Dig Diary – Monday, August 15, 2016

Day Thirty-One

Neil Oliver chats with Nick about developments since his last visit.

Neil Oliver chats with Nick about developments since his last visit.

Reusing a stone circle?

Chris Packham in conversation with Nick about the art in the south entrance to Structure One.

Chris Packham in conversation with Nick about the art in the south entrance to Structure One.

We are worried about the BBC. The team filming the Ness excavations arrived in force this morning and followed Nick around, bombarding him with questions. By midday they had finished, packed up and departed . . . for Swona.

For those unfamiliar with Swona, it is a tiny island, off the coast of South Ronaldsay, and is inhabited by a herd of feral cattle. Yes, feral.

Left undisturbed for many years they have reverted to uninhibited cattle behaviour and are led by a bull of dubious reputation.

The team are spending the night on the island and we hope they are undisturbed, indeed unscathed, if for no other reason than they need to finish filming the Ness. We will let you (and next-of-kin) know tomorrow.

Meanwhile, in Structure Ten, one of the enduring mysteries of this mysterious building has been resolved. It centred on the large area in the north-west corner which has been called the paint workshop. Is it a primary feature of the structure or is it secondary?

Jenny has been working to define a large slab at the base of the area and she has now discovered that it runs under a later pier, thereby confirming that the area does indeed derive from the primary use of the structure.

Sarah and her team reveal more of the secrets of Structure Ten.

Sarah and her team reveal more of the secrets of Structure Ten.

Just a couple of metres away, “Sam the Second” discovered a badly decayed piece of wood, and Sarah followed it up later with an even more decayed wood specimen. After thousands of years in the ground they are not likely to be fit for conservation, but they may well be species identifiable by our expert, Dr Scott Timpany.

The most amazing event of the day came from, yet again, Trench T.

Once suspected of being a sort of Gulag for the naughty, it has consistently been one of the most interesting areas of the whole site.

Tobias and Sophie point out the ends of a mega-orthostat in Trench T. A re-used standing stone?

Tobias and Sophie point out the ends of a mega-orthostat in Trench T. A re-used standing stone?

Last week we told you of an orthostat there which just grew and grew. Now we have another.

What was originally interpreted as a series of orthostats in a line has turned out to be just one enormous stone. Deeply embedded, it can now be seen to be more than four metres in length!

What does it signify?

Well, it doesn’t seem to define a side cell of a building and it doesn’t seem to be a threshold stone, despite having a rounded edge.

The best guess at the moment is that it has been reused from somewhere else and, with a stone of that magnitude, the best bet would be from a stone circle.

If this is so, the stone circle must pre-date the chambered tomb (if that is what it is), and, if so, the chambered tomb must pre-date the midden mound which encloses it. And if all that is correct the dating sequence for these structures becomes mind-boggling.

As does the size of the structure.

With stones of that size, the building must be 9.5 metres wide, which is bigger even than the central chamber of Structure Ten. It will also be necessary to think again about what has been identified as floor deposits, for they may be part of a collapsed roof structure from a building of truly monumental proportions.

These questions, and many more, will not be resolved this year.

The task now is to try and understand what has been uncovered and to think long and hard about how to approach this remarkable structure next year.

You won’t have to wait that long for more news from the Ness as we’ll all be back tomorrow.

From the Trenches

Today's blogger Jasper, working with Anne, to reveal more of the wall of Structure Twenty-Six to the south of Structure Ten.

Today’s blogger Jasper, working with Anne, to reveal more of the wall of Structure Twenty-Six to the south of Structure Ten.

Greetings. My name is Jasper McMurtry and I am from Sonoma State University, in California, just north of San Francisco.

So my first season at the Ness slowly winds down. It does not seem so long ago that I was helping pull off tyres and tarpaulins to witness this remarkable series of structures for the first time. There are only two weeks left.

Being from the United States, a site of the expanse, magnitude, and sheer heft such as the Ness is one I always dreamed about seeing – never mind having the chance to excavate.

I became interested in archaeology because of learning about sites such as Skara Brae and Maeshowe, and wondering what could be known about peoples of those times, and how they lived. So my academic career was born or simple curiosity and a sense of wonder.

I have done other things in my life besides archaeology, including working in the home-building trade States-side. There is an old adage in the building trade when repairing a rotting wall: be careful how far you dig, because you may not stop finding things in need of repair. Or put another way, it is not a question of where the damage ends but where one choses to stop digging.

In archaeology, by contrast, the more one digs sometimes the better it becomes! The Ness continues to slowly divulge its secrets.

The last few days, along with Anne and Colin, I have been removing the sediment on the south end of Structure Ten, where it and Structure Eight may have a confluence.

A prior year’s trench revealed what appears to be another section of wall (Structure Twenty-Six) that runs in close proximity to those other two. Under the watchful eye of Claire, we are slowly removing the baulk that may reveal the relationship between the two structures – and possibly, indicate another structure entirely.

Even above the probable surface of any so contained wall, the soil abounds with interesting finds.

Just today I found a number of chert flakes . . . or I must say flint; as an interesting aside, I just today learned that they have wholly different meanings on each side of the pond!

Three were a beautiful orange colour and another of a grey-green, and all showing a significant reduction sequence – multiple flakes had been taken off the flint core before this particular piece had been removed.  An observer needs to examine those sorts of things quite closely because some simple flakes are not just debris but may in fact be tools unto themselves.

On Friday, I found a flint flake that seemed to fit marvellously between one’s thumb, index, and middle finger, as one might hold a key, with a flat surface on one rim where the index finger would rest. Along the opposite, sharp, edge, were what appeared to be tiny nicks taken out of the material, as if it might have been either used for the purposes of cutting or been subjected to precision flaking to make it more suitable for that purpose – in either case, it could have been a very small but useful cutting implement.

Friday also delivered an absolutely beautiful piece of pink quartzite, oval shaped and fairly flat, probably a beach-pebble. It again fitted marvellously into the hand and was marked distinctively on both ends where it had been subjected to bludgeoning action. One face was extraordinarily smooth, either from repetitive use-wear as a grinding stone or intentionally from polish.

The stone seems remarkable to have just had utilitarian purposes; the modern eye may be jaded by the colour, glitz, and grandeur of our own baubles and trinkets, but one must remember that in the Neolithic the world had far fewer things that sparkled and shone.

The paints we now know these peoples used, the embellishments on the stones in the structures we are slowly revealing, the select use of interesting coloured stones – these would have all created something that was, on the whole, probably distinctly special experience for the people of that time – something that might be analogous to the experience of a medieval peasant coming in from the mud of the fields to stand in a cathedral, or for the modern person the entering into a structure such as Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.

Was this pebble an object kept for mundane purposes, but valued for its aesthetic merit by one person? Even as that person used it for bashing or grinding? Or was it something intentionally modified to enhance certain of its characteristics and hence embellish the place where it was kept?

The fun and challenge of archaeology is not guessing these things but seeing if we can puzzle out, from the available evidence, the answer to any of these questions. All I know for the moment is that it was found in a dump of midden soil that may overly a wall or perhaps a new structure.

What is it? We don’t know yet! That’s the fun and the mystery! Archaeology is a lot of straight hard work, diligence, attention to detail, but sometimes one finds something that fires the imagination.