Astonished by the scale of the trench-spanning mega-drain

Dig Diary – Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Day Eighteen

2011: The Structure Eight 'toolkit'. (ORCA)

2011: The Structure Eight ‘toolkit’. (ORCA)

We kick of proceedings today in Structure Eight, which has revealed much in the way of finds – including huge quartz pebbles, a whale’s tooth, “painted” stone and a whalebone macehead.

On Friday, July 28, 2011, a few centimetres from the location of the complete macehead and up against an extended pier section, a delicate  stone spatulate tool – with a rounded handle and a flattish, expanded head – emerged. It was lying alongside a large flint blade and a wedge-shaped stone tool – all oriented in the same direction.

2013: Time Team's Sir Tony Robinson and Francis Pryor interview site director Nick. (ORCA)

2013: Time Team’s Sir Tony Robinson and Francis Pryor interview site director Nick. (ORCA)

Was this cache of Neolithic tools lost, abandoned or deposited? Given the careful positioning, the favoured interpretation on the day was the latter.

In glorious sunshine, Sir Tony Robinson and Francis Pryor picked the perfect day to visit the site in 2013. The two Time Team stalwarts were in Orkney filming for a “special” on prehistoric religion.

Among the incised rock that was delighting archaeologist Francis Pryor was a new slab from Structure Eight, which featured the bands of geometric designs we’re now very familiar with.

2013: Another incised slab from Structure Eight. (ORCA)

2013: Another incised slab from Structure Eight. (ORCA)

Six years ago today, the largest piece of Arran pitchstone found at the Ness (at that time) turned up in the wall-core of Structure Twenty-Two – a later building overlying the north end of Structure Fourteen.

Pitchstone is a hard, black, glass-like volcanic material which originates 400 kilometres to the south-west, on the island of Arran. The piece found on July 29, 2014, was mini core from which flakes have been knapped off.

We now know that pitchstone was being brought to the Ness and was being worked in Structure Eight, perhaps by visitors from the south-west of Scotland. Click here for details.

2014: A section of the finely incised slab found in Structure Ten, showing the chevron designs. (ORCA)

2014: A section of the finely incised slab found in Structure Ten, showing the chevron designs. (ORCA)

Over in Structure Ten, another incised stone was found on the inner face of the outer wall (the building’s wall is over four metres thick and consists of two stone walls – inner and outer – separated by a wall core made up of midden).

The stone’s position on the inner face means the design would not have been visible once the construction of Structure Twelve was complete – again, something we have encountered a number of times.

2014: The full incised stone from Structure Ten. (ORCA)

2014: The full incised stone from Structure Ten. (ORCA)

2014: Structure Ten’s monumental foundation slab being being uncovered in the north-western corner of the building. (ORCA)

Meanwhile, in the north-west corner of Structure Ten – the area of the “paint workshop” – a huge stone slab was revealed.

At the time it was suggested to be a foundation for the primary phase of the building and its sheer size raised eyebrows. Measuring 1.5 metres wide, circa two metres long and 15 centimetres thick, could this have been part of a former standing stone that was incorporated into Structure Ten?

Again due to weekends and the vagaries of the weather, we now jump to 2019, and a rather momentous, underground discovery!

Excavation between Structures Eight and Twelve revealed a hole – a large, very deep hole that led to the largest drain at the Ness.

Stretching across the site for over 30 metres, its presence shows the entire Ness complex was carefully planned from the outset. It is almost certainly primary to the earliest phases of piered structures on the site and clearly played a central role in the way in which these were laid out.

2019: The suspected path of the massive drain. Click the image for a larger version.

2019: Site director Nick investigates the hole leading to the massive drain. (Jo Bourne)

The drain measures over 50cm wide and seemed to have been drystone built with some of the lintels still in place. The depth remains unknown at present. Further investigation was one of the tasks scheduled for the 2020 season.

Its presence clarified some of the slumping we see at the north end of Structure Twelve – what appears to be a rubble-filled pit within Structure Twelve is probably collapsing into the drain beneath.

Also, beyond the south-west corner of the building is another pit which is on the same alignment and again is probably collapsing into the same drain.

July 29, 2019: Excavating a hearth in Trench J. (Karen Wallis)

July 29, 2019: Excavating a hearth in Trench J. (Karen Wallis)

Drains may not seem that exciting in the grand scheme of things, but the information they yield is invaluable.

Who knows what residues we may find that may be related to life at the Ness – we may find evidence of food materials being flushed down into it or maybe even human waste.

Why is it so big? We think because it was perhaps the drain into which a number of lesser drainage channels were running off into.

We have all these drainage systems around and under a lot of the structures, but the new drain is perhaps part of a central drainage system underlying the site.

2019: The eastern entrance to Structure Twelve, leading to a passage/cell and the putative standing stone. (Sigurd Towrie)

Meanwhile, work continued in the area around the eastern entrance to Structure Twelve,  where it seemed likely that the two standing stones which flank the entrance were enhanced by further large blocks of stone, some of which can now be seen to be decorated.

It was also becoming clearer that this was a highly complex area with many different phases of building, re-building and blocking.

 

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