A plethora of exquisite polished stone artefacts!

Dig Diary – Monday, August 3, 2020
Day Twenty-One

Close up of Ray's new discovery.

2011: Structure Eight polished pillow stone. (ORCA)

August 2011 began with a plethora of finds from Structure Eight.

Following the discovery of a “toolkit” a few days before, we found another a few centimetres away, which may have been part of the original.

The new cache contained a perfect spatulate tool, a Skaill knife (a flake of beach cobble used as throwaway blades and relatively common in Orkney) and a large rib bone, which could have been used for smoothing.

The building also produced another “dimpled” stone cube – although this one was much smaller than the example unearthed on July 21, 2011  – and another polished pillow stone.

In Structure Ten’s “paintshop” area, a stone dish, perfectly shaped for grinding ochre, emerged – as well as more ochre deposits.

Billy with his exciting find of Neolthic art in Structure 12.

2011: Billy with his decorated stone in Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

Over in Structure Twelve, work to remove rubble from the area of the robbed-out eastern wall revealed yet another decorated stone – this one featuring a deeply incised “butterfly” motif.

Regular readers will recall that the splendid 2013 “butterfly stone” also came from Structure Twelve, but from the blocked-up northern entrance.

2011: The 'butterfly' motif on the stone from Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

2011: The ‘butterfly’ motif on the stone from Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

The pattern of stone-robbing in Structure Twelve’s eastern wall was puzzling.

If the Neolithic robbers were simply looking for a source of good building material, they seem to have ignored some incredibly good building stone. Why leave it behind?

An aerial view of Structure Twelve in 2015, showing clearly the robbed out eastern wall section at the bottom of the picture. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Were they only looking for a small quantity?

Were they searching for particular stones or stone-type?

Or was this more than just treating the building as a handy stone source and perhaps a deliberate act to partially dismantle and decommission it?

2012: The miniature flint axehead. (Woody Musgrove)

2012: The miniature flint axehead. (Woody Musgrove)

The two halves of the polished stone chisel with one half still wet from a gentle clean.

2012: The two halves of the polished stone chisel. (ORCA)

2012 saw another first for the Ness – our first (and only) flint axehead.

Although polished stone axes had been turning up since the excavation began, the first flint example was tiny. Nevertheless, the flaked tool was a sight to behold and we have not found another since. 

The same area, to the west of Structure One, also produced two halves of a polished stone “chisel”.

Staying with Structure One, a highly decorated – but very faintly incised – stone slab turned up in its east wall. Although very difficult to see due to the very slight markings, the stone featured parallel bands of chevrons, cross-hatching, and crosses.

2012: The Structure One incised slab. Click the image for a larger version. (ORCA)

2012: The Structure One incised slab. Each band is about 1cm wide. Click the image for a larger version. (ORCA)

A suitable discovery for Prof Mark Edmonds

2012: Professor Mark Edmonds with the ‘macehead’ pestle. (ORCA)

One of the most spectacular finds of the 2012 season – an unfinished macehead – came from the interior of Structure Ten, just south of the central hearth.

The mottled surface was polished in the middle but it lacked the hole drilled through it for a macehead’s wooden haft. Its slightly swelling ends were also clearly marked from use.

It may be that it was intended to be a macehead but that work on it was abandoned and was adopted as a pestle for grinding.

The Late Neolithic artefact was found by Professor Mark Edmonds, one of Europe’s foremost experts on stone tools, who pointed out that what was unusual about the Ness was the quantity of grinding and polishing tools – items perhaps used in the preparation of colour pigment or in the production of other fine objects.

2012: The macehead pestle. (ORCA)

2012: The macehead pestle. (ORCA)

2012: The 'Shetland knife' from Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

2012: The ‘Shetland knife’ from Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

2014 saw another intriguing stone tool see the light of day.

Perhaps not as glamorous as maceheads and polished axeheads, the discovery of a “Shetland knife” in Structure Twelve clearly showed Neolithic connections with our neighbours to the north.

The rectangular tools are products of Neolithic Shetland, although it is thought our one was likely to be an Orcadian copy. One long edge was thick and rounded with the opposing edge thinned and ground to a blade. It fitted, like almost all Neolithic tools, perfectly into the hand.

Monday, August 3, 2015, saw a “momentous moment” in Trench T!

A large, heavily used stone was found and, in front of it, a perfectly flat stone with a neat right-angled corner. Scattered around both stones were many stone  flakes. Closer investigation of the flat stone showed it was in the range of the roof tiles found elsewhere on site.

Its presence in Trench T, together with the dressing flakes all around, suggests that the massive Structure Twenty-Seven may, like the other buildings on site, have been stone roofed.

Matt’s double pot from Trench T.

The title of “nicest find” in 2017 went to a tiny “double pot” found in Trench T.

This was the third of these intriguing little vessels to be discovered and was a small, flattish piece of ceramic, just under 4cm in length, with two perfectly round impressions side-by-side.

Meanwhile, a pot sherd outside the blocked southern entrance to Structure Twelve was shedding new light on how these episodes of deliberate blocking took place.

