Evolution of an excavation: 2010-2011
The third in our series looking at how the Ness of Brodgar excavation has progressed, and ideas changed, over the years via dig director Nick Card’s annual brief summaries for Archaeology Scotland’s Discovery and Excavation in Scotland.
Annotations in red put the archive information into current site context.
Today we’re covering the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Further investigation of the large Late Neolithic complex on the Ness of Brodgar was undertaken 19 July–27 August 2010 in order to characterise more of the structures and activity on the site.
The main trench (P) was extended to explore another large geophysical anomaly.
The upper courses of the E wall had been severely robbed out with robbing debris roughly defining the position of wall lines. A series of external wall lines at its N end represent a sequence of alterations around an entrance.
As with most of the site this structure was infilled by a series of massive dumps of midden enhanced soils containing cultural material. Only the upper levels of this infill have so far been removed.
The structural sequence of Structure 8 was refined with the removal of more collapse and infill. Although the upper courses of stonework appeared well preserved as the excavation progressed it became apparent that this structure had suffered from major subsidence, with wall lines and a section of the central floor area slumping into earlier structures under Structure 8.
The curving wall at its N end that was considered a later insertion (as with the large curving wall inserted across Structure 1) now seems to represent an earlier oval structure that has been partially incorporated into Structure 8. Through this curving wall an entrance to Structure 8 was revealed.
The southern extent of Structure 8 has yet to be fully ascertained. Floor deposits were reached (but unexcavated) in two of the side recesses of Structure 8.
A horizon of thin stone slabs was encountered just above these deposits. Although mostly broken, these slabs had all been carefully trimmed into rectangular shapes to form slates, similar to those on flagged roofs that can be seen in Orkney today.
The initial discovery of in situ ‘painted’ stones was also made in Structure 8. Bands of reds, yellows and browns on the upper edge of one orthostat was followed by a chevron design on a wall face in one of the recesses, and the discovery of further painted slabs in the entrances to both Structures 1 and 8.
Work on Structure 10 concentrated on further defining the central chamber with the removal of a sequence of midden and collapse infill.
Although as discovered last year much of the walling of Structure 10 had been systematically robbed, wall lines at lower levels often survived. The roughly cruciform shape envisaged last year was shown to be augmented by side chambers in the NW and SE corners.
Excavation around the Skara Brae style ‘dresser’ revealed it as freestanding and not built into the back wall, with a narrow space or passage behind it. More of its stonework was revealed and a large, extensively dressed, prone slab on its right hand side was interpreted as the collapsed pillar that would have supported its slab shelf on this side.
At the chamber’s centre a large, partially robbed square (c1.4m across) stone hearth was revealed with an upturned cattle skull sitting adjacent to it. Sealing and central to the hearth was a large multi-cupped stone, one of several recovered from Structure 10 this season.
Of most note was a multi cupped stone located on the N side of the presumed E-facing entrance to the central chamber. In the forecourt area of Structure 10 pseudo paving was removed to reveal a stone-lined drain and walls of potentially earlier structures.
In the small part of the socket of the holed standing stone (discovered last year) available for investigation, a slab with two parallel lines of small pecked cups had been used for packing.
On the exterior of Structure 10 the removal of two of the slabs that make up the paved passage/walkway that surrounds Structure 10 revealed a small stone-lined drain that it is presumed extends around the entire building.
The extensive bone layer that formed the uppermost fill of the encompassing passageway was further excavated and analysed by Dr Ingrid Mainland. As indicated by a preliminary assessment of the bone recovered in 2009 this layer is predominantly (over 85%) cattle tibia.
The floor and occupation deposits in the late sub-oval Structure 7 were further examined. These consisted of a series ashy spreads and dumps from a central square stone hearth.
Excavation between Structures 1 and 7 revealed that Structure 7 was based at least in part on an earlier structure. Structure 11, adjacent to Structures 1 and 7, was also examined.
This irregularly shaped and roughly built structure, like Structure 7, is late in the sequence and constructed in the deep midden enhanced soils used to seal the earlier phases of the site. The walls were constructed of both dry stone masonry and upright slabs one of which had a c150mm circular hole in its upper edge extending into the wall core.
In Structure 1 the internal phasing and alterations were further refined.
The N half of the structure (that was abandoned when the building was reduced in size by the insertion of a large curving wall across its interior), was excavated down to deposits associated with its primary use. Within these deposits slabs similar to the trimmed ‘slates’ of Structure 8 were recovered.
In the internal area of the main secondary phase of Structure 1 the tertiary sub-oval structure revealed last year was further investigated and partially removed. There were no immediate indications of the function of this later insertion. Below this were levelling layers and hints of hearth slabs.
A third entrance to Structure 1 was revealed on its E side. This entrance leads into a passage between Structure 1 and the earlier phase of Structure 7.
Trench R, where the ‘Lesser Wall of Brodgar’ was discovered in 2009, was reopened in order to investigate its construction levels.
Further deposits of rubble and ashy middens were removed from the external side of the wall to reveal, at c1.5m, the top of a series of flagged surfaces butting up against and parallel to the wall. Beneath the flagging the bottom of the wall was recorded at a depth of 1.7m.
