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Old Crocks and Lithics

John Chesters


Last year's Minehowe excavations yielded over 2,000 registered collections. These consisted mainly of pottery fragments and stone artefacts ranging from a single flint chip to polybags containing 70 or more pottery sherds. They seemed to have only one thing in common, a coating of earth which needed to be removed before detailed investigation of them.

As a consequence, most Thursday afternoons last autumn and winter a small group of people could be seen arriving at the old Orphir school clutching an apron and a toothbrush. These were not evidence for a new secret society but were Anne Brundle's "pot washers". Six of us then spent about two hours in a complicated pirouette within the confines of the old school room carrying boxes of crocks, basins of muddy water and trays of cleaned sherds under the direction of Anne as mistress of the dance. Throughout Daphne managed to remain free of the worst of the mayhem documenting "her" bones in the far corner of the room.

Each box of pot sherds had to be fetched from the store and their polybags removed one at a time. Care had to be taken that each pot sherd removed from a bag remained associated with that labelled bag until the clean dry sherd was returned to its bag and the bag to its box.

The sherds were cleaned by gentle scrubbing with a wetted toothbrush, preferably not that currently kept in your bathroom.

Dunking the pot sherd in the basin of water was a criminal offence, the aim being to remove the mud without soaking the pot.

Once free of mud, the sherds were laid out in trays on absorbent paper and left to dry until the following week. They were then rebagged and return to the store for subsequent perusal by experts.

The pottery varied greatly from heavy, coarse material to much smaller quantities of lighter, fine material with a smooth finish. The latter should not be confused with the occasional fragment of glazed and colour decorated Victorian crockery, presumably the relic of a picnic which went wrong.

One began to wonder who got the blame for all the breakage both ancient and relatively modern!

Our enjoyment of the pot washing exercise was heightened from time to time by the "discovery" of fragments clearly showing the rim or base of a pot as opposed to the usual, less distinctive curved fragments.

Bedrock and Beach Pebbles

As the supply of untreated pot sherds slowly dried up, attention turned to the "lithics". These I understand to include any stone item emerging from the excavations which might have been subject to human intervention.

In some cases, the evidence for these lumps of rock having functioned as tools or ornaments seemed at least questionable. In other cases, what looked at first sight like a beach pebble was revealed, once cleaned, to have obviously been used as a grinder or pestle. Others appeared to be whet stones while some round discs had clearly been fashioned by man and were described as pot lids.

Each of these items required cleaning with our faithful tooth brushes. Unfortunately, for reasons I never fully fathomed this process was carried out in the dry. The resultant "stoor" was quite impressive and all-pervading.


Picture 3

I look back on these activities with a certain sense of achievement and also with a range of pleasant memories.

There was the scramble to clear one of the tables of ancient pots to make room for the modern ones of a mid- session coffee break. There were the stories of life's eccentricities during these breaks and a general sense of camaraderie.

However, possibly the best moment was to see the expressions on the faces of the inspector from the National Museums Service and on that of the OIC Heritage Officer when they came to look at the status of the Museum's store and opened the door to find Brundle's elves at work in their cave.

Pot or Rock?

Marian Chesters


When FOAT asked for volunteers to work at the Minehowe Dig in September 2002 it seemed a good opportunity to help out and at the same time learn a little about Field Archaeology.

Pot or rock, or crucible?

The first day was spent removing the earth infill from the site dug in 2000. Late in the afternoon the covering polythene sheet was removed to reveal what, to my untutored eye, looked like the occasional structure amidst a jumble of earth and stones.

One of the great pleasures of being on the dig was watching this jumble being resolved into recognizable buildings and paved areas as excavation progressed. After a day spent shoveling and barrowing earth I began to have my suspicions about why the professional archaeologists all looked so fit - and it was not just the generation gap.

Next day the real excavation work began. The Site Supervisor had shown me some basic trowelling techniques the day before and said that I could do a little digging so I came prepared with my own little trowel, thick foam kneeling pad and large packet of sticking plasters.

Sandwiched between Nick and Ann I began tentatively to scrape away a thin layer from the surface. My main problem was telling apart pot shards from fragments of rock. Anxious not to throw away something important, I had to constantly ask the nearest expert "pot or rock"? With time the replies progressed from rock, rock, rock, pot, rock, rock,.. to pot, pot, rock, pot, hmm. Could this be a performance indicator?

Watching a TV program such as Time Team gives little impression of the meticulous way in which a modern excavation is carried out.

Every physical context in the site is described sampled and mapped and the position of every find within that context is accurately plotted in three dimensions, bagged and labeled. The finds are cleaned and then stored for examination later.

At strategic stages all loose material is cleaned from the surface being excavated so that it can be for photographed and drawn This requires good organization, team work and leadership all of which were very evident at Minehowe.

I spent most of the next week helping to excavate near the SE edge of the site. Gradually a paved area was revealed as shown on the right in the photograph. These paving stones were very thick and extremely heavy. When these stones were removed a lower paving of much thinner stones was revealed similar to the "brig stones" used as paths around many Orkney houses until recent times.

Minehowe excavation

On the left of the photograph Mary is drawing a plan of the area within the square planning grid.

During the latter stages of the Dig, I was working at removing the upper layers from the interior of the 'house'. This was mostly loose shale-like material with some small pot shards, slag and the occasional bone.

I was scraping away at an area just by the SW wall when my trowel struck something hard and relatively big. It was the two shards of pot shown opposite. Even I did not need to ask!

Most of the base and enough of the sides and rim have survived to make it possible to imagine what the complete pot looked like.

It will be very interesting to hear what the experts have to say about its function and origin.

All the professional archaeologists were very friendly and helpful. I would like to thank both them and OAT for making possible an extremely enjoyable and educational three weeks.

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