Dig Diary – Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Day Twenty-Eight

Ominous skies – and birds – over Trench P this afternoon. (Jo Bourne)

Pots, a fond farewell and a massive incised slab…

The incised pot featuring the ‘Barnhouse’ motif ready for lifting in Trench X this morning. (Sigurd Towrie)

Finds supervisor Anne and ceramic specialist Roy had high hopes that the flood of pottery which poured from the site on Tuesday might abate today. No chance!

Not that we don’t want more, but perhaps not in such quantities and all at once.

To begin with, the straight-sided flat-bottomed pot found by Christine to the side of the elaborate east entrance to Structure Twelve needed some tender care.

It is in good shape but very wet, which is hindering resolution of the question as to whether it has a coloured band around the rim.

The operation to remove the pot from its 5000-year-old resting place begins… (Sigurd Towrie)

This is probably unlikely as the orange colouring at the top of what is predominantly a blackened pot appears to be a result of the incised decoration there being knocked off and revealing the oxidised ceramic underneath. However, we cannot be sure until it dries properly.

Further large spreads of pottery have appeared at the top of Trench X but it is in dreadful condition and unlikely to yield much information.

Much more interesting is the pot removed this morning by Mike and his team from the same trench. It is a flat base and side wall from a pot with incised, slightly wavy decoration on its exterior surface.

Mission accomplished. Mike and Ceridwen transfer the pot into a storage tray. (Sigurd Towrie)

This is very similar to much of the incised pottery from nearby Barnhouse, from the Stones of Stenness and also from our own Structure Fourteen, where a near-complete pot was found secured under a stone and probably associated with the demolition of the building.

All of this raises problems.

Incised decoration on pottery is usually considered to be early in the late Neolithic period, although it can be found in the same contexts as applied cordon pottery which is usually believed to be slightly later.

Jules and Bruce begin planning outside Structure Twelve. (Jo Bourne)

Yet the context in Trench X is not early, in fact site director Nick puts it later than 2900BC. This would also fit with the date for the pot in Structure Fourteen.

Perhaps we have to have a re-think about our dating. Or it may simply be a case of incised pottery overlapping with cordoned pot and carrying on in use a little longer than we originally thought.

Elena cleans around the badly preserved animal bones close to at the north-west corner of Structure Twenty-Seven. See yesterday’s blog for details. (Jo Bourne)

On a lighter note (sort of) there was a serious crisis on site this morning. We have taken so many bulk samples that the sample buckets have run out.

Back in Kirkwall, Cecily, our intrepid flotation expert, is working hard but is near overwhelmed by the number of sample buckets already sent to her.

Salvation arrived in the most unlikely manner.

Gerri’s Ice Cream Parlour in the nearby Stenness village donated a bin bag full of empty ice cream tubs.

Surprised by the rapture with which these were received, the proprietor returned with a car load more.

Great excitement in the passage/cell outside the eastern entrance of Structure Twelve as Claire and Sigurd reveal a huge incised flagstone. (Jo Bourne)

They had to be cleaned, and Rock Lady Martha (aka our geologist), who is used to washing her precious rock samples, pitched in. The crisis is now solved, for the moment.

On a darker note, we are about to lose Cristina.

Regular readers will know Cristina as the supervisor in Trench T, where she has conducted a brilliant excavation and endeared herself to successive waves of students who have been treated to the very best of tuition delivered in the nicest possible way.

She leaves at the end of this week.

She points out, reasonably enough, that she has a life back home in Spain, but we are not sure that this is a sufficient excuse.

We will miss her enormously and are hoping desperately that she will be back next year.

A section of the incised flagstone from the passage/cell outside Structure Twelve’s entrance. Click the image for a larger version. (Jo Bourne)
Another view of the incised flagstone from the passage/cell outside Structure Twelve’s entrance. Click the image for a larger version. (Jo Bourne)

Plans for Trench T and Structure Twenty-Seven have been discussed with Nick and will deal with the huge complexities of the infilling and destruction of the building.

The overall plan of this puzzling building is now clearer but we are unlikely to reach occupation levels, and hopefully secure dating material, until next year.

We are no nearer knowing the identity of this building. Is it an Orcadian equivalent of a Neolithic timber hall, or could it be like the structure at the base of the Howe site, in Stromness, which was excavated in the early 1980s?

Nick feels strongly that it may be something totally new to archaeological science, which is a prospect to send tingles up spines.

Tatiana and Louise excavating the retaining wall in Trench T (put in at the edge of a big pit during the robbing process). (Jo Bourne)

It may, however, not be terribly early as its stepped foundations and the quality of the stonework have similarities with Structure Ten. We shall see.

The “Corner of Loveliness” at the east entrance to Structure Twelve continues to produce loveliness.

Today this includes a fine, decorated slab covered in incisions, including the famous Ness butterfly motif, but also a host of others. We don’t know its full extent yet as it is still in the ground. Look out tomorrow for more information.

Also, please do your best to find the BBC website which has information on another hugely exciting University of the Highlands and Islands site, this time on the island of Rousay – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-49250718.

Our colleagues there are working at the site of Skaill Farm and have uncovered a massive Viking drinking hall, perhaps the very one belonging to Earl Sigurd.

This is a most significant find and you will hear lots more about it in the future. Yes, it is yet another example of Orkney as the best location for archaeology in Britain and, no, we are not biased.

See you tomorrow.