Dig Diary – Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Day Twenty-Seven

More axes from opposite ends of the site

Ben and his axe from Trench T.

Ben and his axe from Trench T.

There is something about polished stone axes. We know that many of them were utilitarian items, something like the Swiss Army Knife of the Neolithic.

Yet the best examples are beautiful and fashioned from banded stone of varying colours before careful polishing brings out an almost unearthly lustre.

They are favourites on the Ness, too, and luckily the site seems to have been blessed with many of them.

We had two fine examples last week and today we have two more.

The axe from Trench T is exquisite.

Found by Ben, it is small, with a wide, tapering blade and looks as if it could hardly have been used.

Arran's axe, from Trench J.

Arran’s axe, from Trench J.

Meanwhile, inTrench J, Arran’s axe is a chunkier version but is both handsome and unusual. 

It is really only the butt end of an axe, but the stone looks different from other examples and the butt end appears to have been fashioned in an unusual manner.

So, having established that we like stone axes, let’s indulge in a little heresy.

There is, after all, nothing as enjoyable as a nice wee rant.

 The crucial question is, what do axes tell us about the peoples of the Neolithic which is, after all, the basic aim and purpose of archaeology?

They tell us that the people were good at choosing appropriate stone, patient in forming and polishing it, efficient in using it and probably careful with its eventual deposition.

Allison and Alex exposing the antler in Trench T.

Allison and Alex exposing the antler in Trench T.

Anything else? Well, not really.

We cannot confidently ascribe aesthetic motives to the production of axes because we are ignorant of Neolithic aesthetics.

Instead, we apply our own, which is dangerous. Axes may have had great significance as well as practicality, but in essence we can only guess at it.

More mundane artefacts from the Neolithic can take us much further in understanding the minds of the people.

The Trench T antler revealed.

The Trench T antler revealed.

Pottery, for instance, is undeniably mundane, but its production involves many decisions on the part of the potter and most of them are discernible in the finished product, be it a full pot or a muddy, plain sherd.

It can tell us its age (from radiocarbon dating of residues), how it was made, where and even why. Lipid analysis will tell us what it held or cooked.

Pot decoration has meaning and took Orkney’s Grooved Ware right across what is nor Britain and Ireland, and without it the dating revolution in archaeology might never have started.

They tackled the remaining Structure Ten midden baulk and cleared it! Andy, Chris, Alexander, Travis, Sierra, Paul and Jenny.

They tackled the remaining Structure Ten midden baulk and cleared it! Andy, Chris, Alexander, Travis, Sierra, Paul and Jenny.

There is even a movement in European archaeology to suggest that the Neolithic (new Stone Age) should be called the Age of Clay, so prevalent and important is it in the development of early agricultural societies.

We could go on, but have had enough fun for now. Instead, we’ll return to our wonderful Ness archaeology.

In Trench T, the last of the pesky pits and the stone alignments have mostly gone, but work has slowed down because of the discovery of a large antler.

It is in poor condition and will probably emerge in bits, despite the best efforts of the excavators, but it furnishes us with another example of a mundane-ish element which can have multiple important uses.

Between the Great Wall and Structure Five - Sigurd, Rob and Paul in Trench J.

Between the Great Wall and Structure Five – Sigurd, Rob and Paul in Trench J.

Antlers can be made into digging picks, agricultural cultivators, handles for tools and, most importantly, soft, effective and percussion-absorbing hammers for the knapping of flint.

In Trench Y, where the wall still eludes, the team turned up this morning to find the bottom of the trench under water.

This is only to be expected as they are so close to the loch, but they still have large stones in the trench, if no positive evidence yet that they come from a wall.

In Structure Ten, the investigation of the floors is ongoing. 

Sinead and her team have uncovered a series of orthostats in the area of the west wall. These orthostats are thin and some of them have been snapped, but they appear to form recesses of some sort.

One theory is that they may be earlier pseudo-dressers which were replaced later by the more familiar burly versions. They are an oddity, and will need more investigation.


Structure One from above this afternoon.

Structure One from above this afternoon.

Structure One is gleaming today.

Andy and team have cleaned it and the surrounding area for an intensive bout of photographic recording. Scott’s drone has been involved and Jim Bright’s photogrammetry will result in 3D models.

Scott has also found some software which will turn his videos into three-dimensional images.

Frankly, the details are beyond us but as long as Scott understands them all will be well.

Until tomorrow…

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