Dig Diary – Thursday, July 31, 2014

Day Fourteen

Jan, Claire and Mark removing the last of the deliberate infill of the entrance to Structure Ten.

Jan, Claire and Mark removing the last of the deliberate infill of the entrance to Structure Ten.

Drama of the highest order

This is something of a novelty. We do not often discuss human bone for the simple reason that it is rarely found on Neolithic sites like the Ness. But, and it is a very big but, the discovery of scattered bits and pieces of the dear departed is a relatively common feature on Iron Age sites in Orkney.

Planning and recording in Trench T.

Planning and recording in Trench T.

Scroll back to yesterday’s diary and you will recall how site director Nick and trench supervisor, Ben, were musing over the two parallel walls in the extension to Trench T and explaining how they were reminiscent of the revetment walls of an Iron Age ditch.

In addition, we mentioned that the reuse and re-modelling of some Neolithic sites was also an occasional pastime for the Iron Age folk of Orkney.

Put all this together with the discovery today of two human teeth, a human toe bone and two sherds of probable Iron Age pottery, all high up in the trench extension and in association with a puzzling stone feature, and you have drama of the highest order.

Only time, and a good deal of skilled digging, will tell, but the stone feature may turn out to be an internment of some sort.  It is, of course, unwise to make assumptions of any sort at the Ness but we will keep you posted of developments.

The SmartFauna 'torture chamber'.

The SmartFauna ‘torture chamber’.

Cattle bone, voles and snails

Outside Structure Ten, the SmartFauna project is advancing rapidly.

Considerable quantities of bone are appearing in the sondage over the passageway, which surrounds the structure, and it looks very similar to the results from the adjacent sondage, which was excavated two years ago.

We do, however, feel very sorry for Tom and Alison, who are excavating the sondage under the direction of Dr Ingrid Mainland. Not that Ingrid is being nasty to them.

They are, however, required to excavate in a prone position suspended on a lattice of planks over the sondage.

It is the sort of contraption which would have been familiar to the Spanish Inquisition, but without the flames and wailing and gnashing of teeth. We hope they survive the experience.

Laura with her newly discovered coloured pot.

Laura with her newly discovered coloured pot.

Ingrid has also been called in to advise on organic material found in the deliberate infilling of the entrance to Structure Ten.

There are what appear to be cattle tibia, perhaps mirroring the masses of tibia found in the surrounding passageway, but also vole bones and the shells of land snails.

At the moment it is difficult to tell if the voles and snails are natural intrusion or whether they also form a deliberate deposition.

More coloured pottery and stones?

In the east midden surrounding Structure Twelve, Laura has uncovered a handsome slab of Grooved Ware pottery, which has very clear clay cordons with the possibility (it is still in the ground) that there may be differential colouring of the surface of the pot.

It also lies in association with pot boilers (heated stones used to boil liquids in Neolithic vessels) and a small orthostat or upright stone. Very interesting.

In Structure Eight, Ray may have discovered another pigment-coloured stone in one of the piers. Much of it is still obscured by, would you believe, stone roof tiles. We thought they have all been removed by Ray and others two years ago but here they are again.

The technique of quadranting the central midden area continues to provide huge bonuses to the excavators of this complex and challenging area with more rubble and walls appearing.

Equally challenging is Structure Fourteen, where the exceedingly complex mesh of floor deposits now appears to be thinner, but no less easy to interpret, than previously thought.

Like the features being exposed in Structure One by Dan, the snapped off orthostats and filled in slots of these structures only serve to emphasise the major changes which must have taken place during their lives.

We will bring more complexities, by the barrowload, to you tomorrow.

From the Trenches


Sarah Nicol

My name is Sarah Nicol. I graduated in archaeology from the University of Edinburgh last summer and since then I have been living and working in Orkney.

I am an intern working at the Orkney Museum and the Pier Arts Centre. This week I have had the opportunity to leave the office and get out into the trenches.

So far this week I have been working in Trench T, cleaning back a layer of rubble between what appears to be two wall features. This has not been as easy as it sounds!

The area that I was working in had been robbed of stone in the past and was full of small stones and loose dirt.

While the other diggers around me where uncovering much larger stones which looked much easier to trowel around. Trench T has now been cleaned up photographed and planned.

I have now been relocated to Trench P and, so far, I have been working in a midden area next to Structure Twelve.

Lots and lots of bone deposits are being found here and today I found my first piece of pottery at the Ness! I had to get a supervisor to check it over as it was difficult to determine whether it was stone or pottery.

Tony Sherratt with another satisfied trainee Neolithicist, Beth, with her grass basket.

Tony Sherratt with another satisfied trainee Neolithicist, Beth, with her grass basket.

While at the Ness, I have been involved with other projects too.

On Tuesday, I helped out with the children’s archaeology club, which was lots of fun, and this morning I was across at Barnhouse Neolithic Village in the Pier Arts Centre’s tent.

I ran a printmaking session where visitors were encourage to think about what they had seen while at Barnhouse and other Neolithic sites such as the Ness of Brodgar. There were lots of beautiful prints made including many pot patterns and even the Brodgar eye.

Tomorrow will be my last day digging at the Ness. I have had a wonderful time and have met so many new people. It has been great to get back out into the trenches as it has been two years since I last excavated! It has been the quickest week in a long time and I wish all the others good luck over the next few weeks. Happy digging and fingers crossed you make amazing discoveries.

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