Touching our ancestors – the Ness and the SPOTtimespotTIME artwork

By Elaine Robinson

Ness excavation director Nick Card makes his mark.

Ness excavation director Nick Card makes his mark.

Having had a lifelong interest in archaeology, imagine my excitement from the point of view as an artist who has been collecting fingerprints since 2015, when my attention was drawn to an article in April 2021 detailing the discovery of a 5,000-year-old fingerprint at the Ness of Brodgar.

I immediately contacted Nick Card, the excavation director, and was over the moon when he accepted my request to visit this remarkable dig site, meet the team, and see where this precious ancient fingerprint was actually discovered.

We arrived at the site on July 13, where myself and research anthropologist Anna King were warmly greeted by Nick Card, Anne Mitchell (finds supervisor) and all the team. As we invited the team to add their fingerprints to the collective art work, Nick informed us that four fingerprints had now been found. Unlike the cohort of archaeologists Anna and I found ourselves amongst that day, we simply weren’t used to finding or touching time in this way.

Nick allowed us to view the fingerprint and we documented the moment by taking photos of the small piece of pottery sat on the conservation panel.

Having the opportunity to document the work that these dedicated excavators are doing, is a huge honour. Anna and I witnessed a team, including the site dog Tam, go about their daily tasks and responsibilities and also kindly take the time to add their fingerprints alongside a collective artwork unifying all life.

The Ness team’s fingerprints and illustrations for the SPOTTimespotTIME artwork.

The SPOTtimespotTIME installation is being created by asking for a fingerprint to document our relationship to each other and all life on earth. The idea to create a giant collective fingerprint came to me when I visited the Rubens exhibition at the Royal Academy in February 2015.

Walking around this spectacular exhibition, there was a moment when I spotted a fingerprint. Time, opinion and only prints are often what can separate us, however paradoxically it is what unites us all when it matters.

As I enthusiastically visit Parliament buildings, theatres, XR rebellion meets, and walk across cities meeting a diverse public, and also policy makes, conservationists, artists, leaders of state, celebrities and presenters. In Orkney, in this single moment, I was granted the opportunity to meet and touch an ancestor to us all, and also have their representation on the artwork.

Structure Twelve supervisor Jim Rylatt.

Structure Twelve supervisor Jim Rylatt.

Neolithic people were the first to farm and also domesticate animals. At a time in our own history when we are re-evaluating our own relationship with animals, the world balance, and the way we farm and use the land, the dig at the Ness of Brodgar will provide information of people working alongside each other and also celebrating our unified spiritual evolution even in death: After all, we are evidently one species and so much closer to all life forms that we are often lead to believe.

A circle was drawn at the Ness for the team to add their fingerprints to the artwork and also act as an inclusion in the final exhibition of SPOTtimespotTIME.

As Nick placed his fingerprint he said: “I’m very honoured to be asked to do this, especially after the discovery of the 5,000-year-old fingerprints.  I’m sure everybody here will want to add their fingerprint to this.”

Some of the team chose to make decorative designs with their fingerprints or leave a symbolic drawing.

Jenna adds her fingerprints.

Professor Mark Edmonds fingerprinted a gold flower. Jan Blatchford (who found the first fingerprint at the Ness) drew an eye. Jenna Ward left a small Puffin made with her fingerprints. Sinead Marshall drew a butterfly marking adding: “A Butterfly marking like the diggers found on the pots  peeling back the layers of prehistory”. Cecily Webster painted a beautiful bird and Claire Ryan, made an Ogham marking.

SPOTtimespotTIME is inclusive and for everyone who wants to take part for all walks of life. It’s also about embracing our interconnections; we are always stronger working together. I would love to hear from you and add your fingerprint to the artwork – a time capsule for now and all future generations of life on earth.

Five-thousand years ago a man creatively made a pot and through the echo chambers of time, we were all at the Ness of Brodgar unified by touching time. The four fingerprints found at the Ness of Brodgar so far will be the first of many that will be unearthed at the site. What wonderful symbolism that even in death fingerprints can touch and inform the present about an ancient farming culture.

Also, these fingerprints are all our ancestors and unifies us all across all cultures and boundaries.

My sincere thanks to you all.

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