Human arm bone added to list of Structure Ten buttress deposits

Diary – Monday, July 20, 2020
Day Eleven

Ray reveals the first hints of the third hearth in Structure 8.
2011: Ray reveals the first hints of the third hearth in Structure Eight. (📷 ORCA)

There’s nothing like sifting through our archives to see just how far the excavations on the Ness have progressed over the years. This day in 2011, for example, was the third day on site and although cleaning operations were still ongoing, hopes were high that Structure Ten’s entrance would be found.

The eastern end of Structure 10 where the robbed out entrance passage is probably represented by the slightly less stoney deposits.
2011: The eastern end of Structure Ten, where, it was hoped, the robbed out entrance passage would be found. (📷 ORCA)
2012: The interior of Structure Twelve is gradually revealed. (📷 ORCA)

Meanwhile, over in Structure Eight the scale of the building was gradually becoming apparent with the discovery of another interior “pier” and the appearance of another hearth  – bringing the total revealed at that point to three.

In 2012, the removal of the Structure Twelve infill continued apace but it was clear there was still some way to go.

A quick look at the extent of the wall revealed in the building’s robber cut suggested there was still at least 30cm (12 inches) of deposits to work through before reaching floor levels.

2013: Opening Trench T. (📷 ORCA)

A surprise find in a drystone dyke enclosing the Ness field led to a slight archaeological detour.

Chris Gee noticed a sandstone block in the wall that had been carefully dressed by pecking that had probably come from one of the Neolithic structures – possibly Structure Ten.

2013: Seb points out the polished stone axe in Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

As a result, the entire dyke was closely investigated to see whether any other examples of Neolithic craftsmanship had been incorporated into its body.

Trench T was a major focus on this day in 2013. The turf had been removed earlier in the week and now it was down to mattocking and trowelling to remove the remaining topsoil. Slow and steady work.

Structure Twelve produced an axehead in its north end along with some potential roofing slates while in Structure Ten all eyes were on a fragile piece of pot – a Grooved Ware rim with delicate incisions in the form of lozenges.

The pottery sherd was above a bone deposit which had been dated to 2300BC so its deposition date was also around that time.

Why was this piece of pottery so fascinating?

In a nutshell, incised Grooved Ware (where the decoration is “scratched” into the surface) tends to be much earlier than the applied Grooved Ware (clay decoration elements added to the surface).

The decor on this fragment was different, however, and comparisons with similar pottery from other Orkney sites suggests a return to incised decoration at the start of the Bronze Age.

2013: The sherd of finely incised Grooved Ware pottery from Structure Ten. (📷 ORCA)

In 2014, July 20, was at the weekend, so it’s a jump to 2015, when a quiet day in the trenches was livened up by the discovery of another two decorated stones within five minutes of each other.

The first came from the robbing cut on the north side of Structure Ten (see above). It had incised designs and cup marks and also seemed to have been used as a polissoir, or polishing stone.

2015: The decorated stone from Structure Ten. A lightly incised “butterfly” can be just seen on the top edge (enlargement inset); but there are also small cupmarks; and a highly polished area. (📷 ORCA)
2015: The nested triangle motif. (📷 ORCA)

The second came from the former central midden area – in particular the rubble which lay beneath much of it. This stone was decorated with nested triangles.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016, was a momentous day for the Ness. It was the day we confirmed the discovery of a human arm bone in Structure Ten.

2016: The human arm bone under one of the Structure Ten buttresses. (ORCA)
2016: Claire delicately reveals more of the bone under Structure Ten’s south-west buttress. (📷 ORCA)

The humerus was found beside a large spread of animal bone – mostly cattle – under the south-western buttress inside the building. It belonged to an adult and has been radiocarbon dated to c2800BC – the same period that saw the interior of Structure Ten remodelled and four corner buttresses added. These turned the original, square interior space into a smaller, cruciform chamber.

Two of the buttresses had already produced exciting finds – such as our carved stone ball, a magnificent incised stone and an upright vessel with vertical “stitching” – all of them representing items deliberately deposited, presumably to mark the remodelling. In 2019, a sea eagle wing bone was also found under the south-western buttress.

Back in 2016, we pondered the significance of this single bone. Had it been relocated from a chambered tomb? Perhaps the remains of an ancestor?

But following radiocarbon dating this seems unlikely. Whoever the arm bone belonged to had died around the same time as work was being carried out on Structure Ten. But what their relationship to the building and the site as a whole is something we will never know.

2018: The bone deposit lying across the paved passageway around Structure Ten. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Thursday, July 20, 2017, was hit by the weather again. As there was no digging on site, Claire Copper provided some background to the “incense cup” found on site on July 7. Click here to read.

It’s back to animals and Structure Ten for Friday, July 20, 2018, with the discovery of another huge deposit of cattle bone – this time lying directly on the paving of the passageway surrounding the building.

The previous spread of cattle bone came from the passageway’s uppermost fill. It consisted largely of tibia (representing between 400-600 cattle!) and may represent an event marking the last use of Structure Ten.

The new, deeper deposit appeared to contain large quantities of much more mixed cattle bone.

What does it mean? We’re still working on it, but it seems that two separate bone deposition events occurred in the later life of Structure Ten.

Tour guide Martin points out the uncovered southern orthostat in Structure Twenty-Seven. (📷 Jo Bourne)

Our look back at 2019, turns to July 18.

In Trench T, the sheer size of the prone orthostat along the inside of the end wall of Structure Twenty-Seven was revealed in all its glory.

The huge stone slab had been partially uncovered in previous years and the suspicion then was that it was big. It was huge, measuring well over four metres (13ft) long.

There was a second revelation later in the day, when site director Nick spotted incised decoration on the large orthostat in the north-eastern corner of Structure Twenty-Seven.

July 20, 2016: Trench P looking north-west. (📷 Karen Wallis)

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