Dig Diary – Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Day Twenty-Two

It’s a . . . drain – but an incredibly big one!

Alice after revealing the ‘entrance’ to the suspected 20-metre-long drain to the north of Structure Twelve yesterday. (Jo Bourne)

So here we are again. And the world waits with bated breath for news of yesterday’s discovery.

During excavation at the southern end of Structure Eight it became clear that we had a hole. Not just a gap between stones or even a space where a wall had once stood. This was large, could swallow up a metre-long ranging rod easily and disappeared under Structure Twelve into darkness.

When the hole first appeared, theories and ideas about what could possibly be abounded. These ranged from entrances to underground chambers and wells. But it seems highly likely there’s a more prosaic explanation…

The interior of the drain – complete with massive lintel. (Jo Bourne)

To put you all out of your misery, the big discovery yesterday has turned out to be the largest drain at the Ness.

A drain? A drain, I hear you shout.

I know it doesn’t sound particularly exciting but this is a majorly important discovery for the Ness.

For one it shows that the entire complex (at least in the final phases) was carefully planned from the outset.

And like all things Neolithic we give features functional names we recognise (Skara Brae “dressers” anyone?). Who knows what lies beneath.

Dumbfounded by the apparent scale, site director Nick investigates… (Jo Bourne)

What we have is a massive construction that seems to have been drystone built with some of the lintels still in place.

It measures over half-a-metre wide. The depth is unknown at present, but we can trace it back directly for at least 1.8 metres.

This is probably the tip of the iceberg, because it seems to continue back under Structure Twelve and travels in a straight line for a considerable distance.

Its presence clarifies some of the slumping we see at the north end of Structure Twelve – what appears to be a rubble-filled pit within Structure Twelve is probably collapsing into the drain beneath.

…and peers into the Stygian blackness. (Jo Bourne)

Also, beyond the south-west corner of the building is another pit which is on the same alignment and again is probably collapsing into the same drain.

With this in mind, the drain probably extends for at least 20 metres across the site.

It’s interesting that this seems to be one of the primary elements, or at least relates to one of the earlier phases of the site that pre-dates Structures Twelve, Twenty-Eight, Thirty-Three and Thirty-Four (the latter all lie beneath Structure Twelve).

Cristina, Jenna and Elena at work on what appear to be a second entrance to Structure Twenty-Seven. (Sigurd Towrie)

Drains of this scale are not unknown in Neolithic Orkney. Gordon Childe found similar ones at Skara Brae during his excavations in the 1920s and 1930s but we think the Ness drain, given its size, has to have been one of the primary elements laid out in the planning and construction of the later phases of the complex.

Unfortunately, we have not got any small children, or other willing volunteer of a diminutive stature, to stick down there but we’ll hopefully get an orthoscope to have a closer look at the interior in due course.

Drains may not seem that exciting in the grand scheme of things, but the information they yield is invaluable.

Allison removing midden from the vicinity of the original, robbed-out entrance to Structure Twenty-Seven. (Sigurd Towrie)

Who knows what residues we may find that may be related to life at the Ness – we may find evidence of food materials being flushed down into it or maybe even human waste.

Why is it so big? We think because it was perhaps the drain into which a number of lesser drainage channels were running off into.

We have all these drainage systems around and under a lot of the structures, but the new drain is perhaps part of a central drainage system underlying the site.

Christine working on the north side of the Structure Twelve entrance trying to reveal the full extent of the fill of a late robbing cut. (Sigurd Towrie)

Unfortunately, we won’t be able to get down into the depths of the underground structure in the immediate future but it’s a great discovery and confirms what we all already knew – that the Neolithic people weren’t just haphazardly throwing up conglomerations of buildings.

It’s maybe not on the scale of town planning but planning on a greater scale than we had previously imagined.

Charlie and Holly continue to unravel the story of Structure Ten’s later life. (Sigurd Towrie)

This wasn’t the only drain revealed on site today because at the south end of Structure Twenty-Seven, in Trench T, another drain has been discovered running out beneath the wall and which undoubtedly runs into a second drain running parallel the south-eastern side.

The excitement in Trench T continued with further revelations. We may have a second, blocked up entrance in the north-west side of Structure Twenty-Seven.

Whether this is an original entrance or a secondary entrance that has been added, remains to be seen.

As with all the buildings at the Ness, where we see many different phases of use, Structure Twenty-Seven may have been likewise adapted towards the end of its life. It’s early days yet, so watch this space.

Back in front of the television cameras – site director Nick and the crew from BBC Alba. (Jo Bourne)

Allison has started to remove the midden infill within the “original” entrance passage. Little remains of this entrance now other than a single orthostat, the rest of the structure being robbed out or dismantled in antiquity.

The television cameras were back on site today, with BBC Alba filming a short feature that is due to go out on the channel’s news service this evening.

Over in Structure Twelve, the enigma that is the eastern entrance to Structure Twelve continues to furrow brows.

Its complexities are becoming even more complex with every day that passes and there now seems to be a whole sequence of blocking and rebuilding that saw different bits of later walling added to the structure.

Slowly, however, its all being disentangled – but still producing copious quantities of animal bone and pottery.

Christine has joined the team there and is now working on the north side of the entrance trying to reveal the full extent of the fill of a late robbing cut that had been partially excavated around the entrance.

This should will reveal whether some of this walling does represent a later annexe or whether it was fully blocked off to create an alcove attached to the main building.

In Structure Ten, Holly has been removing the later grey deposit overlying the north side of the primary floors. As ever, this is a slow process, with lots of paperwork created by the innumerable samples taken.

In the south-east corner, Charlie is still valiantly disentangling the very complicated history of the construction of the buttress and its foundation deposits, incorporating a layer of roof slates.

It’s been a long day on site today, with as much time spent lugging giant stones around as trowelling. So for now this weary diary-writer will sign off…

Until tomorrow.