Dig Diary – Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Day Thirty-Eight

And so its farewell from us all for another year.

And so its farewell from us all for another year.

See you next year . . .

Some of the Glaitness Primary School pupils writing about their first visit to the Ness.

Some of the Glaitness Primary School pupils writing about their first visit to the Ness.

The end, the absolute end, has arrived. For this year at least.

Today we gave the last tours to some of the many thousands of visitors who have thronged the site over the last two months and welcomed the enthusiastic youngsters from Stenness and Gailtness primary schools. We also wished happy birthday to “Finds Hut Anne”.

However, with almost all excavation brought to a halt, the Herculean task of assembling tyres, plastic, sandbags etc. for wrapping the site has now begun.

It is, in many ways, a sad time, as are most departures. Old friendships have been renewed and new ones made.

The diggers, to whom a huge debt of gratitude is owed, have worked long and hard in often atrocious condition and, most important of all, amazing things have been achieved on this truly magnificent archaeological site.

We’ll get to the most important votes of thanks in just a minute, but we want to begin this last diary of the season with brief recollections from site supervisors of the moments which stand out in their memories, archaeologically speaking.

Stenness School make their now regular visit to the site on their second day back after the summer holidays.

Stenness School make their now regular visit to the site on their second day back after the summer holidays.

For Jim, in Structure Twelve, it has been an unusual sort of season.

His stand-out memory is finding Structure Twenty-Eight under Structure Twelve and realising that Twelve is a rebuild of the older structure on a slightly different alignment, but using the same materials.

In Structure Fourteen, Dave recalls getting the site back properly in phase after the removal of the baulks, but also the expansion of the sondage which brought to light more Early Neolithic material.

Andy, in Structure Eight, mentions the new understanding that his structure is shallower than first envisaged and that it may have had a relatively short life. It may, indeed, perhaps be best understood as an expansion of Structure Seventeen.

Having put the extraordinary Trench T to bed for the winter, Ben and Mai are still thrilled by the discovery of the wall face and the remarkable, never-ending orthostat. They also remember the students who worked in the trench, saying that they were brilliant and should be proud of themselves.

One of our invaluable behind the scenes operatives, photographer Ole.

One of our invaluable behind the scenes operatives, photographer Ola.

In Structure Ten, Sarah amalgamates the two main areas of her complicated professional life and is happy with restoring the phasing for the primary floor, and also with the extraordinary discovery of waterlogged wood and seaweed. As she says, stratigraphy and finds go together.

Claire, at the other end of Structure Ten, recalls the cattle bone deposited with human bone. She had always expected some human bone in Ten, but that deposit has surprised even her.

In Trench X, Anne fondly recounts the discovery of the post holes, with their packing, and is excited by the stone-dressing area and her elegant solution, which describes how the area without stone chippings actually gives the outline of the stone being worked upon.

In Structure One, Dan looks forward to the new challenges of next season, given that this season has seen the levels in the building now down the primary surface. He is also happy with the deconstruction of Structure Eleven, a novel event on site, which revealed much about building techniques, but also many more examples of decorated stone.


Mark (Mr Geomatics) has the whole site to play with, but his favourite moment is split between the broken, polished-stone axe from Trench T and the frog skeleton from Structure One.

Lastly, Roy is very happy with the cord/basketry impressed pottery – even if it emerged in 2014 and has only now been recognised thanks to Olga’s diligent post-ex work.

And now for the most important task of thanking those who made our work possible.

If written down, this would be a huge list and would swamp the website. So we will mention those who have been simply vital to everything.

First, it is our great pleasure to thank Ola and Arnie Tait, who own the field in which the Ness of Brodgar dig site is sited and without whose support, encouragement and, not least, permission to dig, absolutely nothing would have been discovered.

What a difference a few hours make. Trench T supervisors Dave and Ben have discussions, this afternoon, in brilliant sunshine.

Trench T supervisors Dave and Ben have discussions in brilliant sunshine.

Without them it is safe to say that the understanding of the Neolithic period would be impoverished in contrast with the new knowledge which the excavation of the Ness has achieved.

Enormous thanks are also due to Rosemary and Neil McCance, who work, all year round, in the college processing data, but who also provide (Heaven knows how) the many thousands of ready-marked finds bag without which excavation would grind to a halt.

We also want to most warmly thank Annabel Eltome and her other-half, Jim. Annabel has run the site shop for years now but is stepping down next year.

Without her work the Ness and also OAS funds would be sadly depleted. Jim, who can set his hand to anything, has kept us going with his skills at crucial periods and, as diggers will testify, has made break-time more comfortable with his unique take on mass-seating.

