Structures Seventeen and Eighteen
Structures Seventeen and Eighteen are two earlier buildings that pre-date, and lie beneath, Structure Eight.
During the 2022 excavation season, one of the focuses was to reveal more of the pair and understand how they related to each other and Structure Eight.
The results were enlightening, showing the two were contemporary – probably dating to around 3200BC – and stood side-by-side, separated by a paved area.
Bother were divided into two sections by a single pair of stone piers, with stone hearths in both halves.
At the end of their lives, Seventeen and Eighteen were partially dismantled and elements incorporated into the fabric of Structure Eight.
Measuring approximately 12 metres long by nine metres wide, Structure Seventeen lies under the southern half of Structure Eight and roughly follows the latter’s north-east to south-west orientation.
With corner buttresses and a single pair of stone piers dividing the interior in two, the building is similar in layout to Structures One and Fourteen at the Ness and House Two at the nearby Barnhouse settlement.
Each of its two sections had a stone hearth and, based on the excavation evidence, it seems that the side and end recesses were also partitioned off using stone slabs.
Tiles found in one of these side recesses suggests Structure Seventeen, like the later buildings on site, had a stone roof.
As with any structure that has been almost completely dismantled and subsequently built on, there is much we do not know about Structure Seventeen.
The location of the entrance, for example, is not clear, although it was probably in the eastern side wall, in an area obliterated during the construction of Structure Ten around 2900BC.
As for dates, at present we can only say Seventeen pre-dates Structure Eight, which was constructed around 3100BC.
Excavation of an orthostatic box in 2022, introduced an intriguing new element into the construction of Structure Eight.
The box – which was clearly, given its contents, not a hearth – was not, technically, a part of Eight but had been placed on the remains of Seventeen’s north-eastern wall section before being covered over and Structure Eight built on top.
What was particularly interesting was that the box contained human remains – part of a male femur (leg bone). Only the ball that connected to the socket in the hipbone had survived. Whether the rest of the bone had also been deposited, the rest disintegrating in the acidic conditions we have at the Ness, or whether it was just the bone fragment remains unknown.
But why was a human femur, or at least part of it, placed in a box under the floor of Structure Eight?
Was it alone or were there other remains which have since perished?
Unfortunately, we don’t have the answers to those questions. But there must have been a reason.
The treatment of human remains in the Neolithic is a fascinating subject, and the discovery of human bone in non-funerary contexts – in dwellings for example – is not unknown.
Although it is the chambered cairns that have come to be associated with the Neolithic dead, very few have been found to contain human remains.
This process may have been hastened by the deliberate dismemberment of corpses. Decomposition complete, the bones were “reordered and rearranged”.
At the Holm of Papa Westray North, excavator Anna Ritchie had no doubt that human remains were being manipulated — a fact her excavation “proved beyond doubt”.
This interaction with the dead was part of daily Neolithic life, suggested Professor Colin Richards, and perhaps explains the presence of human bone within domestic contexts (e.g. Skara Brae, Knap of Howar).
Were skeletal parts being removed from cairns, relocated and possibly exchanged? Perhaps to bring “life” to a new building, sealing agreements or even regarded as some form of “magical” protection.
However the femur ended up in the Structure Eight box, it is only the second example of a body part being associated with a building at the Ness – the first we encountered being the adult humerus deposited beneath one of the Structure Ten buttresses added, around 2800BC, in the building’s second phase.
Immediately to the north-east of Structure Seventeen, and almost at right angles to it, is Structure Eighteen.
The two are almost identical in layout and size and both shared a paved pathway, suggesting they were contemporary, perhaps dating to around 3200BC.
Structure Eighteen is not as well-preserved as its neighbour but sections peek through the later building, notably its southern central pier under Eight’s northern hearth.
Wall sections also poked through the floor and into the north-western recess. Something similar was noted in Structure Twelve and suggests there were raised, perhaps wooden, platforms within the recesses.
In 2023, we located a narrow entrance in Eighteen’s eastern end recess, running into the trench section. One of Structure Fourteen‘s two entrances was also in an end recess, and it may be that Eighteen has a second in its unexcavated northern wall, which lies beyond the trench edge.
Of all the structures excavated so far, Structure Eighteen is the only one that incorporated yellow clay within its walls. Clay is a common floor surface in Neolithic buildings but in Structure Eighteen was also was placed between each course of masonry.
The construction of Structure Eight saw the end buttresses of Eighteen incorporated into its northern end. The result was an entrance forecourt flanked by a pair of projecting “horns” that can still be seen today.