Volunteers – the dig’s unsung heroes

Over the years, you will have read about many of the volunteers who make the eight-week excavation season happen. They dig, work on finds, run the shop, meet and greet visitors, do the banking and post the guidebooks, demonstrate their many crafts and skills at our Open Days, write small finds bags and help open and close up the site.

All are indispensable.

 Over the other ten months of the year, the work on the Ness is further progressed by a strong Orkney-based volunteer team, some of whom also work on site during July and August. You’re less exposed to all this team does and we want to introduce you to some of the members.

 Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains. As far as our volunteer cohort is concerned, their role is preparation for that analysis to get underway. For every two months of excavation at the Ness, there are at least ten months of pulling together the basics of that excavation period. Before pretty much anything can happen, data has to be pulled together, lists made and entered into databases, all sorts of records scanned and recorded, bone washed and examined, pot cleaned and photographed and much more so that the specialists who do the science, can get right to the core part of their study with all the data they need ready to go.  

In an ideal world, this preparatory work would be done by paid staff: short of a financial miracle, that’s not going to happen, so we depend on the miracle of a team who wants to be involved and gives time freely and generously to this project. We hope you enjoy reading about the team and what they do, and you recognise the value of their effort. 

 Our first volunteer project involves Peter Shackleton and Jeanne Rose photographing pottery. They work from records, created as the pottery is packed away during the excavation period, which state if a piece of pot (a sherd), is decorated or a rim or base piece, or is curved, has residues in the pot, or is noteworthy by thickness or colour, and having unpacked the pieces, photograph them, keeping meticulous records of what they’ve done.  

Sherds with any of these elements are of particular interest in the initial analysis of pot, giving information about dating, size, style, the fabric of the pot, what was kept/cooked in the pot and more. The photographs are an easily accessed record of these pieces for specialists and will also be linked into the site GIS (of which more to follow, another day).

Peter Shackleton

Peter at work in Structure Eight during the 2018 dig season. (Pic: Joanne Bourne)

My name is Peter Shackleton and I live on the Orkney Islands. I volunteer at the Ness of Brodgar excavation as an archaeologist. I take part in the excavation in the season, so that takes care of July and August, and I recently also became involved in the finds processing side of the project.

Alongside Jeanne Rose, a fellow volunteer from Stromness, I started the process of taking photographs of the pottery found at the Ness, in the winter of 2017/18. The task is mammoth in scope and scale as literally tens of thousands of pot sherds have been found at the Ness excavation.

Jeanne unwraps the pot and we decide how best to shoot the photographs. I then take the shots (one of the pot with a scale and a second with the associated small finds bag) and she then carefully re-wraps the pot and packs it back in its storage box. 

On Monday afternoons we meet alongside other volunteers at Lochside, the small house right next to the Ness site. It is important for us all to wear warm clothes as the place takes a while to heat up. Jeanne and I work standing up in fairly cramped conditions and after a time bending over the light box my back stiffens and I need to stretch to relieve the tension. Neolithic pottery is fascinating, as a survivor from 5,000 years ago, but it is rarely interesting to look at, or to photograph. The biggest challenge we face is to try to make images that are good to view as well as an effective record of the pot sherd.

Why do I volunteer and what do I get out of it I hear you ask?

I love being involved in archaeology and feel privileged to work at the most exciting excavation site on the planet (no offence to all the others). It is great to work alongside archaeology people from all over the world, both at the excavation and at Lochview. I have learned a lot from them. Excitingly, the project means that my photographs will eventually be viewed in the future as part of the record of this astounding excavation.

Few will know it, but for me that is a legacy I can leave behind and feel absurdly proud off, but don’t tell anyone as they will think I’ve gone soft!

Jeanne Rose

As well as volunteering outside the dig season, Jeanne was one of the Artists in Residence during the 2018 excavation.
As well as volunteering outside the dig season, Jeanne was one of the Artists in Residence during the 2018 excavation. (Pic: Joanne Bourne)

I am a retired primary school teacher from Long Island, New York, and have been volunteering at, and for, the Ness since the summer of 2011.  While on a teaching exchange to Paisley, Scotland, in 1984, I first visited Orkney. I have since discovered that Colin Richards was just beginning his work at the Barnhouse Settlement at that time, so something must have been in the atmosphere that was waking up the archaeology! 

By the time I started returning to Orkney for summer visits in 2004, much had happened and I was lucky enough to see the beginning excavation work at the Ness as a tourist. Little did I know that I would take early retirement in 2010 and end up living in Orkney full time!

When I was first trowelling (sorry but my back said that lasted only four hours) in 2011, the numbers for the small finds were in the thousands.  Thanks to my bad back, I got promoted to the small finds area. That meant mucky work in a dark shipping container and having to reuse supplies because of limited funds.  Subsequent summers found me on site for major discoveries like cushion stones, cloud axes, and carved stone balls.  Direct involvement also meant starting to help put some colour and variety helping with dig shop and the wonderful Annabel and Jim Middlemas. Life here year round, also meant I could help out in the winter months and watch the small finds numbers increase to 10,000!

I have helped, sort, wrap, number, count, sift, wash, dry, bag, box, and label probably thousands of bones, stones, and pot sherds. 

Often, I think, “you couldn’t pay me to do this!” and I love every minute of it just because of that.  I have worked beside experts, helped sort out problems, discovered designs not noticed before my eyes saw, and made new friends from around the world.  I am constantly amazed that I am standing where some yet mysterious way of life took place with, shapes, marks, objects and buildings that have no known name or use.

The standing stones and the wind, land and sky are the shapes that ignited my artistic inspiration and I have been painting Orkney scenes since that first 1984 visit.  Now my paintings incorporate more of the land, the stones and the marks being uncovered yearly.  They are informed by the lectures I attend and the work I do while volunteering.

This winter, I am working again with Peter Shackleton on the photography of the pottery.  My gift wrapping skills are improving as I un and re-wrap the pieces for Peter to photograph.  It is cool (i.e. cold) in Lochview, but there is coffee and the thrill of being beside the sleeping excavation.  I am thrilled to be part of history in the making and to be close to the real objects that inspire my artwork. 

You really couldn’t pay me to do this.  I just love to do it all!