Smerquoy/Muckquoy excavation diary — Entry Four

May 16, 17 and 18 — Georgie Ritchie

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Local volunteers Anne, Billy, Robbie and Chris at Smerquoy. Note the coursed inside faces of the house walls and part of the hearth setting.

It is perhaps inevitable that reports on weather conditions tend to feature quite heavily within Orcadian archaeological blogs, but with little shelter beyond the spoil heaps, we are certainly at the mercy of the elements when digging at Smerquoy.

On Friday, May 17th, an icy wind swept through the site, biting at exposed flesh and leaving neighbouring sheep huddling for warmth.

Our team of hardy volunteers was slightly lower in numbers today, so we used this opportunity to carefully record exposed features through planning and section drawing; pencils and planning-frames largely replacing trowels and hand shovels as the weapons of choice being utilised on site.

In addition to visits from some interested friends-in-high-places from RCAHMS and Historic Scotland, we were today once again joined by our incredibly hospitable host/landowner Billy Sinclair, whose boundless interest and enthusiasm are infectious.

Smerquoy looking East. Note the rubble and possible building remains in foreground, on the West side of the house.

Smerquoy looking East. Note the rubble and possible building remains in foreground, on the West side of the house.

It is a real privilege to work on this exceptional site alongside someone who knows the land so intimately, and particularly as he himself gets the opportunity to see it in a whole new light.

Billy’s newly found trowelling talents are surely testimony to the fact that it’s never too late to take up archaeology, and it’s great to have him as part of our small but diverse team.

With the first week drawing to a close and a range of interesting finds and features under our belts, it is remarkable to think that all that has been exposed remained silent and hidden just a week ago. Over the week we have found several flaked stone tools, hammer stones, various flint scrapers and pot fragments not to mention the lovely fragment of polished mace.

On the western side of the house it now looks as if we may have the remains of another building as there is a spread of rubble, possible collapsed walling, a substantial upright flagstone and a bit of a wall face emerging.

Given the similarities in footprint size, shape and internal furnishings of the Smerquoy house to the larger of the two structures at the Knap of Howar it is suspected that we may also have two buildings separated by a very narrow close.

Alan has excavated two orthostat slots in the house that would have divided the internal space into two main compartments just at the points where the long walls pinch inwards. The hearth setting has also emerged in the southern area of the house.

Who knows what intriguing stories will be revealed over the following week, and what treasures may be uncovered by the team with the support of Joyce and her lucky trowel!

Mary Saunders has been a great asset to the excavation and shares some of her thoughts with us here:

Colin with planning board and Mary troweling and removing the bulk that had been left to observe and record the section through the deposits in the house.

Colin with planning board and Mary troweling and removing the bulk that had been left to observe and record the section through the deposits in the house.

Last weekend, I was roused from my bed by a phone call from Chris asking extremely politely if I would be so kind as to come and assist him in putting in a site grid at Smerquoy. When I got to site I was amazed to see the footprint of an early Neolithic house emerging from the soil on only day two.

This weekend, I volunteered to give Colin and Chris a hand on site and before I knew it was setting up the total station and shooting in small finds! Later, however, I was put to work helping to remove the baulk which had been left across the middle of the house.

It is a few years since I worked as a professional digger, but it all came flooding back! While working I removed a hammerstone which had been tantalising everyone from the side of the baulk and another stone tool which looked quite weathered and which seemed to be flaked and shaped at one end. It also became apparent that there was a small wall pier just where the baulk had been and immediately next to the drain already discovered.

Also on site today was my friend and ex-colleague Seren Griffiths, who is a specialist in archaeological dating. She was taking samples from deposits with a view to obtaining radiocarbon dates from them.

This process uses the half life of the radioactive isotope Carbon-14 to date organic material such as grain or charcoal. Working with her was Kenneth, who had never been on an archaeological site before but who was really keen to get involved and had volunteered his services on his day off from work.

Trench at Muckquoy, Redland, pre-excavation shot showing various features in the soil, possibly representing an enclosing ditch and bank.

Trench at Muckquoy, Redland, Firth — a pre-excavation shot showing various features in the soil, possibly representing an enclosing ditch and bank.

After a fine lunch, which included the Norwegian delicacy of kransekake (because it was Norwegian Constitution Day yesterday), I headed over to the second site at Redland, in Firth, with Kenneth.

The site had shown up remarkably well in the geophysical survey undertaken by James and Chris but when a trench was opened across it on Thursday, we were all very surprised at what we saw.

Because of the clarity, spatial form and strength of the anomalies in the results, we were fully expecting a substantial wall, perhaps with material abutting it, enclosing a complex series of stone structures.

Seren and Kenneth excavating burnt material from one of several small pits in a secondary surface in the south end of the house for dating.

Seren and Kenneth excavating burnt material from one of several small pits in a secondary surface in the south end of the house for dating.

What we found was a large ditch, some material which could represent a bank, a deposit containing small pieces of burnt bone and flint and various other “negative” features and layers but, crucially, no stone features at all.

As an archaeological geophysicist, this really intrigues me and I am keen to further investigate what is going on! Before any archaeological investigations start, I wanted to take some soil samples from across the trench so I could make laboratory measurement of magnetic susceptibility to try and begin to understand what the fluxgate gradiometer survey actually means . . .

Back at Smerquoy, later in the afternoon, it was great to see that Billy the farmer was out again, along with teenagers Chris Leask and Robbie Cant who were first introduced to archaeology (and incidentally to Smerquoy) by Ms Mackay at Glaitness.

After shooting in even more small finds, it was time to pack up and head home, after another successful and rewarding day for the excavation team.   Picture 1: Trench at Muckquoy, Redland, pre-excavation shot showing various features in the soil, possibly representing an enclosing ditch and bank.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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