Dig Diary – Tuesday, July 5, 2016
The trench with no name . . .
Today started ominously for, as work began first thing in the morning, a glance south-eastwards showed a huge bank of black cloud building, with a column of blackness descending in the exact direction of the village of Finstown.
Our American diggers said, confidently, that it was not a “twister” and late arrivals on site confirmed that Finstown was still standing. Fortunately, we missed most of the ensuing rain, which is just as well as the diggers had quite enough of bucketing and sponging water out of the trenches yesterday after the weekend’s rain.
That’s enough of the weather, although we will return to it (probably tomorrow).
The main task this morning was removing the remaining plastic sheets, bags and tyres from the structures. Some of the floors remained covered to protect them and to enable geoarchaeologist Jo McKenzie, who arrived today, to take samples for analysis.
Her work, taken together with that of other specialists, will give solid information on what was taking place on the floors in the Late Neolithic and will shed light on the lives, activities and economies of the people who occupied the structures.
Today’s real excitement started when Mr Flett, one of Orkney’s foremost digger drivers, arrived on site with his big, yellow machine.
Experienced excavators know this can only mean the uncovering of a new trench. Actually, diary readers knew yesterday that this would happen.
It is the three-metre-wide slot trench planned to run from the western end of Structure Twelve down towards the Stenness loch.
One of our Spanish diggers expressed astonishment at the site of a digger on a Neolithic site. In Spain it just doesn’t happen – but in Spain they clearly don’t have a digger driver like Mr Flett.
If there is such a thing as artistry with a large lump of diesel machinery, he possesses it. He is able to skim centimetres from the soil with astonishing accuracy and, as one onlooker said admiringly, could probably remove your appendix without pain.
His skill brought immediate results. Near the top of the trench he uncovered, undamaged, a very nice base from a Grooved Ware vessel.
Site supervisor Nick planned the new trench to investigate the possibility of finding the missing boundary wall which has failed to show up in geophysics surveys.
These surveys, often accurate, may have been disrupted by the presence of the modern fence line or by interference from overhead power cables.
Alternatively, the trench could show whether the monumental structures already discovered continued down to the Loch of Stenness, or whether there were more modest, and possibly domestic, structures present on the edge of the main site.
Although it is far too early to tell, the results are already both fascinating and puzzling.
The top of the trench contains what looks like familiar midden deposits, but further down some interesting stony deposits are emerging. Nick thinks they could be part of the wall, while upright stones could indicate a box or cist. They may even be part of a much more modern boundary wall. Only time will tell.
Site supervisors love a new trench and several had congregated at the bottom of the trench, jostling for space and occasionally doing a bit of digging.
By far the most active was Dave, an old (although youthful) favourite at the Ness. He was rewarded by discovering the fortieth piece of pitchstone ever to be found in Orkney.
Pitchstone is a black volcanic glass, found 400km to the south-west of Orkney on the island of Arran.
It is yet more proof of extensive trading and long distance travelling in the Neolithic of Orkney and Scotland.
Incidentally, we do not carry such esoteric knowledge in our heads.
We know it was the fortieth piece because Hugo, the lithics expert, who knows such things, happened to be on site and enlightened us.
As to the new trench, it is still anonymous.
Nick can’t make up his mind what to call it so for now it must remain ‘The Trench with No Name’.
From the Trenches
My name is Rhys Morgan and I’m currently studying a part-time PhD at the University of Southampton, specialising in Late Neolithic domesticity in Orkney.
The rest of my time is spent working as a self-employed commercial archaeologist and I’ve been fortunate enough to excavate on several sites across Britain, covering a range of different periods.
This is actually only my second visit to Orkney and I’m amazed by how beautiful this location is. I’m even more amazed by the sheer number of prehistoric monuments visible across the landscape.
The main reason that I volunteered on this excavation was due to the uniqueness of the site; there is literally nothing else like it in Britain!
All of yesterday, along with this morning, was spent clearing away the tyres, plastic sheeting and sandbags that covered the site. For the most part, it was pretty exhausting, but all that work paid off when each individual structure was slowly revealed.
The first thing that struck me was the quality of the masonry on both the inner and outer walls; the amount of care that went into their construction was clearly evident.
Admittedly, over the course of my studies, I’ve only read about this site, so to actually see it in the flesh was a really astounding moment for me.
I was also struck by the enormous size of some of the structures, particularly Structure Ten. Even though only two-thirds or so of the building is visible, the enormity of it, especially considering it dates to the Neolithic, is almost surreal.
So far, I have really enjoyed my time here and am looking forward to excavating parts of the site and hopefully finding a few special finds along the way.
Around half an hour ago, we started trowelling the archaeology with the aim of making everything nice and visible, so it feels really good to finally start the process of excavation.
I feel almost guilty in saying this, but so far, even after only two days, the Ness of Brodgar is by far and away better than any site I’ve worked on in commercial archaeology so far!