Standing stones, incredible artefacts and Structure Ten’s sea eagle deposit – seasons 2018-2019

The final instalment in our series looking at how the Ness of Brodgar excavation has progressed, and ideas changed, over the years via dig director Nick Card’s annual brief summaries for Archaeology Scotland’s Discovery and Excavation in Scotland.

Today we bring things right up to date with the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

2018

The view from the Trench T extension, showing the orthostat and at the top of the picture its suspected counterpart.

The view from the Trench T extension, showing the orthostat and at the top of the picture its suspected counterpart. (Sigurd Towrie)

Excavation in Trench T concentrated on revealing more of Structure 27 with the removal of more of the overlying midden mound (mainly peat ash) and the last remnants of the numerous pits cut into the middens.

Due to the complexities of their deposition and stratigraphy these middens were excavated in narrow spits that followed the general trends of their deposition.

Although badly robbed of stone, the remaining external wall faces particularly on the SW end of Structure 27 revealed an extraordinary level of craftsmanship. Internally more orthostats were revealed that again emphasised the unusual nature of its build.

Nick carefully washing the macehead fragment from the outside of Structure Twenty-Seven.

Rhodochrosite macehead fragment from the outside of Structure Twenty-Seven. (Jo Bourne)

Floor deposits are still to be exposed across most of the interior.

Half of a cushion macehead, made from rhodochrosite (same material as two ‘pillow stones’ from Structure 8) was found in the later midden deposits adjacent to the SW wall face.

More sections were excavated across later revetted Iron Age ditch cut into the Neolithic midden mound.

The ditch fills were remarkably devoid of finds apart from a few small sherds of undiagnostic pot.

Trench T from above this afternoon. The outline of the enigmatic Structure Twenty-Seven is clearly visible in the left of the picture (the bottom of the trench).

Trench T from above. The outline of Structure Twenty-Seven is clearly visible to the left of the picture. (Scott Pike)

The newly christened Structure Thirty-Two in the Trench J extension.

Structure Thirty-Two in the Trench J extension. (Sigurd Towrie)

Trench J was extended to the SW in order to reveal the full extent of Structure 5 before tackling the floor deposits associated with this building.

Although the depth and complexity of the overlying midden deposits and a sequence of hearths, later walling (Structure 32), and other activity prevented the floors being wholly exposed.

However the plan of the Structure 5 was clarified and is reminiscent of several other early Neolithic houses such as Knap of Howar and Smerquoy.

It is overall c.15 metres long by c.7 metres wide with 2 entrances on its SE side. Initial indications are that there are at least three phases of activity and rebuild represented [Click here for a 3D model of Trench J in August 2018]

Marcus and Mike at work opening the new Trench Y.

Marcus and Mike at work opening the new Trench Y. (Sigurd Towrie)

Trench Y was opened to explore the potential presence of the enclosure wall on the Stenness side of the site.

This was implied by a drone photograph from 2016 which revealed a linear vegetation change in the rougher ground along the shore that would seem to link the northern and southern boundary walls.

Although large rubble and shillety material was encountered that may represent robbing debris, no definitive evidence for the enclosure wall continuing was discovered. However a length of curving wall and a hearth was discovered at the top of the slope leading down to the loch.

In Trench P, with the removal of the later phased curved wall across the middle of Structure 1 last season, excavation this season commenced this year with the examination of the foundation deposits of this wall.

Structure One from above this afternoon.

Structure One from above in August 2018. (Scott Pike)

This was found to be a horizon of roofing slabs that probably represents the partial remains of the original Phase 1 collapsed roof. Sealed by the slabs were several small, stone lined post holes relating to the primary phase probably forming a partition across the structure.

Floor deposits of Phase 1 started to be removed with the continued use of a 0.5m sampling grid across the interior.

Excavation out with the NW end of Structure 1 recovered two unusual mini pots, one decorated with an incised motif.

Within Structure 8, the investigation of the floor deposits across the south end of the building was completed, revealing more of Structure 17 below, including a hearth. Excavation of the floors in the north end was continued.

In the central midden area, to the south of Structure 8, more dumps of material were removed to clarify the outer wall of Structure 8. The partial walls of two further buildings, Structures 33 and 34 (34 may be part of Structure 23 underlying the north end of Structure 12) were uncovered.

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

Sinead captures the moment Teresa lifted a beautiful gneiss axe from the interior of Structure Ten. (Jo Bourne)

Work within Structure 10 continued on the internal floor deposits relating to its secondary major phase, concentrating on the northern and western areas of the building.

Investigation of the remnants of a ‘dresser’ like arrangement of thin slabs against its west inner wall face revealed a fine, banded-gneiss axe.

The dense bone deposit in the Structure Ten passageway infill. (Jo Bourne)

To the west of St 10, excavation continued to remove the fill of the outer passage around the building and its upper fills of monumental amounts of mainly cattle bone. More paving relating to the passageway was revealed.

A previously excavated section though this passage infill on the south side of Structure 10 was also slightly cut back and cleaned. This revealed another dense layer of cattle bone forming the primary infill of the passage that was not present elsewhere.

Excavation in Structure 12 was put on hold this season in order to clarify more in post-excavation.

Excavation in Structure 26, the small D shaped building, revealed internal stone furniture and an off centre hearth. Beautifully pick dressed slabs reminiscent of those employed in the primary build of St 10 had been reused in its construction. [Click here for a 3D reconstruction from July 2018]

A close-up of the Structure Five decorated stone.

