Standing stones appear outside Structure Twelve

Diary – Wednesday, August 12, 2020
Day Twenty-Seven

It was all go on in Structure Ten on this day in 2011.

2011: The scale of the hearth in Structure Ten is revealed. (ORCA)

2011: The scale of the hearth in Structure Ten is revealed. (ORCA)

Further excavation of the central hearth revealed it to be huge – some 1.4 metres square and over 30 centimetres deep.

Meanwhile, the debate as to whether we had found the entrance continued. Although what appeared to be its basal courses had been found, as well as elaborate elements, including orthostats, which seemed to be part of the entrance arrangements, there was a difference of opinion as to what they represented.

Fortunately, looking back now nine years later, we can happily state that it was indeed the structure’s entrance.

Remaining in Structure Ten, a paved area with an upright stone was found to be central to the building’s elaborate “dresser”. Intriguingly, it also appeared to be central to the major axis of the building – straight through the central support of the dresser/altar and the hearth.

It was pondered whether this little upright stone was the marker around which the building was designed symmetrically.

In Structure Eight, the first real evidence that the building incorporated at least one earlier structure into its fabric was recorded.

Preparing to plan the area it was noticed that the bench arrangement running along part of the western wall might actually be part of the wall of one of the earlier structures. It seems to have been adapted during a later phase of use and turned into the bench arrangement now visible. These two early structures were later confirmed and named Structures Seventeen and Eighteen.

Over in Structure One, Antonia had been examining each stone for signs of incision. It was time-consuming, but fruitful, work. Over the week, she found 36 new examples of incised stone, bringing the total for the building to over 60.

2013: Trench T — The inner face of the wall in the midden. (ORCA)

“Is this a chambered tomb, smothered in midden?”

This was the question site director Nick was asking in 2013, as excavation in Trench T became more and more complex.

The discovery of walls and rubble at the top of the trench had the excavators wondering whether the had evidence of a Neolithic chambered tomb. But further excavation revealed things were not so simple. The wall, far from being associated with a chambered tomb, seemed to formalise and monumentalise the midden.

Back in 2013, it was hailed a “tremendous mystery” – but with the benefit of hindsight we know there was no chambered tomb and what the walls and rubble represented was much later Iron Age activity at the top of the massive mound of Neolithic midden.

2013: An internal wall face appears in Structure Twenty-One. (ORCA)

In Trench P, the late paving over the top of Structure Twenty-One had been removed and its internal wall faces revealed. Around the building, excavation had reached natural boulder clay, revealing the layers of midden deposits on which Structures One and Twenty-One were built. This also revealed more rubble, hinting at even earlier structures underneath.

At the beginning of the 2014 season, it was speculated that an orthostat peeking through the accumulated midden deposits outside Structure Twelve was a standing stone.

Fast forward to August 12, and it became clear we had not one but two standing stones flanking the building’s newly discovered eastern entrance.

If, as we now think, the grand entrance to Structure Ten was flanked on the exterior by two standing stones, the same now seemed true of its close neighbour – although admittedly on a slightly smaller scale.

2014: The tips of the two standing stones flanking the newly discovered entrance to Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

Meanwhile, the complex history of Structure Twelve was becoming clearer – a story that involved construction, deconstruction and a second episode of construction.

August 12, 2019: The big clean-up for the drone in Trench P. (Karen Wallis)

August 12, 2019: The big clean-up for the drone in Trench P. (Karen Wallis)

The secondary construction was found to be much less successful than the first. The same beautifully shaped and pecked stones from the first phase were used in the reconstruction, but the standard of the work was poor. Piers were rebuilt, but slightly out of position and sections of walling and other piers were not tied into the adjoining stonework. “It’s all a bit shoddy,” was the conclusion on the day.

Staying in Structure Twelve, a huge amount of pottery – and we mean huge – has been under excavation for three weeks in the building’s north end.

The deposit clearly represented a final event in the history of the structure and some interesting and unusual pottery had emerged – including our first examples of coloured ceramics.

2016: Trench T, where the question was 'Is it a chambered cairn?' (ORCA)

2016: Trench T, where the question was ‘Is it a chambered cairn?’ (ORCA)

Trench T was back in the spotlight on August 12, 2016, with the emergence of the “extraordinary structure” we now know to be Structure Twenty-Seven. Back then, however, there was still a suspicion that we were dealing with a chambered tomb – perhaps one along the lines of the Bookan chambered tomb, a kilometre or so to the north of the Ness of Brodgar dig site.

2016: Mai uncovering the remains of a wall of our mysterious Structure Twenty-Seven. (ORCA)

2016: Mai uncovering the remains of a wall of our mysterious Structure Twenty-Seven. (ORCA)

Because the mysterious structure has been comprehensively robbed-out in antiquity there were differences of opinion as to what the remains represented. But as time wore on, the chambered cairn theory was gaining ground.

Why a chambered cairn? For one, it was the scale of the structure.

A large, stone block was found parallel to its outer wall face. If there was a relationship between these two elements the structure had to have been absolutely massive.

2016: Post holes in Trench X. (ORCA)

2016: Post holes in Trench X. (ORCA)

Then we had the remnants of the wall core. It was composed of redeposited natural and shaley, shillety stone – completely different to the wall composition of the other structures on site, which often used midden in their wall core.

The importance of this lies in the strong suggestion from this and other sites that midden appears to be associated with “life”, and in the Neolithic period may have been considered unsuitable material for “death” or use in chambered tombs.

There was also the way the orthostats had been used, which was reminiscent of those at Bookan.

Looking back now, in 2020, we know Structure Twenty-Seven was not a chambered cairn. What we don’t know is what it was. Hopefully, if we get back on site next year, we’ll be able to get closer to fathoming out the role of this enigmatic, massive building.

Meanwhile, in Trench X a series of stone-lined post holes emerged, suggesting a timber construction. In one of the post holes a large anvil stone had inserted. Closer examination revealed this had finely incised decoration.

2016: The fossilised sea urchin from the midden above Structure Twenty-Six (ORCA)

2016: The fossilised sea urchin from the midden above Structure Twenty-Six (ORCA)

It was Structure Twenty-Six that produced the star find of the day – a beautiful, fossilised sea urchin, probably from the Jurassic period and almost certainly deriving from North Sea chalk deposits.

Someone had found it in the Neolithic, valued it for its beauty and unusual nature and used it as a polishing tool.

Monday, August 12, 2019, saw all hands on deck for a massive clean-up operation in Trench P ahead of a photographic recording session.

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