Dig Diary – Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Day Twenty-Two

Amidst a world of green and brown, loch and sky…

Jo McKenzie prepares the floors of Structure Five for sampling.

Interest is building over the possibilities contained within Trench J at the Ness, which itself holds the likely early Neolithic Structure Five.

But just how early is the structure?

As Hugo and his team are gradually revealing, the plan of the building may not be the oval form we suggested when it was first excavated, around 2008, and which we assumed when we reopened it three weeks ago.

Certainly the pottery recovered nine years ago is earlier Neolithic, as it is tempered with shell, which is evident as burnt-out voids.

And the outline of the walls is suggesting, not an oval, but a waisted-plan which is reminiscent of the very Early Neolithic buildings — for instance at the Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray.

If this is true it would be highly significant.

It would raise the question of the date of the “Great Wall of Brodgar”, which curls tightly around the northern part of Structure Five. Just to complicate matters, there are signs of later, ephemeral activity on top, and an array of walls, some of which are better than others.

Ingrid seems pleased with the progress on the bone deposit around Structure Ten.

Help is at hand in the form of Jo McKenzie, our geoarchaeologist and micromorphologist, who is taking small samples from the floor. These will be analysed to indicate what activities were taking place there.

It is all, of necessity, slow and careful work, but Hugo and Nick are confident that the plan of this intriguing building will be clear by the end of this season’s dig.

Meanwhile, outside Structure Ten, and over one of the remaining sections of the bone deposit around the building, Jenny and Jasper are working hard on the material using “Smart Fauna” techniques (careful 3D recording of each bone). The task is hugely helped by Jim Bright’s 3D modelling, some examples of which will soon be available on the Sketchfab site.

Our animal bone specialist, Dr Ingrid Mainland, is impressed with the speed and quality of the work and has suggested to Nick that a trial trench, or test-pit, might by put over the south side of the front annexe to the building.

Certainly, the deposits of bone appear to increase as we approach the front of Structure Ten, but Nick thinks this may be a task for next year.

Sam displays his discovery in Structure Ten.

Inside Structure Ten, and near the north-east buttress, Sam, on his first day on site this year, has discovered a nice pillow stone, which has also been used for hammering and grinding.

Interestingly, it is part of the packing for a posthole, and is matched on the other side of the hole by a cobble, which is obviously “foreign” stone.

This discovery is fortuitous for Sam, who normally works for Cotswold Archaeology, and who is now working with his boss, Sarah, a senior manager of Cotswold Archaeology and the supervisor for Structure Ten.

Today, we had Swedish documentary makers filming at the Ness, and they tell us that there are colleagues who may be interested in expanding their work to make a dedicated film on Orkney. This will add to the French, German, Austrian and Canadian film makers who are currently producing and processing material on the Ness and Orkney.

All of this enhances the exposure which the Ness is earning for Orkney worldwide, resulting in huge and growing numbers of visitors and lots of financial benefit for the economy.

And for today, we’ll end on that happy note.


From the Trenches

Hello, this is Jasper and this is my second time at the Ness.

The site is actually more impressive this time than the first, somehow. For most sites of this period, or prior, what a visitor is likely to see is neither how the site was when it was first built, or how it looked over the intervening centuries, but a reconstruction of what we supposed professionals think a structure or site originally was.

Jenny and Jasper — today’s blogger — show extraordinary patience and skill excavating the animal bone spread.

In their “natural” state after enduring millennia of decay and stone-robbing, they resemble nothing more than giant piles of rubble.

Reconstructing them is like the most complicated jigsaw puzzle imaginable. However, here at the Ness, everything was encased — entombed as it were — in midden and fill. Nothing better could have preserved the structures themselves.

What a sight it must have been for the people of the time — these thick walls of dressed stone, pecked and faced, of structures much larger than any they would likely to have ever seen, clustered close together and surrounded by pathways paved with more stone, and then all of that surrounded by the “Great Wall of Brodgar”.