A close-up of the Structure Five ‘horned spiral’ (Sigurd Towrie).

Numerous other examples of Neolithic art were also discovered most notably two examples of a horned spiral: one in situ just within the entrance to Structure 5 in Trench J; the other from rubble deposit between Structures 12 and 26. This latter slab also exhibited an eyebrow motif.

2019

Structure Twenty-Seven at the start of the 2019 season. (Jo Bourne)

Excavation in Trench T concentrated on revealing more of Structure 27 sealed below the monumental midden mound.  Two small triangular extensions were made to the trench to expose two more of the outer corners of the structure and to clarify the entrance arrangement. 

The last of the overlying middens were removed revealing a complex sequence of robbing of Structure 27., including the removal of one of the 4m+ prone orthostats that lined the interior of the structure.

Structure Twenty-Seven looking resplendent from the air at the end of July 2019. (Scott Pike)

The view from the Iron Age ditch and revetment walls at the top of Trench T, looking down towards Structure Twenty-Seven. (Jo Bourne)

As part of the robbing process large spreads of poorly preserved animal bone were encountered both within and out with the building.

Clarity was also provided as to the location of the entrance at its NE end. Incised decoration was also discovered on one of the internal divisional orthostats, some of which would have been hidden from view.

More sections were excavated across later revetted Iron Age ditch cut into the upper slopes of the Neolithic midden mound. The ditch fills were again mostly devoid of finds apart from a few sherds of pot in the primary ditch fill that are early Iron Age in date.

Excavation of Structure 5 in Trench J was continued with the removal of more of the later overlying middens and later ephemeral activity including several hearth settings. This showed that Structure 5 continues out with the trench extension of 2018 and is presently at least 16m long.

At the cessation of excavation, floors deposits associated with the last use of Structure 5 had been exposed across much of its interior.

In Trench P, the excavation of the primary floor deposits within Structure 1 was put on hold this year in order to clarify more in post-excavation.

Structure Eight showing approximate positions of underlying Structures Seventeen (yellow) and Structure Eighteen (red).

Within Structure 8, the investigation of the floor deposits across the north end of the building was completed, revealing more of Structure 18 below, including a hearth. Both of the buildings that underlie Structure 8, Structures 17 and 18, have now been shown to exhibit the same piered architecture, with a single pair of opposed stone piers and corner buttresses.

Excavation now implies that in a later phase the northern end of the structure may have remained roofed while the southern end became an external work area focused on a large double hearth.

Investigating the area between Structures Twelve and Twenty-Six. (Nick Card)

In the central midden area to the south of Structure 8, more dumps of material were removed to clarify Structures 33 and 34 uncovered in 2018, and their relationships with Structures 8, 12 and 28.

The interior of Structure 34, a small irregular structure, was covered in a series of small orthostatic features.

Site director Nick investigates the stone-lined drain. (Jo Bourne)

While removing the midden infill of Structure 34 a large hole opened up that proved to be part of a large stone lined drain.

Although access and excavation of this drain was very limited this season it could be traced across the site through later subsidence and may be one of the primary elements of the later phases of the site with the piered architecture.

Work within Structure 10 continued to reveal more primary phase deposits and features, on the northern and western areas of the building.

Andy carefully excavates the sea eagle bone. (Ole Thoenies)

A series of thin orthostats at right angles to the inner wall face creating a series of small ‘recesses’ and perhaps a dresser like feature on the west wall opposite the entrance.

In the SW, the last of the foundation deposits were removed from under the later internal corner buttress. Continuing the theme of special foundation votive deposits previously recovered from under the secondary remodelling of Structure 10 the wing bone of a female sea-eagle was discovered.

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

Excavation in Structure 12 continued mainly on the secondary floor deposits in the northern half. This revealed a rubble spread that may be collapse of the same drain discovered in the central midden area.

More elements of the underlying building(s) beneath Structure 12 were uncovered.

Two structures were thought to be present, 24 and 28, but these now seem to be parts of the same building, circa 12m N-S x 8m, and probably exhibiting similar piered architecture.  Structure 28 sits almost on the same footprint as Structure 12 though on a slightly different alignment.

The suspected standing stone (pictured left) and the two orthostats flanking the eastern entrance to Structure Twelve. (Sigurd Towrie)

Further excavation investigated outside the elaborate eastern entrance to Structure 12 that was flanked by two standing stones. In a secondary phase this entrance had an annex/porch added that incorporated the two standing stones and a large saddle quern into its build with the entrance now leading out to the north. 

Just beyond and perpendicular to the two flanking standing stones a third standing stone was discovered. This appears to align with a potential entrance into the underlying Structure 28 rather than its later incarnation, Structure 12 [click here for a 3D model].

This arrangement is like the central standing stone discovered in 2013 that was in line to the southern entrance to Structure 1.

'Dotted' stone from Structure Eight. (Sigurd Towrie)

‘Dotted’ stone from Structure Eight. (Sigurd Towrie)

An upright slab that had been incorporated into both Structures 7 and 19 was also reassessed as the stump of another standing stone.

Trench X was extended to expose more of the late post structure revealed in 2018. Although more post holes were discovered they did not make any coherent form. A beautiful, but unfinished, macehead of olivine basalt was found in the upper layers of the trench extension.

Numerous other examples of Neolithic art were also discovered including a new motif from Structure 8 consisting of two groups of dots arranged in 2 and 3 columns of 3 and 5 rows.

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