‘The most incredible piece of Neolithic decoration found on site’

2013: The first decorated face of the Structure Ten stone. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
2013: The first decorated face of the Structure Ten stone. (📷 Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

Dig Diary – Friday, July 31, 2020
Day Twenty

2013: The huge decorated stone from under Structure Ten's south-western buttress. (ORCA)
2013: The huge decorated stone from Structure Ten’s south-western buttress in situ. (📷 ORCA)

Seven years ago today was a day to remember.

It was the day that the most incredible piece of Neolithic decoration found on site to date emerged from the interior of Structure Ten.

The massive – truly massive – triangular block of stone was heavily incised on two of its faces and one of two decorated stones discovered at the base of the building’s later south-west corner buttress.

Regular readers will recall that Structure Ten’s buttresses were home to a number of special deposits – including our carved stone ball, a human arm bone and a bone from the wing of a sea eagle.

2013: The second decorated face. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
2013: The second decorated face. (📷 Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
2013: Decorated Face 1. (Sigurd Towrie)
2013: Decorated Face 1. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
2013: Decorated Face 2. (Sigurd Towrie)
2013: Decorated Face 2. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
2013: The second incised stone recovered from beneath Structure Ten's south-western buttress. (ORCA)
2013: The second incised stone recovered from beneath Structure Ten’s south-western buttress. (ORCA)
2013: The recovered stone outside Structure Ten. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)
2013: The recovered stone outside Structure Ten. (📷 Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

The stone’s interconnecting triangles motif was similar to a slab discovered at Skara Brae in the 1970s and a lightly inscribed stone in Maeshowe, but this example was much finer and more complex.

Many of the triangles were filled with cross-hatching and other designs and the stone also featured a finely incised chevron design and small cup marks.

After careful recording in situ, the stone was moved to safety – a task that, given its size – took several pairs of hands to accomplish.

But this wasn’t the only decorated stone found in the area. The first, though nowhere near as grand, featured a heavily incised example of chevron bands – a design common across the site, particularly in Structure Eight.

2013: Dave with the spatula tool head from Structure Eight. (📷 ORCA)

Other finds of the day included more coloured pottery from Structure Twelve, a sherd of finely decorated pottery from Structure Ten, featuring a motif that was common at the nearby Barnhouse settlement, and a fragment of a stone spatulate tool from Structure Eight.

In 2014, it was the Iron Age that was producing finds – in this case human remains.

It had been suggested the day before that the parallel walls in Trench T might represent Iron Age remodelling of the midden mound. Then, on Thursday, July 31, 2014, the area produced two human teeth, a human toe bone and two sherds of Iron Age pottery.

July 31, 2017: View of Hoy with low cloud below the peaks. (Karen Wallis)
July 31, 2017: View of Hoy with low cloud below the peaks. (📷 Karen Wallis)

At the time it was wondered whether the remains may represent a burial of some sort – but alas, no. How the single bone and teeth ended up in the trench remains a mystery.

Outside Structure Ten, the SmartFauna project investigating and documenting the animal bone filling the outer passageway was progressing well.

But it was remains elsewhere that project leader Dr Ingrid Mainland was called on to investigate on this day.

The entrance to Structure Ten had been deliberately filled in after the structure went out of use. In among the infill material were cattle bones, including  a of group of phalanges and more tibia – perhaps mirroring the huge number of tibia found in the surrounding passageway – as well as vole bones and the shells of land snails.

It was difficult to tell, however, whether the voles and snails were a natural intrusion or a deliberate deposition.

2014: Jan, Claire and Mark removing the last of the deliberate infill from the entrance to Structure Ten. (ORCA)
2014: Jan, Claire and Mark removing the last of the deliberate infill from the entrance to Structure Ten. (📷 ORCA)

July 31 saw the first open day of the 2016 season and, despite the appalling weather, over 1,000 people flocked to the site.