Amidst a world of green and brown, loch and sky, so much worked stone must have been absolutely striking.

We are so fortunate that this, perhaps the most spectacular achievement of the region and time period, was — albeit probably unintentionally — dealt with in such a way that has preserved it so well for us.

Of course, it is still filled with mysteries.

Jenny and I have spent the last few weeks gradually excavating the top layers of one of the last sections of the fill placed around Structure Ten, in the so-called “decommissioning” event, which involved placing a distinct layer of animal bone, mostly cattle, atop the fill that buried the path ringing the structure and then covering that over as well.

Site director Nick is filmed by the Swedish camera crew.

Why they did this is an open question, but by meticulously exposing, mapping, and photographing them before removal in a way that captures a detailed three-dimensional model of their layout, we can at least get all the data possible from which to infer if there is any pattern present at all.

For some reason, the ancient Orcadians were preferential to coving over the fill that ringed Structure Ten with the long limb-bones of cattle, primarily tibia.

They were not seemingly fresh but show signs of what we first though was cutting or shaping of the bone, but which Ingrid our bones specialist says is characteristic of fracturing for the extraction of marrow.

Their level of preservation, while not wonderful, is vastly better than the bone that generally comes out of the regular midden fill, which suggests to me that they were dealt with in some other way before this depositional event besides being chucked out with the rest of the trash.

Perhaps they were placed quite soon after being extracted of their marrow.

Among all of these we had found what we thought was the mandible of an immature cow, closely associated with what we tentatively identified as a deciduous canid tooth, and apparently lost by a young dog while gnawing on the exposed bones.

If so, we would have captured a moment in time of over 4,000 years ago — a very humble one, but one that adds such life to the period.

On further examination, we have deduced that the mandible was most likely of red deer and the tooth probably also, so one image is swept away and replaced by another.

Whatever they were doing, it does not map cleanly to our expectations or actions in this instance.

If one glosses “ritual” activity as that serves no evident utilitarian purpose, this certainly qualifies. Yet then, why place apparently used and broken bone, and not whole and fresh?

To my modern mind, the alternative would make more sense for “ritual” behaviour, but apparently that distinction was not important for these people.

Probably if I was a Neolithic farmer, I would not have wanted to waste the delicious marrow in the bones, either. Or, maybe, it was inappropriate to include bones with marrow in them in this context, for some reason. Or maybe none of it mattered and there was something intrinsic to the simple placing of the bones that was important.

The human mind’s capacity for symbolisation and what it makes of its environment are infinite; it is the sources of stimuli that are discrete. There is only one sun in the sky, barring the rare supernovae.

Archaeology as a highly inferential science may be prone to leaps of explanation that cannot always be fully supported, simply because we cannot know what people so long ago were thinking, only try to recover and interpret where possible the evidence of their actions.

On site we sometimes joke that perhaps this bit of broken pottery will be the piece that cracks the case wide open — and perhaps it will!

As archaeologists it goes without saying that we focus on materials such as stone or pottery because those are the ones we most find.

Similarly, we can only make broad comparative conclusions based on the sites we know about. Unless we somehow manage to excavate everything there is to excavate, our knowledge cannot be said to be anything but incomplete, and even then it would still be lacking for preservational bias.

If, 20 years ago, someone had asked if Neolithic people built structures larger than houses anywhere in Europe the answer would have been, other than the diverse sorts of tombs, no — because the Ness site had not yet been uncovered!

Perhaps somewhere else there will be discovered Brodgar-type structures of the Neolithic period — and they will be called the Brodgar-type because they were excavated here first.

Whatever we are saying about something presently may be proven if not wrong then only circumstantially true with new evidence.

Such is the fun of exploring, even in my little corner of shillitty, midden-filled Structure Ten, where the removal of any large slab of stone can reveal another web of bone to uncover.

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