As the diary’s keyboard fingers are now throbbing we will stop here, with a last farewell and with hopes to see you all again in ten months, yes, just ten months’ time.

Do, however, watch out for some blog extras that will be heading your way over the coming days.

From the Supervisors

The supervisors at the Ness are excluded from blog writing by Nick, possibly because he is frightened by what we may say!

However, joking aside, Nick is a supportive and engaged director who is always able to give his opinion on the excavation of even the smallest features on site.

As a supervisory collective though, we are the people that you will encounter most if you come to volunteer on the site or engage as a student in our training programme.

We lead the excavation of different structures or trenches.

We work as nested teams – you are part of a structure or trench team and within that, part of the wider network.

In 2016, there were a total of ten supervisors, assisted by a similar number of assistant supervisors. In addition to that we have a team of vastly skilled volunteers, some of whom work with us for the entirety of the season.

The team are brought up to date with the latest thinking about Trench T by Ben, the area supervisor.

The team are brought up to date with the latest thinking about Trench T by Ben, the area supervisor.

While these volunteers often have a different skill-base (some are professional archaeologists), their knowledge of our systems, contexts and archaeological relationships through repeated working at the Ness is vast.

Our volunteers from outside archaeological practice in their daily lives are never clouded by other digs or ongoing research into other archaeology and their input both in terms of stratigraphic relationships and the history of the site is invaluable.

We come, we dig.

We conquer and harness our results into reports for Nick that become part of the primary record of the site. This includes all our formal records such as contexts sheets but also our site diaries that record the events and progress of each day’s excavation.

To many we appear to swan around and not do very much. This seeming inactivity belies the reality – we have to understand and be able to communicate about our trench to our teams, other supervisors, Nick, our tour guides and any interested visitors who come to the trench edge.

The envy of the other buildings on the Ness — Structure Twelve's sofa.

The envy of the other buildings on the Ness — Structure Twelve’s sofa.

We may stand and stare at sections like we are in the midst of a petit-mal, but this is okay and standard practice. We are considering not just what is currently in progress but the next stage of excavation (what needs recording and in what way) and sometimes the stage after that.

Towards the end of the excavation all this becomes more time-critical as we can spend days doing our scaled drawings in both plan and section.

As supervisors we all have the same questions of new faces that if you come, you will be asked repeatedly. One of these is “what experience do you have?”.

This isn’t because it is some sort of competition, but rather so we can best use your skills.

If one structure, or trench, needs a certain skill set you may start your journey at the Ness in one part and be moved into another area.

After all, we only have a short few weeks to get as far as we can (as accurately as possible) and the wider aims of the progress of the site always have to be prioritised.

Mike prepares the bone spread in Structure Ten for rectified photography.

Mike prepares the bone spread in Structure Ten for rectified photography.

The benefits are that you will get to experience different parts of the Ness, trowel and record in different structures across the site. Yet, you may find you have all your time in one area, beginning to know that intimately and dream of context numbers and stratigraphy!

In whichever case, you will be supported and trained in our systems (most that are standard archaeological and some site-specific) and be an integral part of our team.

A team is what we are. Many of our volunteers live locally but from the finds hut and shop, through to the diggers, tour guides, specialists, Jim (our immensely talented handyman) and even Bryn the site dog, many of us fly here as archaeological birds for the season for one purpose – digging the Ness.

We look after each other. While the weather may be challenging at times, we endeavour to make that the only difficult part of the adventure. If you do come to us, please do tell us (as supervisors) if you have any ongoing health problems so we won’t ask you to do anything that may make them worse.

The UHI students start their archaeological careers in Trench X.

The UHI students start their archaeological careers in Trench X.

Having spent many years in the field we know that what to you may be an achy neck now will be agonising after two hours planning; that while your dodgy back is okay for the odd bucket you may be better off not moving barrows.

We would much rather have a short conversation with you than to put you at risk or, selfishly, have to find a way to extract anyone from the trench!

We hear whispers of how many volunteers are turned away each year because all our places are full. This is always a humbling experience as we consider our time here excavating the Ness as a privilege that does not tarnish with time.

While it is a large site, it cannot support everyone who wants to come.

We are painfully aware of the cost of the dig and the need to raise enough funds from season to season. It means that when we leave as August draws to a close we all hope to be back, but are uncertain if we will. A year is a long time to plan ahead too and most of us cannot definitely commit to weeks away from home almost a year in advance.

Our goodbyes are strong ones. So many thanks to all who have been here helping us in 2016.

And just for the record, in case we never get to do a blog again, none of the stories about us are true.

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