The momentous day we found our carved stone ball

Dig Diary – Friday, August 7, 2020
Day Twenty-Five

2012: Exposed rubble deposits at the south end of Structure Eight. (ORCA)

2012: Exposed rubble deposits at the south end of Structure Eight. (ORCA)

The latest coloured pot sherd.

2012: The Structure Twelve coloured pot sherd. (ORCA)

It was officially given a name on August 6, 2018, but it was on this day in 2012 that the first signs of Structure Thirty-One appeared beneath Structure One. The small, ephemeral structure was represented solely by some walling poking out from underneath Structure One, along with some very large and more rounded stones.

Meanwhile, another flake of Arran pitchstone – our sixth at that point in time – emerged near Structure Fourteen. Readers will know that the bulk of our pitchstone finds have come from Structure Eight and that the material was imported to the Ness from the south-west of Scotland.

2013: A closer view of the carved stone ball. (ORCA)

Another sherd of coloured and decorated pottery was confirmed from the interior of Structure Twelve. The sherd had an applied cordon, which has been grooved horizontally with oblique slashes on the lower part of the cordon, perhaps imitating twisted cord or rope.

The whole of the applied cordon was coloured red, probably using haematite (iron ore) wash, which stands in contrast to what is probably a black area to one side and an orangey slip to the other side.

Molly Bond with the carved stone ball she found in Structure Ten in August 2013. (Sigurd Towrie)

2013: Molly Bond with the carved stone ball she found in Structure Ten. (Sigurd Towrie)

This day in 2013 is one that will never be forgotten in the annals of the Ness.

This was the day we found our carved stone ball.

Site director Nick had long said that he would dearly love to find one – so much so that he promised a bottle of single malt whisky to the finder – and seven years ago today his wish came true.

The ball was found in a secure context, under the north-east buttress of Structure Ten, opposite the magnificent incised stone found the week before. It was one of a series of deliberately deposited objects that may have marked the remodelling of the interior.

Fashioned from camptonite – a very hard rock – it would have taken some time, and a great deal of patience, to carve the six projections.

2013: Fresh from Structure Ten, the carved stone ball is subjected to chemical analysis using Professor Scott Pike's portable XRF equipment. (ORCA)

2013: Fresh from Structure Ten, the carved stone ball is subjected to chemical analysis using Professor Scott Pike’s portable XRF equipment. (ORCA)

2014: Trench P overview. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

2014: Trench P overview. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

In 2014, while Hugo had his kite-camera flying high above the site for photographs, all eyes were on a strange deposit found in Structure Eight.

It consists of two probably pot lids that covered, and protected, a deposit of pottery. The pot seemed to have contained animal bone – an astragalus and two smaller bones – which paralleled a vessel found in 2012, in a corner buttress of Structure Ten, and which contained a neonatal calf bone.

Structure Eight (middle) and Structure Ten (top) from above. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

2014: Structure Eight (middle) and Structure Ten (top) from above. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

2014: Structure One (bottom left), Structure Twelve (right) and Structure Eight (top left) with Structures Nineteen, Eleven and Twenty-Five nestled in between. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

2014: Structure One (bottom left), Structure Twelve (right) and Structure Eight (top left) with Structures Nineteen, Eleven and Twenty-Five nestled in between. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

 

The sheer grandeur of Structure Ten was driven home by a day of finds on Friday, August 7, 2015.

2015: The massive, dressed sandstone block in Structure Ten is revealed by Jan. (ORCA)

First, a large block of pink/red sandstone emerged from the south-west corner of Structure Ten. It was massive and elegantly curved on two planes and covered on both sides with decorative and shaping pecking. Its discovery prompted site director Nick to ponder whether it formed one of the curving internal corners of the Phase One period of Structure Ten, when the interior had a square shape with rounded corners.

2015: The two contrasting coloured, and dressed, blocks of sandstone recovered from Structure Ten. (ORCA)

Nearby, two smaller pieces of rock emerged. One was a piece of red sandstone with pecked decoration and the other a handsome piece of dressed yellow sandstone. Put them together and the red and yellow decorative effect is stunning.

