Dig Diary – Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Day Thirty-Seven
Human bone and a standing stone…

Andy Boyar excavating the human ulna within Structure Ten this afternoon. (📷 Ole Thoenies)
Andy excavating the fragile human arm bone in Structure Ten. (📷 Ole Thoenies)

In the best archaeological tradition, and with two days to go of the 2019 Ness dig, some amazing discoveries have been made – not least of which, and definitely the most unexpected, is the discovery of a second human arm bone from under the south-western buttress in Structure Ten.

Removal of the final elements of the foundation deposits associated with the reconstruction of the building’s south-west corner, revealed the bone.

A delicate operation. (📷 Ole Thoenies)

In 2016, we found the humerus (upper arm bone) of an adult adjacent to a large spread of very large cattle leg bones.

And late yesterday afternoon, Jo McKenzie, cleaning for yet another photograph of the area, discovered a very fine arm bone.

Initially we were not sure whether it was human but the consensus of the various specialists on site, confirmed it as a human ulna (lower arm).

Mission accomplished. (📷 Ole Thoenies)

The latest arm bone is an ulna (lower arm) and seems more slender and gracile, which may suggest it is not from the same individual as its predecessor.

Structure Ten was the last building constructed in Trench P.

Dating from around 2900BC, it post-dates the closure of the original phases of the piered buildings surrounding it, though some piered buildings remained in use but in modified forms.

But Structure Ten, despite its grandeur, suffered from subsidence just like its predecessors. Within a generation or two of its construction it suffered a catastrophic collapse (perhaps intentional?) in the south-western section that necessitated a rebuild.

The latest suspected standing stone on site – inside Structure Nineteen and between Structures Eight and One. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

At the same time as the rebuild, Structure Ten’s interior was remodelled and this included the insertion of corner buttresses and a new internal southern wall.

As well as the arm bones inserted into the south-western buttress, the others were built on top of special deposits – large cattle leg bones, a carved stone ball and a decorated stone.

If today’s bone is contemporary to the 2016 bone, which radiocarbon dating showed to date from the same period as the reconstruction of Structure Ten (circa 2800BC), then any ideas of a revered ancestor (or ancestors) being buried beneath the building can probably be discounted.

A wider-angled view of the standing stone (highlighted in red). (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

But we will have to wait and until further post-excavation tests to know the relationship between the two.

If we can carry out genetic tests, then we’ll be able to see whether the two bone belong to the same individual or perhaps more interestingly whether we have two people that were in some way related.

Trench J supervisor Paul takes photographs to create a new 3D model of Structures Five and Thirty-Two. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Although Jo discovered the bone, its excavation was left to Andy Boyar, our human bone specialist to excavate.

Despite the poor condition of the bone, Andy extracted it in one piece. It has now been taken off site for further analysis.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the recognition of a potential new standing stone within the buildings in Trench P.

For the last several years, in the remains of Structure Nineteen, right in the middle of the main trench and between Structures One and Eight, a large orthostat has stood partly exposed among various bits of walls and supporting stones.

Worked bone has always been something of a rarity at the Ness of Brodgar site, but after yesterday’s find outside Structure Twelve, this beautiful example was recovered in Trench J today. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

This was always presumed to be some orthostatic division or support or perhaps some stone furniture relating to Structure Nineteen.

However, in a moment of madness (mad that he had not spotted this before!), but more likely a moment of revelation, site director Nick suspects this is more likely to be yet another standing stone predating Structure Nineteen but reutilised and combined into Structure Nineteen – a megalith akin to the “Central Standing Stone” which stands in the central paved area between Structures One, Twelve and Eight and the one outside the eastern entrance to Structure Twelve.

Looking resplendent in the afternoon sun, two of the three chambers we now know were inserted into the cell outside the eastern entrance to Structure Twelve. Incidentally, the cell was divided by another suspected standing stone, visible off-centre in this picture. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The Structure Nineteen stone has suffered much more damage but appears to be like its presumed contemporary in that it has a north-south alignment and is therefore clearly parallel to the “Central Standing Stone”.

Suddenly from having a single monolith at the centre of Trench P, the site seems to have been populated by standing stones.

So watch this space for further revelations. This might be the fourth one if the one just outside Structure Fourteen, leading to Structure Sixteen, also proves to be of the same nature.

Elsewhere on site the final stages of planning and paperwork updating is well under way and today we saw the first of the winter covers going on over Trench X.

Today was the last day on site for Sunset, our meet-and-greeter all the way from New Mexico. As a token of our appreciation, she was presented with a copy of the Ness of Brodgar: Open to the Public book by site director Nick and finds hut supervisor Anne.

For those of you planning to visit the site tomorrow (the last day of tours), we thoroughly recommend that you do and we can reassure you that most of the archaeology will still be visible.

Before we sign off for the day, we were visited today by Jocelyn Rendall, from Papa Westray.

Jocelyn has been involved in archaeology for years and took part in excavations on her home island and one of the chambered tombs on Holm of Papay with Anna Ritchie.

Today she brought along one of the original notebooks kept by the excavator Anna Ritchie during her excavations in the 1970s at the early Neolithic Knap of Howar (very similar to our Structure Five in Trench J), which also contained many of the photographs of the original excavations in the early 20th century – a fascinating archive.

Technically, we have one day of excavation left for 2019, although much of that will involve tying up loose ends and paperwork.

If you have not made it along yet this year, tomorrow will be your last chance to see the archaeology in its full splendour.

Work to close the site for the winter will begin in earnest on Thursday with the covers, sandbags and tyres making their way (helped by weary excavators) into all the trenches – PLEASE come along and give us a hand to help protect this archaeological wonder from the winter elements – just turn up in old clothes, stout footwear, and bring gloves, waterproofs and a snack.

We hope to see you tomorrow before the site closes to the public on Thursday at 4.30pm.

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