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Thursday, August 6, 2009
(Previous entries available here)

This is the day the Lord hath made… shining like Eden...

Another in a series of beautiful days here on the Ness of Brodgar. Bright sun, a few puffy summer clouds, cool breezes from the southeast, but this just means more hard work with fewer interruptions by the elements. No time for snoozing in the sun! 

Of course, the excavation team is always more focused on soil than sky, as they scan their work sites for changes in color and texture: from brown loam to ashy tips, from burned bone to pottery. Where is the base of this wall? Are those patterned incisions on this stone, or just plough scars, or simply fracture joints? Is that emerging edge a blade of retouched flint, or just a shard of shattered sandstone? If anyone imagines that archaeology is not an emotional enterprise, he should kneel on the soil, scraping all day with a tiny trowel, and experience the alternating exultations and disappointments, moment of lucidity and confusion, of the site excavator. 

The generous and open-minded Ness of Brodgar team, perhaps in response to some Scots governmental diversity quota, has invited an inexperienced and blundering American - myself - to help for a week, learning a little bit of the exacting craft of excavating, and learning more about this exceptional and seemingly inexhaustible Neolithic site.

My name is Cort, and I am an artist and teacher from Washington DC, on summer holiday in Orkney.  As I teach art history to secondary school students, it is invaluable to see, first hand, how specialists painstakingly glean information from ancient objects, in context, asleep in the soil, then debate and test their hypotheses. Eventually these hypotheses make their way to eager students studying their texts, (but never asleep in their texts) and become dogma.  And then, quite often, the hypotheses are overturned by the next generation… 

Picture ORCA
Kevin investigates the potential line of the outer passage around Structure 10.

So much for babble, now here are some specific notes from the day’s work.  Gavin’s team in Structure 8 continues investigating the complex intersection of overlapping wall segments at the west end.

By digging down to see which stone and wall segments overlap others, the tangle of construction and re-construction phases may be unraveled. There is the suggestion of an entrance in the northwest corner. In addition, Gavin is looking at midden spreads in the middle of the building to find more clues about the occupation sequence.  At the east end of Structure 8, Grace uncovered a surprise, a nice big flat flagstone, outside the wall.  

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Structure 8 from the camera mast.

On a personal note, Tony (who yesterday spotted a lovely piece of Arran pitchstone) reports that his bike rides to Brodgar from Kirkwall and back, often against the wind, were “arduous”, and that he “woke up in the middle of the night with cramps in both legs”.  Nevertheless, this morning he was back at work with a smile. 

In Structure 7, Dan and Gemma are “gradually trying to tease apart layered deposits with a view, eventually, to expose the central hearth”.  The central space of Structure 7 seems to be filled with clay deposits. As they worked down through the material, Dan and Gemma found some lovely small artefacts, incised slabs, a big sherd of Grooved Ware, and a beautiful salmon-colored blade of retouched flint. 

In Structure 10, Johnny’s team continued working down through levels in the north-east corner, removing “massive amounts of snail shells and vole skeletons.”  Speculation continues about these remains (strange banquets, indeed) and about the massive stump and fragments of a standing stone in the same corner.  Also in Structure 10, Mike is continuing the sondage between  what seems to be the northern exterior wall and the interior wall of the (for the moment) “inner sanctum”. 

Picture ORCA
Structure 10 today.

On the south side of Structure 10, Antonia’s team continues to excavate what seems to be the area outside the exterior wall; Micke and Jack today pulled out four trays of animal bone (but not vole, in this case).

Finally, also in Structure 10, Sarah is patiently working her sondage on the western exterior to see if there might be a nicely flagged pavement below, ringing the structure as there seems to be on the northern side. 

Each day brings new discoveries and more open questions. The answers may never come, or they may be waiting in the next scoop of the trowel.

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Picture ORCA
Sarah finds the remnants of the west wall-lines of Structure 10.
The Ness of Brodgar
Orkney's World Heritage Site
The Ring of Brodgar
Archaeology around the Ness of Brodgar
The Standing Stones of Stenness
The Barnhouse Settlement