The discoveries reinforced our long-held impression that Structure Ten, in its original manifestation, must have been the most wonderful piece of Neolithic architecture in Northern Europe.

Meanwhile, two more pitchstone examples turned up on site.

The first was a flake from Structure Nineteen that was accompanied by two polished pebbles and a squashed, decorated pot. 

The second flake was very large and came from a robbed out area behind the blocked up north entrance to Structure One. This piece was particularly interesting as it still had some primary pebble cortex adhering, suggesting that Arran pitchstone was being worked on site – something we now know was happening and perhaps by people visiting the Ness from south-western Scotland.

2015: Vertical shot of Trench P from Hugo’s kite. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

2017: Sarah readies herself for immersion in the Loch of Stenness. (ORCA)

2017 saw archaeological work of a very different type.

Although excavation was cut short by torrential rain, there was one of our excavators more than happy to get wet – although this involved donning a wetsuit to investigate anomalies at the bottom of the Stenness loch.

Previous survey work in the loch suggested that when construction first began on the Ness complex the loch was considerably smaller.

2017: Chris’s hammerstone from loch shore. (ORCA)

A smaller loch meant the Brodgar isthmus was much wider – at least 50 per cent greater on the Stenness side and perhaps the same on the Harray loch side.

Not only does this mean we may have submerged archaeology in the loch, but areas of now submerged rock on the western side may have provided an accessible source of building material for the constructions on the Ness.

Chris Gee, who was also assisting Sarah, by surveying from the loch side, lived up to his reputation by discovering a rather fine hammerstone sitting on the water’s edge.

In 2018, another two polished stone axes were added to that season’s growing collection.

2018: Polished stone axe from Trench T. (Jo Bourne)

2018: Polished stone axe from Trench T. (Jo Bourne)

2018: The Trench J axehead fragment in situ. (Sigurd Towrie)

2018: The Trench J axehead fragment in situ. (Sigurd Towrie)

Trench T produced a beautiful example with a wide, tapering blade that looked almost unused, while a heavier fragment – the butt end of the axe – came from Trench J.

Elsewhere in Trench T, work had slowed down to allow the careful excavation of a large antler. It was in poor condition but its discovery highlighted the importance of antler in Neolithic society.

It can be fashioned into digging picks, agricultural cultivators, handles for tools and, most importantly, soft, effective and percussion-absorbing hammers for the knapping of flint.

But is also seems to have had a role beyond the merely practical, as this deposit suggested.

2019: A section of the incised flagstone from the annexe outside Structure Twelve’s entrance. Click the image for a larger version. (Jo Bourne)

In 2019, there was some doubt that Structure Twenty-Seven, in Trench T, was as early as we had once thought it was.

August 7, 2019: Getting down to paperwork in Structure Ten. (Karen Wallis)

August 7, 2019: Getting down to paperwork in Structure Ten. (Karen Wallis)

The overall plan of the huge building was clearer but there was little chance we would reach occupation levels, and hopefully secure dating material, that season.

As a result the building remained something of an enigma. Was it an Orcadian equivalent of a Neolithic timber hall, or could it be like the structure at the base of the Howe site, in Stromness, which was excavated in the early 1980s?

The fact that it had architectural elements very similar to Structure Ten – the last building constructed on site – might mean it was not as early in the sequence as originally thought.

2019: Another view of the incised flagstone from the passage/cell outside Structure Twelve’s entrance. Click the image for a larger version. (Jo Bourne)

Site director Nick felt strongly that we may be looking at something entirely new to archaeological science – but we will have to wait until we get back on site to know for sure.

The annexe outside Structure Twelve’s eastern annexe – the so-called “Corner of Loveliness” – had stepped up a gear.

It continued to produce copious quanties of pottery and animal bone as well as cupmarked and incised stones. At the end of August 7, 2019, it revealed a huge, finely decorated slab that was absolutely covered in incisions, including the Ness “butterfly” motif.

Click here for another view.

 

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