Early buildings, special visitors and Structure Five gets more complex

Piece of worked flint from Structure Twelve today. (Ole Thoenies)

Piece of worked flint from Structure Twelve today. (Ole Thoenies)

Dig Diary – Day Seventeen
Tuesday, July 20, 2021

There are many things in this world, dear reader, that we thought we would never see.

High up on that list is diggers prowling the Ness, hunting the two water sprays we have on site. The quarry sighted and secured and they’re off, back to their own trench. A short time later, when the previous spray holders realise it’s gone, the cycle repeats.

Why are we witnessing this spectacle?

Bizarrely for Orkney we have had very little rain in the past few months. And since excavation resumed at the Ness, just one afternoon of drizzle. This makes for difficult excavation conditions. As we’ve explained previously, dry surfaces are incredibly difficult to read – especially when you are looking for a subtle change in colour that relates to a completely different context.

The water sprays help reveal these colours but it’s a temporary fix – the moisture is soon absorbed by the parched deposit, so it’s time to spray again. On top of that, many of the surfaces are rock-hard and difficult to excavate. Not to mention the dust…

While we’re not big fans of rain during the day, a spot of wet weather at night would make life very much easier.

But despite the decidedly un-Orcadian conditions, we’re making great progress on site.

Structure Twenty-Eight in relation to the later Structure Twelve. (Jim Rylatt)

In Structure Twelve, Sigurd has been working down through a huge floor deposit in the northern end to allow him to get back to the collapse drain area a metre or so to the west. In the process of doing that today, he has revealed elements that may relate to Structure Twelve’s predecessor, Structure Twenty-Eight, or perhaps to the earliest phases of use of Twelve itself.

This is typical of Structure Twelve – the more we excavate the more challenges it throws our way. Clarity might come during tomorrow’s excavation or it might be next year! Whatever happens, we’ll let you know.

Elsewhere in the building, work continues on other elements – inside and out.

Clare and Jean-Luca at work recording and excavating Structure Twelve's floor deposits. (Sigurd Towrie)

Clare and Gianluca at work recording and excavating Structure Twelve’s floor deposits. (Sigurd Towrie)

Jan has been planning the post-hole she uncovered last week, while Clare and Gianluca worked through a complex area of deposits outside the north-western centre recess. The the west of Twelve, Chris investigated a shallow robber cut which may explain the absence of part of the building’s revetment wall.

The entrance to Structure Twelve's shoddy northern annex, looking towards the north entrance to Twelve itself. (Sigurd Towrie)

The entrance to Structure Twelve’s shoddy northern annex, looking towards the north entrance to Twelve itself. (Sigurd Towrie)

Outside the northern annex, Callum continued trying to make sense of this rather shoddy construction, which involved excavation and some serious section drawing.

The poor quality of the construction prompted site director Nick to comment: “How that has managed to stay standing for over 5,000 years is beyond me.”

Inside Structure Ten this afternoon. (Sigurd Towrie)

Inside Structure Ten this afternoon. Mandy’s secured the coveted water spray! (Sigurd Towrie)

Outside Structure Ten, Mark has reached the physical limits of his sondage to investigate Ten’s predecessor, Structure Twenty. He has, however, recovered a sizeable amount of charcoal which should allow the building to be radiocarbon dated.

Inside, the team were joined by Jo McKenzie and work continued around the internal fixtures and the site of the north-western buttress.

The south end of Structure Five this afternoon. If, as the curvature of the western wall suggests, Five was much bigger than we thought, its southern end may lie under the site shop, visible in the background. (Sigurd Towrie)

The south end of Structure Five this afternoon. If, as the curvature of the western wall suggests, Five was much bigger than we thought, its southern end may lie under the site shop, visible in the background. (Sigurd Towrie)

In Trench J, there was much discussion today around Structure Five and its biography.

It’s always been assumed that the north end of the building was primary and that the southern end was perhaps a later extension tacked on to the original structure.

This year’s western trench extension, however, has revealed archaeology that seems to indicate that there’s a lot more to the story of Structure Five.

Structure Five's western wall. (Sigurd Towrie)

Structure Five’s western wall. (Sigurd Towrie)

When we wrote about the building in our interim volume, The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands, everything seemed nice and simple. The phases of use and excavation evidence fitted together beautifully. But we’re now thinking that Structure Five, and its relationship to the northern boundary wall (aka the “Great Wall of Brodgar”), is much more complex than first envisaged.

The curve of the newly exposed western wall of Structure Five, for example, suggests we may have underestimated its size.

Extrapolating from this curve, we may have a situation where the southern end of the building is several metres out from the trench edge – where the on-site shop sits now!

Another interesting find today related to the building’s position on the ground. Structure Five, unlike the later buildings on site, was constructed on glacial till. Measuring the height of the glacial till outside and inside the building revealed that the interior was below ground level.

This probably accounts for the clay sealing found on the lower courses of the building – a feature also encountered at the Early Neolithic settlement site at Smerquoy, at the foot of Wideford Hill. Without this clay barrier Structure Five would have filled with water when it rained!

Among the distinguished visitors today were Magnar Dalland, an esteemed archaeologist who has excavated in Orkney at the Scar Viking boat burial in Sanday, and at Sandfiold, in Sandwick.

Dr Antonia Thomas, from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, was also back on site.

Antonia is our Neolithic art expert and was not only examining the structural remains for more examples of very ephemeral markings but finishing the catalogue of the finds from the 2019 excavation season.

The next generation of archaeologist - Thomas outside Structure Twelve with morning with his grand-uncle Nick. (Sigurd Towrie)

The next generation of archaeologist – Thomas outside Structure Twelve with morning with his grand-uncle Nick. (Sigurd Towrie)

Last but not least was an aspiring archaeologist of the future. Undoubtedly inspired by his great-uncle Nick, and under his watchful eye, Thomas was allowed to try his hand at excavating outside the southern end of Structure Twelve.

Despite the fact nothing turned up, young Thomas was unperturbed – showing the qualities of a good archaeologist from a very young age!

“Incredible!” he later told his mum and dad.

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