Dig Diary – Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Day Twenty-Eight

A tale of two orthostats…

Dr Antonia Thomas working on the degrading decorated orthostat in Structure Twenty-Six.

Dr Antonia Thomas working on the degrading decorated orthostat in Structure Twenty-Six.

Structure Twenty-Six is one of the oddest buildings we have excavated at the Ness.

It is a peculiar shape, with walling which at one end looks like a blocked-up entrance, but might be something else.

Its relationship to the structures around is still not clearly understood and today it presented us with one of the most difficult and saddest problems we have yet faced.

Clair and Antonia contemplate the orthostat in Structure Twenty-Six.

Clair and Antonia contemplate the orthostat in Structure Twenty-Six.

The team had been working on a long orthostat, which lies at an acute angle to the ground and which has clearly been one side of a recess within the building.

As work progressed today, it suddenly became clear that the orthostat is covered in very lightly incised decoration on both sides.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the surface of the stone is flaking off and much of it has already been lost, probably in antiquity.

Andrew planning the orthostat exposed in the Trench T extension.

Andrew planning the orthostat exposed in the Trench T extension.

Luckily, Dr Antonia Thomas, our stone art expert, was on hand documenting some of the new examples of stone decorated with geometric motifs which have turned up (incidentally, we now have well over 900 examples of decorated stone on site).

Unfortunately, there is very little that even Antonia can do to save the decorations on the stone.

In a few small areas it is possible to see where the incising tool has penetrated the outer layer of stone and in those areas the decoration can just be traced even if the upper layer is lost. But these areas are too small to enable an understanding of the wider decoration.

The team are now faced with the task of very gently removing the soil which clings to the surface of the stone and deciding what can be saved

Top view of the Structure Twenty-Seven orthostat, with the end of the 3.7 metre long prone orthostat visible just on the surface of the trench.

Then the task will be to assess what is left on the underside which lies at such an acute angle it is almost face-down on the structure floor.

Maybe there will be more surviving than we think at the moment.

We will let you know.

Meanwhile, Structure Twenty-Seven, lurking coyly at the bottom of Trench T is as enticing as ever.

Site Director Nick had hoped for another long, prone orthostat and one has appeared – 3.7 metres long and running up to the new divisional upright stone, which has been excavated by Andrew in the small trench extension.

Nick is happy that the preservation of the building seems to be better as we move up the slope of the artificial mound which covers it – indeed there may be fresh evidence of another prone orthostat just emerging from the trench edge (or so we hope!).

Does this mean we might have another small trench extension?

Andrew is busy planning the area at the moment so we will have to wait for a decision (but not this year says Nick!)

Emma at work in Structure Ten.

Emma at work in the “pseudo-dresser” area of Structure Ten.

In Structure Ten, the continuing excavation in the area of the pseudo-dresser (possibly an example of an early dresser) is revealing some interesting features which probably relate to the primary use of the building.

Work here will continue this week.

We had some important visitors today. The first was Professor Jane Downes, the director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, to which we belong.

Janes has just returned from the island of Sanday, where her team is investigating a Bronze Age double house, which seems to have been built on top of a Neolithic house, some surprisingly well-preserved buildings at Cata Sand and also the well-known Tresness tomb, which, likewise, turns out to be better preserved than she expected.

Another visitor was Professor Keith Dobney of Liverpool University.  Keith was previously a professor at Aberdeen University and is very familiar with the archaeology of Orkney.

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