The sherd, with multiple parallel cordons, was very similar to an fragment found in the same area, but at a much higher level, previously.

If the two sherds came from the same pot, the fact they were found at different levels strongly suggests that the material outside the  blocked entrance in a single episode, rather than accumulating slowly.

2018: The hearth in Trench Y, with the animal bone to the left side. (Sigurd Towrie)

2018: The hearth in Trench Y, with the animal bone to the left side. (Sigurd Towrie)

The hunt for a connecting wall in Trench Y continued apace in 2018. But although there was no sign of the wall, there was a classic Neolithic hearth in the lochside trench.

One section of the enclosing hearthstones was missing and it was flanked by large cattle bone and a suspected bone pin nearby.

2019: An illustration of the size of the Ness’s Neolithic cattle alongside its creator Cecily Webster. (Jan Blatchford)

A delighted Teresa with the gneiss axe from Structure Ten.

2018: A delighted Therese with the gneiss axe from Structure Ten. (Jo Bourne)

Another piece of cattle bone brought the size of the Neolithic livestock at the Ness sharply back into focus.

A very large bone from the massive deposit around Structure Ten was brought to archaeozoologist Dr Ingrid Mainland to assess. Compared to that of modern cattle, the bone was absolutely huge.

It was also clear that its owner, when alive, was not fully grown and was probably less than three years old at death. A big beast indeed!

In Structure Eight, another piece of Arran pitchstone was unearthed – the largest pitchstone blade found in Orkney to date.

Its presence once again underlined the long-distance travel which undoubtedly took place in the Neolithic.

Structure Ten supervisor Sinead captures the moment Teresa lifted her beautiful axe.

2018: Structure Ten supervisor Sinead captures the moment Therese lifted her beautiful axe. (Jo Bourne)

August 3 2018: Lifting an axe in Structure Ten. (Karen Wallis)

August 3 2018: Lifting an axe in Structure Ten. (Karen Wallis)

2018: The polished stone axe during excavation. (Jo Bourne)

2018: The polished stone axe during excavation. (Jo Bourne)

We’ve saved the best of this day in 2018 till last – the excavation of an absolutely wonderful polished stone axe in Structure Ten.

It was made of banded gneiss, with one of the bands being orange-coloured, but its true beauty only emerged when it was gently moistened with clean water.

Despite its beauty, the axehead showed clear signs of use wear – one side of the blade had been carefully re-sharpened, but not the other which still showed the marks of heavy usage.

Both sides then had a secondary function as a small anvil, with the effects of percussion showing as small, rough depressions in the surface.

The axe was very similar to one found back in 2012, just above this one.



2019: A delighted Aqsa with the macehead from Trench X. (Sigurd Towrie)

In 2018, we were content with the thought it might be a long time before we saw an artefact like the Structure Ten axe again.

How wrong we were. In 2019, in the freshly opened extension to Trench X, another unfinished macehead appeared and instantly found itself in the (unofficial) top ten list of Ness artefacts.

As the diary proclaimed last year: “Words really don’t do it justice. It is spectacular!)”

The macehead was fashioned from Olivine basalt (perhaps from the island of Hoy). The operation to drill a hole through it had started but was abandoned and the beautifully shaped object then used as a hammer stone.

Click here for more pictures of this exquisite artefact.

2019: Fresh from the midden. The beautiful – but unfinished – cushion macehead from Trench X. (Sigurd Towrie)

2019: The cleaned pillow macehead. Note the unfinished perforation in the body. (Sigurd Towrie)

The quern/basin begins to appear at the rear of the annex/alcove outside Structure Twelve's eastern entrance. (Sigurd Towrie)

The quern/basin begins to appear at the rear of the annex/alcove outside Structure Twelve’s eastern entrance. (Sigurd Towrie)

Back in Trench P, excavation continued on the alcove/annexe outside Structure Twelve’s eastern entrance.

This brought the revelation that the rear of the alcove was formed by what initially appeared to be a huge stone stone quern.

Its size, however, together with the apparent lack of quern-related wear in the interior, prompted the suggestion we might actually have something along the lines of a stone basin.

2019: A few days later - the fully excavated alcove with the quern/basin forming the rear. (Sigurd Towrie)

2019: A few days later – the fully excavated alcove with the quern/basin forming the rear. (Sigurd Towrie)

We finish off today with Structure Twelve – or, technically, its predecessor, Structure Twenty-Eight.

Work within Structure Twelve was progressing well, allowing supervisor Jim to unravel the earlier structure beneath.

Structure Twenty-Eight in relation to the later Structure Twelve. (Jim Rylatt)

Rather than having two structures – Twenty-Four and Twenty-Eight – it now seemed that we actually had just one building – Structure Twenty-Eight – which was even bigger and probably even grander than we thought and was probably the source of much of the final masonry reused in Structure Twelve.

It now seemed to be aligned exactly north-south, like Structure One and, as long suspected, may also respect the “Central Standing Stone” in the paved area between Structures One, Eight and Twelve.

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