of wet and muddy clothes and prepare for Sunday’s Neolithic spectacular (we’re assured the sun will surely shine)