More cupmarked, dressed and painted stone

Diary – Monday, August 10, 2020
Day Twenty-Six

The 2011 investigation of the area around the presumed entrance to Structure Ten struck gold today – wall lines!

Emily displays her discovery of another piece of haematite.

2012: Emily displays her discovery of another piece of haematite. (ORCA)

These, however, were not what was expected and completely unrelated to the long anticipated entrance! Instead, they represented an earlier building beneath Structure Ten and corresponded to a wall line discovered under the eastern annex to Structure Ten – we had evidence of Structure Twenty.

It seemed that stone robbing had completely removed any trace of the Structure Ten entrance. A disappointment, but par for the course with archaeological excavation. However, as we later discovered, the threshold slab was still in place and provided an excellent indication of the entrance and its scale matching the overall monumentality of Structure Ten.

Among the finds that day was a striking piece of haematite, an iron ore, which outcrops on Hoy. The piece, from Structure Ten, had clearly defined faceted surfaces, through use, and may have been used in the production of the red paints found on several of the stones on the site.

In 2012, more evidence of “painted” stone turned up around Structure One.

2012: The 'painted' stone from outside Structure One. (ORCA)

2012: The ‘painted’ stone from outside Structure One. (ORCA)

The red stone was found face down within rubble. On-site chemical analysis confirmed the red material was composed almost entirely of iron – indicative of haematite use – with the colour applied to the surface.

Meanwhile, in Structure Twelve, there were hints that there was a blocked-up entrance at the north-west corner. Spoiler. There was!

In 2015, the remnants of the midden baulk that once supported the trench-spanning water pipe were being removed – their disappearance hinting that the remains of Structures Nineteen and Eleven were once part of the same, rather scrappy, building.

2015: Trench T — a hive of activity. (ORCA)

At the south end of Structure Eight, excavation of the rubble and midden dumps associated with the collapse of the building’s south-east corner was beginning to reveal orthostats. At the time it was thought these might relate to a hypothetical southern entrance. We now know that was not the case.

Over in Trench T, another wall line had appeared, parallel to the wall found the week previously. An enigmatic discovery at the time, we know now that the diggers had uncovered another section of Structure Twenty-Seven.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016, was declared “a day of solid, undiluted archaeology”.

2016: One of the pick-dressed, yellow sandstone blocks recovered from Structure Ten. (ORCA)

Two large blocks of yellow sandstone from the south-western corner of Structure Ten were found to have been carefully peck dressed. Because they originally came from the inner chamber’s primary build, the use of dressed, coloured sandstone must have been awe-inspiring to say the least.

Although both stones were broken, a further effect may have been the gentle curvature to one of them which brought to mind earlier discoveries of curving stones in the corners of the structure.

2016: The cup-marked stone from Structure Ten. (ORCA)

Staying in Structure Ten, a large cupmarked stone was found. The stone, which had originally been part of an internal division, featured a series of six or seven small cup marks and a potentially curvilinear feature, which seemed to be incomplete.

2016: The faint lozenge incised into a slab that formed one side of the southern hearth in Structure Fourteen. (ORCA)

The decorated stone kept coming.

In Structure Fourteen, final work was taking place on the hearth at the building’s south end. While emptying last quarter of the hearth deposits, it was noticed that the interior of one of the hearth slabs had a large lozenge shape incised into it – suggesting that the decorative element would probably have been brightly lit by the fire when in use.

The biggest discovery of the day – literally – occurred in Trench T, where an enigmatic, and potentially huge, structure had been emerging.

2016: Melanie starts revealing the true extent of the mega-orthostat in Trench T.

Removing midden around an orthostat lying at right angles to the main structural features, the stone grew larger and larger.

By the end of the day, two metres of the huge slab had been revealed, the remainder heading into the trench wall.

We now know these massive orthostats were part of Structure Twenty-Seven, and used to hold the vertical slabs used to clad the interior of the building in place.

2017: Casey with her cache of hammer stones around the Structure Twelve ‘box’. (ORCA)

In 2017, excavation continued on a stone “box” in Structure Twelve.

Not only were some of the slabs used to create the box decorated, but the were each of a different type of stone. Coincidence? Or were we looking at a situation where the different types was a deliberate – perhaps, significant – choice?

The area around the box also produced a number of hammerstones, reflecting finds in similar seasons.

