Dig Diary — Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Day Thirteen

The finest so far

Mike's second and most impressive stone sees the first light of day in 4,500 years.

Mike’s second, and most impressive, stone sees the first light of day in 4,500 years.

Mike is indeed a very lucky man – not just one piece of art but now perhaps the finest piece of art we have recovered from the site, and one of the finest from the UK EVER – amazing and awe inspiring!

Like the other one, it was discovered at the base of the later  south-west internal corner buttresses in Structure Ten.

As we slowed to draw breath at the beauty of the revealed panel, a cry went up that an equally impressive design was apparent on one of the other sides of this large triangular block of stone.

Although the basis of the designs of interconnecting triangles can be loosely paralleled on a slab discovered at Skara Brae in the 1970s, a lightly inscribed stone in Maeshowe discovered by Patrick Ashmore in the 1980s and some Irish art, this is a much finer and more complex piece of art.

Mike's first decorated stone.

Mike’s first decorated stone.

Many of the triangles are filled with cross-hatching and other designs.

An initial wash has also revealed a finely incised chevron design and small cup marks.

After careful recording in situ, plans were made to lift this large block and remove it to a location of ultimate security that is guarded by several burly archaeologists.

The stone was protected with bubblewrap and then manoeuvred onto a large piece of very strong netting.

Several pairs of hands at a given signal then lifted it onto the side of the trench and then into a well-padded wheelbarrow.

Cries of relief all round as it was made safe with no damage.

Poetic souls

The second face of the new decorated stone.

The second face of the new decorated stone.

Archaeologists are not by nature poetic souls, especially at the end of a long, hard day.

Indeed the only piece of archaeological poetry we can remember is from a dig in Ireland and features the gruesome (and fictional) death of an archaeologist under collapsing rock from a chambered tomb.

If memory serves, the last wish of the expiring digger was to have his wages paid to his mum.

We, however, deal in high-class poetry. Megan Cohen (below) has treated us to haikus and an entertaining account of her experiences at the Ness thus far.  She has touched on some of the attributes of a happy site, one of which is, of course, good archaeology, and that we have in abundance.

The morning started damp and cool but with a freshening wind, which threatened to clear the clouds. The site was still a little wet and slippy, so Hugo gave an engrossing masterclass in flint knapping. This is something you never tire of seeing.

Deft percussive blows on carefully selected spots on the flint create sharp flakes which are then re-touched into more durable cutting surfaces. Ringside observers wear goggles for a flying flint flake can cause considerable damage.

In the finds hut, an elaborately decorated, if somewhat grubby, pottery sherd turned out to be another example of our coloured material, again from Structure Twelve where amazing pottery has its home.

Actually, having said that, Structure Ten has just produced a lovely piece of finely decorated pot featuring serpentine decoration, often described as one of the major motifs from the neighbouring site of Barnhouse.

Other important finds have come thick and fast today.

Dave with the new polished stone spatula from Structure Eight.

Dave with the new polished stone spatula from Structure Eight.

At the south end of Structure Eight, Dave uncovered the head of a stone spatula, very fine and carefully carved.

It is similar to the two other complete stone spatulas from the north end of the structure, although the new one appears even finer than those.  It came from an area of piled ash which may represent later burning in a discrete area in the secondary use of the structure.

We speculate that these spatulas, which are not suitable for heavy-duty work, may be pottery forming tools, perhaps for smoothing.

Foundation deposit?

In Structure Ten, Mike has discovered another deeply incised stone while continuing work on the south-western corner buttress. This is the second piece from this location and art is looking like part of a foundation deposit or even votive offering.

Our visitors today include Jess Smith, who is a researcher with an important Europe-wide project to date the Neolithic more accurately using Bayesian statistical modelling.

The programme is called The Times of Their Lives and is headed by Professor Alasdair Whittle and Dr Alex Bayliss.

Hugo reveals yet another skill - flint knapping.

Hugo reveals yet another skill – flint knapping.

The Ness has been invited to join the project which allows the refinement of radiocarbon dates through the addition of contextual information, such as multiple dates for individual deposits, stratigraphic relationships, or even closely datable artefacts such as pottery.

Nick, Jess and the site supervisors have already been discussing phasing and stratigraphic relationships across the site and more discussions and examination of samples will take place tomorrow.

We often say that the Ness is reshaping the way we think about the Neolithic. With the addition of new, modelled dates for this programme, that assertion will become ever more true.

Another visitor, and digger for a week, is Eileen Parker, who has considerable experience digging at that younger Neolithic structure, Stonehenge, as part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

Also in Structure Eight, a gracile bone was uncovered which, it was thought, may have been human. Bone expert Kerry Harris examined it this morning and it turns out to be probably juvenile sheep or goat.

The youngsters of the Excavation Club were back today for more experience of digging. The club is heavily over-subscribed but it is such a pleasure to see the excitement of the youngsters, especially when they find pottery or flint.

From the Trenches

The happy band in Trench T.

The happy band in Trench T.

The two most comprehensive lessons I have learned while digging at the Ness of Brodgar? We spend a lot of time on our hands and knees, grooming dirt and rocks by wrist and trowel, but it’s so much more than that. What is important is that good attitudes make happy trenches and that cleanliness, like pain, is temporary.

My name is Megan Cohen. I’m a rising third-year student of archaeology at Willamette University in Oregon, USA. This is the first time I have ever excavated, and it has honestly been wonderful. I didn’t think I would find the dirt here so interesting. Not its content, just the dirt itself.

I dig in Trench T, which is new this year. It had only been a trench for a week when I got here, just a rectangle of dirt in a hill. It is by far the less glamorous of the two trenches. We haven’t found any deposits of cow bone or mace heads or art, and we’re excited to see crumbles of pottery. But this trench is becoming familiar and the people are becoming dearer to me.

It would be easy to say that it’s a boring job. It would be easy to say that we just dig every day, and on some surface level that is true, but being in the trenches is more than digging. It’s an active process: we are looking, searching as we go rather than just seeing. We get dirty, but as a result we all end up looking the same colour. We get cold, sweaty, muddy and tired, but we stay cheerful. The attitudes of everyone here are constant and positive, and working here has been a happy experience.

We don’t get to see much art on our side of the shed. As a result, we have to create some of our own.

Here are some haikus from Trench T, to make up for our lack of physical productivity.

From T to P:

We’re here all day too
Around the shed, with the bugs
Come and see our work

What’s left

What must have happened?
A mound with a wall worth awe
Reduced to rubble

With a wheelbarrow

Up the ramp, defined
By those who came before us
Godly spoil heap

Stromness and Harray

I can’t remember
Who is who or which is which
Not that names matter

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