‘It’s going to be a very strange summer for all of us…’

Dig director Nick Card updates 2018's first batch of diggers on the latest thinking on Trench P. (Sigurd Towrie)

Dig director Nick Card during a 2018 site tour, updating that season’s first batch of diggers on the latest thinking on Trench P. (Sigurd Towrie)

Today, Monday July 6, was the day the covers were due to come off at the Ness of Brodgar for the 2020 excavation season.

But for the first time since 2003, there will be no diggers on site this summer. While there is no doubt in our minds that the cancellation of the dig was the best option for the safety of all, it’s still difficult to come to terms with.

Yes, we have world-class discoveries but the Ness is more than just a dig. It’s a family. People from across the world descend on the Stenness site every summer. Old friends are greeted again and new friendships kindled. Knowing this won’t happen this year is a bitter blow.

Nick Card (Picture: Jim Richardson)

Nick Card at work on site. (Jim Richardson)

Organising an excavation on the scale of the Ness every year is not easy — it’s a massive, behind-the-scenes task. We don’t just turn up on the morning of day one armed with trowels. Nick Card and Anne Mitchell have it down to a fine art. Back in March everything was organised and ready to go — and then the Covid-19 lockdown was announced.

Speaking to Nick and Anne on Friday, it will come as no surprise that they are disappointed.

What has become a major part of their lives for the past 17 years is suddenly on hold, with no guarantee they can get it back on track again for 2021.

“It had to be done,” said Nick. “We have a duty to make sure people are safe. Not just the people working on site but the people of Orkney as well. Although lockdown has now started to be relaxed now, back in March we had no idea how long it would go on for.”

“People come to the Ness from all over. They start organising their travel plans in the days after each dig ends. So many people come every year it’s become part of the rhythm of their, and our, lives.”

He added: “The Ness has become more than just the archaeology, so until we know these people can make their way here safely, we’re happy to wait until we can welcome them all back. That said, 2020 is going to be a very strange summer for all of us.”

The unflappable Anne — chief and star of the Finds Hut — shows Megan the finds system. (Jo Bourne)

Anne agreed.

“Every year I set off on the first day and every time I’ve got those stomach-churning fears. What’s going to happen this year? What’s going to turn up? Will everything run smoothly?

“Then I arrive on site and in among the new arrivals I see those familiar faces are all there. They’re all a year older and they’ve all got their ‘dig clothes’ on. Driving into the car park and seeing them all sitting, all ready to go, I know that this year, like every other year, will be fine.

“They’re an excellent bunch. We’re extremely lucky to have them and we will most certainly miss them all in 2020.”

But it’s not just the excavation team who will be missed. The site sees thousands of visitors every summer, many of whom have been coming for years. The sight of familiar and new faces among these visitors is another of the delights of the Ness and catching up with old friends is always a pleasure.

Although the Ness must remain under its protective covers this summer, rest assured we will be doing everything possible so we can welcome you all back to this wonderful site in 2021.

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