Elsewhere in Structure Twelve, the northern hearth was found to have a remarkably complex series of burning layers. They were not the deep red colour (indicating firing to a considerable temperature) found in the southern hearth, suggesting the two were perhaps used for entirely different processes.

August 10, 2018: The team in the Finds Hut. (Karen Wallis)

August 10, 2018: The team in the Finds Hut. (Karen Wallis)

The pot sherd from Trench J.

2018: The pot sherd from Trench J. (Jo Bourne)

However, the adjacent north-west recess was full of bright red ash. Could this have been cleaned out of the nearby hearth? It was suggested the hot ash may have been moved to the recess and used as the Neolithic equivalent of a slow cooker.

It is also possible the ash may have been used to fire pottery. We know much of the later Ness Grooved Ware was fired at a relatively low temperature.

We begin 2018, with a puzzling pottery sherd from Trench J.

The sherd came from levels associated with the post-demolition of Structure Five – in other words, later in the sequence.

The puzzle was that the fabric resembled that of typical rock-tempered Grooved Ware vessel, but the curve of the pot wall suggested it was a much earlier vessel, perhaps with a round bottom.

In Trench T, more of Structure Twenty-Seven was beginning to emerge as the midden that had cocooned it for millennia was removed.

2018: Fabrizio beside the flagstone-based, box-like southern entrance to Structure One. (Sigurd Towrie)

2018: A closer view of Structure One's southern entrance arrangement. (Sigurd Towrie)

2018: A closer view of Structure One’s southern entrance arrangement. (Sigurd Towrie)

But although lengths of wall had been uncovered, they showed definite signs that they had been plundered for stone in antiquity – something that might explain the lack of the expected orthostats.

What the walls were showing, however, was that Structure Twenty-Seven was a magnificent example of crafted stone – of an even higher quality than the stone in the main buildings in Trench P. It is perhaps not that surprising then that it was a target for stone robbers.

The removal of infill from Structure One revealed a most peculiar entrance arrangement.

The southern entrance had flagstone placed exactly between two raised threshold stone – forming a box-like with raised edges.

Why? We can only guess. Whatever the builders’ reasons, the entrance was also decorated, with another two examples of incised stone recorded.


The latest decorated stone in situ - with the pecked cupmarks on the face resting on the paving. (Sigurd Towrie)

2019: The ‘starburst’ decorated stone in situ – with the pecked cupmarks on the face resting on the paving. (Sigurd Towrie)

For 2019, we return to the annexe outside Structure Twelve’s eastern entrance, in particular a large stone block adjacent to another deposit of animal bone.

The block’s bottom face had been carefully peck-dressed to create four circular, “starburst” markings. While not the most awe-inspiring piece of decoration to come from the site, its discovery had a special significance as it was allocated the Small Finds number 40,000.

The stone’s removal also confirmed that the paving outside Structure Twelve continued out around the possible standing stone that appears to mark the building’s eastern entrance. There was no doubt that as more rubble and blocking was removed from the annexe the paving would continued.

2019: A closer view of the ‘cupmarked’ face of the ‘starburst’ stone. (Sigurd Towrie)

Was it heading towards Structure Thirty? Or perhaps another building underlying Structure Twenty-Six? We will have to wait until we get back on site to see.

While the annexe and its phases of deposition and blocking is complex, it couldn’t match the area between the south end of Structure Eight and the north end of Structure Twelve.

There it was possible to see walling and stones representing Structures Seventeen, Eight, Thirty-Three, Thirty-Four and Twenty-Four. Trying to untangle the building sequence, however, was causing some furrowed brows.

2019: Defeated by the weather. The eastern entrance to Structure Twelve (aka ‘the Corner of Loveliness’) after rain brought excavation to a halt. (Sigurd Towrie)

At one stage, it seemed that the interior of Structure Twenty-Four was demolished and removed to create space for Structure Thirty-Four, which in itself is a confusing morass of small orthostats, (some forming three-sided boxes) with no obvious purpose.

The actual floor of the structure (if it ever had one?) had not yet been located but we know that the massive drain  is nearby, and that may be a future complication.

From the work carried out around a section of the trench-spanning mega-drain, it seemed it may have several different layers of capstones, each separated by quite a depth.

This prompted the question of whether there was a sequence of this drain being recapped and its height raised as more structures were built around it? This may partially explain many of the problems we had trying to connect these structures into an overall phasing of the site.

However this may still all change if we can reveal more of the drain, as at the time we were still trying to explain all this though a relatively small excavation “window”.



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