From the Art Hut – it’s all about people

By Karen Wallis
Jo. (Karen Wallis)

My work is about human activity, whereas the focus at the Ness is on the evidence provided by objects – either the finds themselves or the structure of the buildings.  When I arrived at the Ness of Brodgar in 2016 I knew that my interest would be mainly in drawing the archaeologists. How I was going to relate to the actual archaeology was unclear. 

During that first residency, and occasionally in 2017, I would draw some particular find that was causing interest, but was aware that I would never compete with photography or the meticulous drawing of archaeological specialists. Then in 2018 on the same day as I drew Jo doing her paper work in Structure Eight, my exact relationship with the archaeology became clear.

Decorated Stone (Karen Wallis)A large decorated stone was found in Structure Twenty-Six. There was an assumption that I would want to draw the stone once it had been lifted, and a kind volunteer even offered to let me have a photograph which showed the Neolithic marks.

But I realised then that what was important for me was the context in which it was found, and to have a conversation with the person who discovered it.  The stone might have wonderful Neolithic marks, which I could suggest in my drawing, but for me, they were not important. Others would record them in detail. I was bearing witness to the human endeavour involved in finding the find.

My focus is therefore the everyday process of archaeology, both its physicality and the human emotions involved. Early on I had been struck by the hard physical effort required and was amazed that people could work on their knees all day. Many of my drawings record the awkward positions needed to carry out the work.

One of the benefits of a long-term residency is the gradual understanding that develops between the artist and the people working for the host organisation. At the Ness, I have learned to keep my eyes and ears open for any excitement of a potential event brewing on site, and the archaeologists also tell me if anything is about to happen. In 2019, two events stand out. The first was the long awaited lifting of the huge threshold stone in Structure Ten (mentioned in last Friday’s Dig Diary). Tension and expectation were high and it was a considerable wait for the lifting to begin. When it finally happened I drew the whole sequence of events – including the final discovery of there being nothing underneath the stone.

Lifting the Threshold Stone (Karen Wallis)
The second was the highlight of my year, although I’m sure not the most significant find of the season. I happened to be present when a decorated stone was found in the passage way between Structures Twelve and Twenty-Six – the Corner of Loveliness. My drawing was hastily done and shows Claire and Sigurd peering into the hole where the stone is. Although I did not make a sound recording at the time, I can still recall the excitement of the moment of discovery. It is incidents like this that make me feel a real connection to the archaeology.

Claire and Sigurd (Karen Wallis)

Prints of Karen’s art are now available to purchase, with £5 from every sale donated to the Ness of Brodgar excavation fund.

You may also like...