Dig Diary – Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Day Three

Cleaning starts on Trench T.

Cleaning starts on Trench T.

First find of the season

Today, Trench T was opened, and in remarkably fast order. One minute it was wrapped in its winter sleep, and the next minute it lay exposed and shivering in a breezy Orkney wind.

The “Crack of Doom” is still there, although opinions vary as to whether it is bigger now than it was last August.

For those unfamiliar with the Crack of Doom, it is a large crack in the soil at the top of the trench. It runs vertically from the grass, then downslope in the sondage (deliberately deepened part of the trench) at one side. What does it mean? It could be just a natural feature in the soil or it could indicate the presence of a structure underneath.

The plan for Trench T is to widen it on the sondage side, carefully stepping the extension in order to comply with normal health and safety procedures. Or, in other words, to stop the whole thing collapsing.

Going wider means moving the spoil heap, a task of weary inevitability, which happens on every site as the trenches expand beyond the limits conceived originally. Ben has returned from his post at the University of Leiden, in Holland, to be trench supervisor and has been joined by Keir, from the Institute of Archaeology, in Kirkwall.

The prize for first find of the season (actually, there isn’t one) goes to Mai, who emerged from Structure Twelve with a large piece of flint.

To the uninitiated it looks like a piece of debitage, or waste from the knapping process. But Hugo, who knows about such things, identified as a re-touched blade. It is a big one for the site and has been very well used.

The first tour of the season.

The first tour of the season.

The removal of midden from the northerly end of Structure Twelve continues.

As the afternoon wore on the first indications of a hearth of significant size began to emerge but it may have a rather ephemeral construction, mirroring in some ways the large hearth at the opposite end of the structure.

Supervisor Jim wonders if this hints at a late insertion, but the southerly hearth has incised decoration on the top of one of the orthostats which form its edge. If the new hearth also matches this aspect is will be a magnificent double for one of the sites’s most fascinating structures.

The first tours started today and were, as usual, very well attended.

Visitors also encountered the large and highly detailed aerial photograph of the site which has been produced and sponsored by local tour guide and archaeologist Caz Mamwell (Orkney Archaeology Tours) and Pat Stone of Orkney Aspects Tours as a fundraising aid for the newly formed charity, the Ness of Brodgar Trust.

The new "Sponsor-a-Square" display, with Caz Mamwell.

The new “Sponsor-a-Square” display, with Caz Mamwell.

The photograph is fixed to the side of the new exhibition trailer owned by the Orkney Archaeological Society. It is neatly gridded and visitors are invited to sponsor a square for a very modest sum.

This merely confirms Caz’s reputation as one of the most inventive fundraisers on the planet. She could undoubtedly clear the nation’s debt in a month, if given the chance.

Dr Ingrid Mainland, from the Institute, in Kirkwall, is set for a return to the site in coming days.

She will continue her Smart Fauna project which uses laser recording and rectified photography to examine the massive and clearly structured bone spread in the passageway around Structure Ten.

Site director Nick also held a meeting for supervisors to discuss strategy, establish sampling procedure and in general to clarify and refine the plans for the weeks ahead. More on all of this tomorrow.

The yellow clay floor of Structure 14 is revealed again.

The yellow clay floor of Structure Fourteen is revealed again.

View From (Observing) The Trenches

My name is Dr Michael Olsson and, unlike the other researchers here on the Ness, I’m here to study the archaeologists rather than the archaeology!

I’m a senior lecturer in Information and Knowledge Management in the Department of Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney. So what am I doing here, such a long way from home – besides getting both sun- and wind-burnt?

My research interest is in knowledge sharing and sense-making in academic, artistic and professional communities.

One of my previous studies, for example, looked at how actors, designers and directors make sense of Shakespeare. An archaeological excavation – and the Ness dig in particular – is an ideal setting to study how a diverse group of people with widely varying expertise and levels of experience come together to achieve a common goal.

Archaeology, as an academic discipline, is extremely diverse – and growing more so every day. New technologies and techniques are giving rise to new ways of examining and interpreting archaeological sites – and need people with new specialist skills to understand them. At the Ness, we can see people with many different expertise – from geology to geophysics – working together in an interdisciplinary way to develop new insights into this complex site.

At the same time, it doesn’t take very long on a dig site to work out that archaeology isn’t just an academic pursuit – it’s a physical and (literally) down and dirty business!

In observing the work here, in this early stage of the dig, it’s been fascinating to see the teams in the trenches dealing with the practical problems of preparing the site, such as ensuring there are safe pathways to remove the spoil without damaging either the archaeology or the diggers. It is here that you can see how the practical experience of experienced members of the team are so valuable. Combined with the enthusiasm of the students and volunteers, it has meant that real work on the site was able to begin in record time.

One of my major research interests is in embodied information practices – the ways in which we acquire physical skills, whether that be the ability to perform a soliloquy, execute a perfect karate kick or (in the present case) how to use a trowel to unearth a delicate artefact without damaging it.

So I have been particularly interested in observing how the students and volunteers here on the Ness learn the skills they need to become successful field archaeologists. They undergo a kind of apprenticeship in which more experienced members of the team, not only explain things to them but show them by example.

As they grow in expertise and confidence, they are slowly given more complex tasks and more independence. The Ness dig has a well-deserved reputation for the quality of the mentoring it provides, which is why it attracts students from around the world.

One of the great pleasures of working here is seeing the enthusiasm of all those involved and how well they work together.

That alone makes the Ness well worth a visit – even from the other side of the world!

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