Three new buildings and a decommissioning feast for Structure Twenty-Seven

Dig Diary – Thursday, August 6, 2020
Day Twenty-Four

Mike investigates a construction cut for a robbed out orthostat in St 10.

2012: Mike investigates a construction cut for a robbed-out orthostat in Structure Ten.

We begin today in 2012 – another damp day in which activity on site was hampered by rain.

In Structure Ten, however, Mike was excavating the construction slots for some robbed-out orthostats and found, in one of them, two large lumps of haematite – the iron ore which forms the basis of some of the red colouring we can see on some stones and pottery at the Ness.

Haematite comes from the island of Hoy, but pieces have been found on the beaches of Mainland Orkney.

We had another new building on this day in 2013.

Discussing and disentangling the wall lines associated with the porch at the north end of Structure Twelve, it was realised that the lower half of one partially reused an earlier building. Moreover, the disassociated walling under Structure Eleven, and especially the rubble spread in the central midden, may represent collapse from this earlier building.

2014: The walls in the area south of Structure One (top left). Structure Eleven (top centre), Structure Twelve (bottom right) and central standing stone (bottom centre).

This building was Structure Twenty-Three, whose existence was the subject of much debate over subsequent years.

2014: the incised stone from the sondage between Structures One and Twenty-One. (ORCA)

But we can now lay any doubt to rest. Represented solely by a few wall lines between Structures Twelve, Eight and Ten – all of which it pre-dates – Structure Twenty-Three is contemporary with Structure Twenty-Eight, an earlier incarnation of Structure Twelve.

Meanwhile, a sondage (small but deep exploratory trench) excavated in the floor of Structure One revealed at least 14 different floor deposits within the building. Micromorphological analysis has since confirmed there were many more.

Another sondage was inserted between Structures One and Twenty-One to explore the two buildings’ relationship. It produced a small, flat stone beautifully decorated with incised patterns.

2014: The miniature pot from the central midden area. (ORCA)

Despite being cut short by heavy rain, August 6, 2014, was a good day for archaeology – which was becoming more complex by the minute.

In Structure Ten, work on the robber cut at the building’s east front end was beginning to suggest a sequence:

  • That the holes created by the stone-robbers, carrying masonry away from the building, must have taken place soon after the stones were removed.
  • It seemed possible that the wallheads of the structure were still visible when the robber cut was made and the stones removed.

This implied that Structures Ten and Twelve were infilled first and robbed at some later date. This was in stark contrast to Structures Twenty-One and Fourteen, where it seems the walls were robbed before the buildings were filled with rubble and midden.

Two tiny thumb pots were recovered on this day, one from Structure One and the other from the central midden area.

2015: The bone tool next to its modern-day equivalent. (ORCA)

The interior of the latter pot showed a black material at the bottom of the interior. What were they used for? We don’t know – could they have contained paint or pigment?

Rain also cut short excavation again on August 6, 2015. But before the diggers packed up their gear and headed home, two examples of remarkable worked tools emerged.

In the remnants of the central midden area, Jenny was carefully excavating a small bone artefact using one of her wooden pottery tools. Once revealed, the bone tool was almost identical to the pottery tool! Were they designed for the same purpose? It’s possible.

The second came the south-west robber cut of Structure Ten and was heralded a “Neolithic Swiss-Army-knife.”

It was an apparently multi-purpose tool which has heavy impact marks at one point, grinding marks at another and signs of smoothing at yet another.

2015: Work continuing in the central chamber of Structure Ten. (ORCA)

August 6, 2018: Extending Trench Y down towards the Loch of Stenness. (Karen Wallis)

August 6, 2018: Extending Trench Y down towards the Loch of Stenness. (Karen Wallis)

Ray's upturned Grooved Ware pot, nestled deliberately between two stones.

2018: The upturned Grooved Ware pot, nestled deliberately between two stones in Trench J. (Sigurd Towrie)

Monday, August 6, 2018, began with another two new buildings – Structure Thirty-One (a suspected earlier building under Structure One) and Structure Thirty-Two (in Trench J and on top of Structure Five.

In Trench J, work was moving fast to remove the collapse material on and around Structure Thirty-Two.

A hearth – one of a number that can’t be associated with the building – turned up in the area, along with a Grooved Ware pot which had been placed upside down between two stones.

A close-up of Sierra's pot sherd.

2018: The pot sherd from Structure Ten. (Sigurd Towrie)

Another nice decorated pot sherd came from the midden baulk filling the outer passage of Structure Ten.

Over in Trench T, the midden covering the enigmatic Structure Twenty-Seven was gradually being removed and the nature of the building was foremost in everyone’s mind.

The idea it might be some sort of stalled tomb, such as Midhowe, in Rousay, was starting to look unlikely.

Instead it seemed we had something else entirely – although we’re still not sure that that “something else” is.





2019: Badly degraded animal bone within Structure Twenty-Seven suggests it too had a decommissioning feast of its own. (Sigurd Towrie)

2019: Structure Twenty-Seven. (Sigurd Towrie)

Whatever it was, excavation in 2019 suggested that Structure Twenty-Seven’s final demolition was accompanied by feasting – along the same lines as the final decommissioning feast that occurred around Structure Ten.

The composition of the animal bone around Twenty-Seven, however, was not the same as that encountered around Structure Ten.

While Structure Ten’s was dominated by cattle shin bones, in Trench T there were sheep present as well as cattle, much of it heavily burnt, and a greater variety of skeletal remains.

2019: Pot sherd from outside the entrance to Structure Twelve. (Sigurd Towrie)

The poor condition of the bone made it difficult to say much more.

Elsewhere in Structure Twenty-Seven, the slab which we thought formed part of the entrance passage – came to an abrupt halt just beyond the boundaries of the original trench.

It didn’t continue – as we had expected – into the new trench extension, although there were hints of other stonework beyond.

Like Structure Ten, the entrance passage was found to contain lots of very heavily burnt animal bone.

There was no shortage of pottery on this day last year.

On the north side of the Structure Twelve entrance annexe, a large sherd, illustrating the profile of the pot from base to rim, was uncovered, while Structure Ten produced more examples of the skeuomorph pottery style encountered a few years previously.

2019: The squashed pot from Trench X, with its base visible at the bottom of the picture. (Sigurd Towrie)

These saw the pot incised with pairs of “jab marks” that imitated the stitching on a leather bag.

Meanwhile, Trench X was found to contain an almost complete pottery vessel that had been squashed into the ground. But this was more than a sherd – the base of the vessel was clearly visible along with much of its body.

What was particularly intriguing was that the pot had a specific style of decoration – three wavy lines – that has been suggested represented the inhabitants of the nearby Barnhouse settlement (almost three-quarters of the decorated pottery found at Barnhouse featured this motif).

In the southern end of Trench J, more of the walling of Structure Thirty-Two (which sits on top of Structure Five) was revealed. Unfortunately, however, a lot of this has been robbed out.

2019: The curving wall in Trench J’s Structure Thirty-Two. (Sigurd Towrie)

The surviving section proved to be something of an enigma because of the way it gently curved – which was unlike the straight, interior architecture seen across most of the rest of the site.

We had one other example – the curving wall inserted into Structure One.

Was this another later alteration to Structure Five or a completely separate building?

We now suspect the latter.



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