2016: The marquee for the Ola Gorie jewellery launch at our open day also provided a welcome refuge from the inclement weather. (📷 ORCA)

After a weekend of intense archaeological discussion, the site was positively teeming with specialists on Monday, July 31, 2017.

2017: The Trench T teardrop decorated sherd just after recovery, awaiting cleaning and conservation. (📷 ORCA)

Site director Nick had gathered 25 of them together, including visiting specialists from other parts of Britain, to plan what would be needed in the way of post-excavation of the vast Ness assemblages of artefacts and material. They also provided us with insights into their latest work and new archaeological and scientific techniques.

One of the new techniques outlined that would benefit the Ness was dating pottery from lipids – the fats from the material, or foodstuff, cooked or stored in pots that are often absorbed into the clay walls.

2017: Structure Twenty-Six’s unusually decorated sherd with right-angle applied cordons. (📷 ORCA)

A high proportion of the Ness pottery had already be shown to be rich in lipids so the news that they could be extracted and analysed was particularly welcome.

The Ness’s assemblage stands at over 80,000 sherds of pottery, including two intriguing examples discovered on this day three years ago.

The first came from Trench T and had an extraordinary exterior decoration featuring tear-drop clay pellets, applied in what appeared to be alternate rows. The find sent the ceramics experts scurrying off to consult their records at it was like nothing they could recall from other Scottish Neolithic sites.

The second was found in the midden filling Structure Twenty-Six – a sherd which had plain cordons applied to the exterior of the vessel, but at right angles to each other. That was another first for the Ness.

2018: The pot base from Structure Twenty-Six with the imprint of the basketry mat used in its creation. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

We stay with pottery for 2018, and the news that a long-yearned for wish had been granted.

The pot base from Structure One brings the Ness's total to three.
2018: A basket-impressed pot base from Structure One found later in the year brought the Ness’s total to three. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Despite the huge quantities of ceramics found on site, there had never been a pot base with the impression of basketry on its surface – although examples had been found at both the Barnhouse and Rinyo Neolithic settlements in Orkney.

So it was a source of great delight when one turned up in the midden between Structures Twenty-Six and Twelve (and another two have since been found).

Why was this so important?

It tells us two things. Firstly, that the people of the Ness were creating and using baskets. And secondly, that the pot must have been  placed on a basketry mat before firing. Because our sherd had applied decoration on its exterior, this may have been done in order to turn the pot more easily for the application of the decoration.

Alternatively, the vessel, which is on the large side, may have been a touch wobbly, in which case it may have been put into a basket in order to stop it collapsing.

Meanwhile, Structure Eight continued producing artefacts – on this day more polished stone spatulate tools. But it wasn’t just one that saw the light of day but four!

These had become a specialty of the structure, with several beautiful examples were recovered in past seasons, apparently forming part of a Neolithic “toolkit” which also included other stone tools and a large flint knife.

Their purpose is completely unknown but, as we now have some worn examples to study, the application of use-wear analysis may shed light on this difficult question.

2019: Ceridwen painstakingly excavation a huge spread of broken pottery at the top of Trench X. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

To conclude today’s round-up, and indeed the end of week three, we return to the Structure Ten “paintshop”, first discovered in 2011.

In 2019, a dark red “blob” was noted in the north-western interior of Structure Ten – the area where we know pigment had been worked to produce colour for the walls of structures and pottery.

Using his portable XRF equipment, Professor Scott Pike, from Willamette University, confirmed the presence of a range of elements and metals in the “blob”, including calcium, manganese, zinc, strontium and zircon.

These are most likely further evidence for the production, and possibly use, of natural colouring pigment in Structure Ten.

Over in Trench X, which had been re-opened and extended in 2019, a spread of pottery had emerged that had to be seen to be believed.

It contained several huge pottery sherds and many smaller sherds and fragments. Click here for more images.

Trench P and Trench X.
2019: Trench P and Trench X from above. Click the image for a larger version. (📷 Scott Pike)

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