From the Art Hut – Hooked on the Neolithic
By Jeanne Bouza Rose
In the early 2000s, I got hooked on the Neolithic at the Ness. In 2012, both supplies and volunteers were in short supply. That is hard to imagine now that Nick and Anne are overwhelmed with applications. But then the site hadn’t made it to the pages of archaeology magazines, BBC television and Neil Oliver, or the National Geographic.
In the 2012 season, I was put beside Babette, another devotee of Orkney and relics of the ages. Babette has spent many years visiting Orkney, finding her scientist-self imbued with artistic inspiration and interpretation. I had seen her work, heard about her and was thrilled to be working beside her. She has a particular interest in the carved stone balls found in Scotland and has made some incredible reproductions, including the one for the mould for the plaster cast of the Ness carved stone ball.
With chairs and tables in short supply, we were stationed in a blue shipping container with a door that swung shut in the wind. Sitting side by side, our job was to remove the wet small finds, dry the plastic bag inside, punch holes in the corners and gently set the object on top of the bag to sit out and dry.
I tried to get efficient and fast at this job, but it was difficult as the door’s opening and closing kept changing the usable light. Our backs were to the door to avoid the bright sun – should it shine. And the door was open as much as safely possible to let in air and light. It was a tough time sitting on a chair that was too tall for my legs. I have learned to despise those brown molded plastic chairs that must once have filled all the community centres across Orkney.
It was also a marvellous time to be part of the dig, because so many wonderful objects were coming up. From a red cushion stone (see above) found by Dave to a cloudlike axe and smooth stone spatulas. And the discovery, for the first time, of the application of paint/colour to Neolithic walls.
Working in the small-finds section wasn’t just exciting, but it was well located. It was also just across from the Dig Shop, set in a wooden hut selling all sorts of wonders to support all the activities of the Orkney Archaeology Society (OAS). While Andre Appleby’s Neolithic-inspired pottery was easy to spot, Annabel Eltome had started to influence the shop, and I kept poking my head in with New York style ideas.
So over the year, I kept making suggestions to Annabel and offered to help at the Dig Shop.
After I was blown away by the finding of the Brodgar butterfly design in 2013, I wasn’t the only one who thought it could be used to be a “mark” for the Ness. I just kept being drawn to this stone with this repeating design put together from three large fragments all found separately. Before my volunteer days began in 2011, I had visited the site and saw a stone with marks that looked like this:
I asked the obvious, and was told: “Those are the starship fighters and the comets falling.”
I immediately said: “They are not starships, that’s the way teachers show young kids how to make easy butterflies!”
“Mmmmmmm” came the response.
Annabel has agreed that it was around then, and with the help of a perching butterfly on that very marked stone, that these very distinguished scratches became known as the “Brodgar Butterfly”. Thus, the tea towels with multiple images of the Brodgar butterfly and the annual T-shirts arrived at the fundraising shop.
I consider the butterfly and the triangle stone (right), both found in 2013 as the most significant artistically for me. The rather large and heavy triangle stone is marked with various patterns of triangles. Its finding proved very interesting to the two National Geographic photographers on site.
I recreate these triangle patterns in my artwork. But I have also used them as tattoos! Yes, I thought a good way of engaging young children with the Ness might be by being decorated with it. So for the 2013 Stromness Shopping Week festivities, I offered removable Neolithic tattoos. Donations were taken in aid of the Ness and from then on Neolithic tattoos were part of the annual Ness Open Days.
It wasn’t long after this triangle stone was found that the famous Ness carved-stone ball was uncovered.
For a few years, Nick had put out to the diggers that there were just so many extraordinary finds from the Ness that surely one would be a carved stone ball and when it was, the lucky digger who uncovered it would get a bottle of single malt whisky.
Well, it was a lucky day for a tall young woman from the USA who was part of the Willamette University’s summer program. She was having her turn in Structure Ten and rather quietly and innocently said that she thought she had found something round. Quickly all eyes turned, Nick Card and Mark Edmonds dashed over and the National Geographic photographers aimed their lenses and focused on the find.
We were all amazed at the discovery.
Immediately, I saw that the knobs could be turned to show 1, 2, 3, 4 as if there was a sequence to turning it. And with a holding of breath, I had a one-of-a-kind photo taken with it, the next day.
I was also enthralled with the vision of Mark Edmond’s hand cloaked in the yellow reflective jacket and holding the brown ball for its first outing in thousands of years.
I might add that the digger who found the enigmatic carved stone ball, didn’t drink alcohol! So the prize was more for all of us.
I like to think that it was only meant to have been found by a tall, beautiful, young woman, innocent to the significance of her actions and from across the Atlantic. The Ness was of importance to this part of the world for thousands of years, and it seems trade and people came to it from all over, but its discovery is changing the way the world thinks about the UK’s Neolithic past. Imagine, Orkney started the use of stone megaliths and that notion travelled south. Yes, it seems sensible that some of its discoveries were reserved for the innocent coming from a distance to find!
I, once again, have had special permission to be on the closed site on the second week of what would have been the 2020 season. Seems I don’t always choose the best weather for putting out a small painting in the “plein air” tradition.
I was sitting near Lochview, trying to shelter from the wind that suddenly burst upon me and trying to focus on Trench T in its summer overgrowth.
From my position, the high grass blocked most of the blue house down near the bridge and lochs. But I had a clear view of the Stones of Stenness and the hill beyond when the clouds descended, and the rain whipped up. All was lost in the mist.
Holding on tightly to the small canvas, I raced to capture the swirling clouds. I hope I did.
Finally, the weather slowed down a bit. The rain stopped, and I turned a bit to my left wanting to do something with those two stones standing in the front of Lochview. The bigger one has such an uncanny tilt with the most delightful bunch of green lichen growing on it.
These two “plein air” original oil paintings are for sale. The proceeds are to support the work at the Ness.
Because of the unfortunate situation this year, these “plein air” works are the only pieces of artwork being made on or near the site this dig season. They both measure 6 x 6 inches /15 x 15 cm. To purchase them contact the artist directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your support.