Threshold disappointment and a new rock art design revealed

Diary – Friday, July 17, 2020
Day Ten

2012: Trench P looking resplendent in the early morning light. (ORCA)

It was day two on this day in 2012 and although the uncovering process had gone remarkably quickly, site housework – cleaning, tidying and weeding – remained the order of the day. So, we’re going to jump ahead a few days to Thursday, July 19, 2012, when excavation was back in full swing.

2012: The first of the season’s visitors watched the cleaning in Structure Ten. (ORCA)

In Structure Twelve, there were two tasks under way – defining the robber cut that saw much of the building’s east wall removed in prehistory and removing the rubble and infill from the interior.

At the opposite side of Trench P had been extended and more of Structure Fourteen was being revealed, including another stone pier that meant there was another side recess.

Structure Ten had been completely cleaned ready for a highly detailed photography session. The site photographic record is a vital part of the archive and plays a crucial role in post-excavation analysis and reporting. So, naturally, you want your subject looking its best.

2012: Dave and Lynda prepare one of the hearths in Structure Eight for archaeomagnetic sampling. (ORCA)

Meanwhile, in Structures One and Eight, hearths revealed towards the end of 2011 were being prepared for archaeomagnetic dating samples.

Archaeomagnetic dating uses known alterations in the earth’s magnetic field over time  compared with the fixed orientation in burnt samples to estimate dates. This, in conjunction with radiocarbon dates, provides indications of the length of use of each of the hearths – and hence helps date the buildings themselves.

2013: The peck marked decoration in Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

The rain and wind on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, were almost forgotten about after a new rock art design was added to the Ness’s portfolio of Neolithic art.

2013: Dr Antonia Thomas carefully reveals the decorated stone in Structure Twelve. (ORCA)

The pecked decoration was spotted in Structure Twelve, partially obscured by floor deposits and wall collapse. As the rain grew heavier, it was decided to fully uncover the stone, revealing not one design, as anticipated, but two — one a ring formed by pecking and the other an “incomplete” double spiral.

Apart from a cup-and-ring stone from Structure Ten, at the time this was the only example of curvilinear art from the Ness in an assemblage that already contained over 400 geometric linear designs. Other examples of this motif – the “horned spiral” – have since been found across the site.

The pace was beginning to pick up on July 17, 2014 – the fourth day back on site.

In Structure Fourteen, work continued on the interior, removing secondary (later) paving and encountering earlier floors underneath. Cleaning continued in Structure One and in the Central Midden Area (the area between Structures One, Eight, Ten and Twelve, so called because it was still full of midden) work progressed to remove the remaining baulks of midden.

2014: The baulks are removed in the central midden area to the south of Structure One. (ORCA)

2014: The baulks are removed in the central midden area to the south of Structure One. (ORCA)

Structure One’s floor surface was still being cleaned and in the central midden area (CMA) work is progressing quickly to remove the baulks.

2018: Trench Y, lifting a whale bone. (Karen Wallis)

2018: Trench Y, lifting a whale bone. (Karen Wallis)

Outside Structure Twelve, the trench was extending slightly while inside the building work continued moving down to the floor deposits and removing later paving and mini wall lines.

Among the many finds of the day was a fired clay ball – an artefact type found previously – and numerous pottery sherds.

We mentioned yesterday that work on Friday, July 17, 2015, had been called off due to the forecast. Well, the forecast was correct and excavation work was impossible.

To make up for the lack of news, the diary featured some aerial photographs of the key structures – one of which is reproduced below. To see the rest, click here.

2015: Structure Twelve from the air. (Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

2016: The quernstone fragment from Structure Fourteen. (ORCA)

Our look at 2016 leaps ahead to July 19 (July 17, was a Sunday) and begins in Structure Fourteen.

There, a block of stone, which appeared to have been placed as a seat beside the hearth, was moved and turned out to be a quernstone fragment. In 2016, this discovery brought the total of quernstones found to three.

In Trench T, the curse of the “pointless pits” was slowing down excavation work. Until it could be completed (something that took much longer than the diggers in 2016 probably expected) work on removing the affected edge of the midden mound which was obscuring features just visible beneath the surface.

Monday, July 17, 2017, saw Trench X extended slightly to see whether the post-holes encountered continued in a curve and possibly outlined a circular structure. This was the the reason the trench was substantially extended in 2019. It remains unclear, however, whether the postholes represented buildings, fences or pens.

2017: Excavation under way in Trench T. As you can probably guess from the clothing, it was a horrendous day. (ORCA)

In Trench T more evidence of the scale of Structure Twenty-Seven was beginning to come to light.

An incised stone featuring the ‘butterfly’ motif found in August 2013. (ORCA)

Almost exactly as happened on the opposite side in 2017, a void appeared at the side of the tench that seemed to be where one of Structure Twenty-Seven’s orthostats had been removed during an episode of stone robbing.

Inside the void, it was just possible to feel was was hoped might be another of the massive prone orthostats that supported the stone slabs that clad the interior of this extraordinary building.

The wall inserted across Structure One at the start of its second phase of use was coming down slowly and carefully. And exactly as predicted, revealed another decorated stone – the  incised “butterfly” motif commonly found across the site.

The incised stone from the exterior of Structure Twenty-Six today.

2018: The incised stone from the exterior of Structure Twenty-Six. (Jo Bourne)

Looking towards Structure Five from the bottom of Trench J.

Looking towards Structure Five from the bottom of Trench J.

The decorated stone just kept coming in 2018, with another example found outside Structure Twenty-Six on this day two years ago. The stone, pictured above, also featured carefully finished and polished edges.

While the intricacies of Structure Five’s phasing were pondered in Trench J, the area produced yet another polished stone axe and some fine ceramics.

Meanwhile, Trench T was the site of an intriguing pottery deposit. In a shallow scoop at the top of the trench was a line of pottery sherds glittering brightly with pieces of burnt stone.

It seem the pot was thrown into the shallow pit with bright, glittering pieces of stone scattered on and around it. We say “around” because one large sherd in the middle is devoid of the glittery stone, suggesting a circular scattering.

It was, as we exclaimed on the day, a most unusual find.


We’ll finish this week’s excavation reflections with the operation to lift Structure Ten’s huge threshold stone on Wednesday, July 17, 2017.

For years it had been the subject of much debate and speculation. It was a threshold stone; it was in a crucial position associated with the initial build. There had to be something interesting underneath.

There wasn’t.

2019: The raising of the Structure Ten threshold stone. (Jo Bourne)

Fortunately, Structure Twelve was more accommodating and investigation of the rubble blocking the eastern entrance revealed a spread of cattle bone. This was the first of many deposits found as work progressed on an annexe constructed outside the building that proved to be most intriguing indeed.


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