However, unlike the ‘Great Wall’, which was built on the natural boulder clay, the ‘Lesser Wall’ was built on earlier stonework.
A large assemblage of typical Late Neolithic cultural material was also uncovered including several polished stone artefacts, another blade of pitchstone, and incised and applied Grooved Ware pottery.
Numerous other examples of Neolithic art were found consisting of incised geometric designs, pecked cup marks and surface dressing of stone faces.
Further investigation of the large Late Neolithic complex on the Ness of Brodgar was undertaken 18 July–26 August 2011 in order to characterise more of the structures and activity on the site.
As suspected this showed that its E wall had been extensively robbed in prehistory; however, the robbing had been concentrated on the internal wall face whilst the outer wall face had survived mainly intact.
Unlike the robbing of Structure 10 that appeared very systematic in nature (with vertically sided robbing trenches reflecting the original wall lines), the robbing trench in Structure 12 was very irregular and, although dismantled, the robbing had left much suitable building stone behind.
More infills of ashy midden deposits were removed across the interior of Structure 12, which has started to reveal more rubble deposits that are presumed to seal the floor levels of the building. However, the height of the surviving walls suggests there is still c0.5m to be excavated before the actual occupation deposits are revealed.
Work around the entrance to Structure 12 revealed a complex sequence of alterations with the entrance being gradually reduced in size. During this process of reduction and infilling/blocking a large amount of Grooved Ware pottery was deposited on either side of the entrance, including at least two large complete vessels.
The removal of the ashy midden infills from the S end of Structure 8 has shown that it was almost 20m long. The internal space was divided by a series of four pairs of opposed stone piers that created ten recesses along its inner wall faces.
In the previously investigated N end of Structure 8 the last remaining carefully shaped rectangular stone roofing slates were removed (over 400 from this area) to reveal the floor deposits. The actual floor deposits were not investigated; however, a large array of unusual artefacts were recovered sitting on the floor including polished stone spatulas, a macehead, polished stones and groups of astragali.
Work within Structure 10 concentrated on further defining its interior and revealed that it had a more complex history than was previously envisaged.
Although exhibiting a cruciform plan in its later life, its original plan was a square with rounded corners, similar to Structure 8 at the Barnhouse settlement.
The stonework in this early phase is quite possibly some of the finest Neolithic construction in NW Europe, with extensive use of pick dressing to completely surface dress blocks of stone, create geometric designs and refine the alignment of wall faces.
Although one stone ‘dresser’ had previously been recognised opposite the entrance passage, it would now seem likely that Structure 10 potentially had four ‘dressers’, one on each wall [Now know this to be potentially two ‘dressers’ – by the northern and western interior walls]. This may support the idea that these had a more esoteric religious function as reflected in Structure 10 itself.
In its later phase of use one corner of Structure 10 revealed evidence for a production area for pigments, which had previously been discovered on the walls of some of the other structures on the Ness.
A systematic programme of sampling including the use of a portable XRF machine was undertaken across Structure 10’s upper floor deposits. Although almost completely robbed out, the entrance passage into Structure 10 was also defined in its E wall.
Outside of Structure 10, the massive bone deposit that represents a final decommissioning of the building was further studied as part of a British Academy project, Smart Fauna, by Dr Ingrid Mainland.
This confirmed that it consists of mainly cattle tibia from perhaps 100s of individuals; however, another notable discovery was the inclusion of a partially articulated young red deer.
Relating to an earlier phase of the site another large structure [Structure 14] was partially revealed to accompany Structures 1, 8, and 12 in the NE corner of the main trench. This building was also divided internally by a series of opposed stone piers along its internal wall faces.
The floor and occupation deposits in the late sub-oval Structure 7 were further examined. As last year, these consisted of a complex series of ashy spreads and dumps from a central square stone hearth which was fully exposed and sampled this season.
Structure 11, adjacent to Structures 1 and 7, was also examined. This building’s stratigraphic position in the site’s phasing is unclear and may have altered during its life. A stone ball was recovered within a recess of Structure 11.
In Structure 1, the tertiary sub-oval structure revealed previously, was removed. There were no immediate indications of the function of this later insertion.
Below this were levelling layers, below which were revealed the remains of a hearth which relates to the secondary main phase of Structure 1, when its internal area was much reduced in size by the insertion of a large curved wall. An earlier hearth perhaps relating to its primary use was also revealed partially obscured by this wall.
To accompany the large catalogue of Neolithic art already discovered, numerous other examples were revealed this season. This was mainly ephemeral incised designs discovered by Antonia Thomas as part of her PhD study. For example, over 60 designs have now been recorded in Structure 1.
Refinement of the geophysics further implies that the monumental wall around the complex did enclose the main structures of the complex [Excavation in 2018 showed the northern boundary wall did not curve around and enclose the site but stopped abruptly beside Structure Five]. This work also indicated the presence of yet another very large sub-oval structure, measuring c30 x 25m, potentially with opposed entrances just to the NW of the main trench.
A large assemblage of typical Late Neolithic cultural material was also uncovered including several more polished stone artefacts, another blade of pitchstone, and large quantities of Grooved Ware, some exhibiting the use of different coloured clays, slips and applied coloured pigments.