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Tuesday, August 10, 2010
(Day 17)
Picture: ORCA
More young budding archaeologists join the excavation.

After a glorious start to the day, this afternoon the thunder clouds rolled over central Orkney and a biblical downpour put an end to excavation.

Parts of the site turned into swimming pools and trenches became unrecognisable.

In these conditions, both for health and safety considerations and due to the potential damage that might be done to the archaeology, a halt was called to proceedings, with most of the team being sent home.

Some on site were glad of this interruption, as it has allowed Ann, in the finds hut, to catch up with a slight backlog, and supervisors time to do more paperwork and cross reference contexts, plans and photographs.

At least this week’s batch of budding young archaeologists experienced the best of the weather. Judging by the obvious enjoyment they were having, I doubt they would have even noticed any unseasonal weather.

The great success of these events this year may mean we will have to expand this activity next year in order to meet the obvious demand – congratulations to Sandra, Elaine, Keith (the Historic Scotland Rangers) and Helen for making these such a  hit with the next generation of archaeologists!

Picture ORCA
Rain stops play today.

 

In Structure Ten more of the new decorated stone was revealed prior to it being removed. The number of cup marks on it multiplied – not only were they on the face revealed yesterday but also on a side face perhaps indicating it marked a corner in the wall.

Picture ORCA
More cup marks revealed on the stone in Structure Ten.

 

More work was also undertaken on the third entrance to Structure One revealed yesterday. Although not overly clear from the photo today, as there is still more blocking to be removed, a break in the outer wall is well defined; a threshold stone is also clear, as are a number of upright slabs used to partially line the entrance.

Picture: ORCA
The third entrance to Structure One.

The wall in the top of the photo (right) is the outer wall of the adjacent Structure Seven, that seems to represent a very late phase on the site, after all the major structures had gone out of use.

Structure Seven, however, like many of the other structures on site, seems to have gone through several modifications. We have therefore yet to determine whether this wall is part of a reused, earlier, structure, perhaps contemporary with Structure One.

The trowelling line in the interior of Structure Twelve has continued to remove the deep, middeny soils, similar to the upper fills removed from around, and within, Structures One and Eight.

More of the inner wall faces are being revealed with finely coursed and straight inner wall faces, again like Structures One and Eight.

The use of stone piers to create side recesses in all these structures again seems to be a common denominator.

Will these similarities in internal space also be reflected in what we find lower down when we reach primary floor deposits? Will we find evidence that they had similar functions or totally different activities being undertaken in each? Will any of them reveal similar evidence to that discovered in their "twin" in Structure Two at the Barnhouse Settlement? Will they all prove to be contemporary, as their similar alignments and the way they appear to respect each other suggest?

All these questions will be answered eventually, with no doubt many more questions being raised along the way!

Musings on achaeology and mystery. . .

During a recent conversation on site, the question arose as to whether it would be preferable to have all of our questions about the past definitively answered once and all, or to spend a lifetime investigating, excavating and theorising about the past.

Almost immediately we both agreed that the latter would be the better option, and I have a suspicion that most archaeologists would concur. Mystery itself or, at least, the process of investigating, if not actually solving, mysteries seems to be a key part of the appeal of archaeology.

One unusual aspect of archaeology as a discipline is that the very subjects of our investigation – the people of the past – no longer exist. If a physicist wishes to study atoms, there are plenty to choose from; a psychologist can investigate the behaviour of any one of nearly seven billion minds, but archaeologists have only the shattered and partial remnants left by the long dead with which to work. It is a study by proxy.

Of course, we bring many different ideas to bear on this problem – theories and paradigms that seem to come and go with each new generation of researchers, ideas borrowed or adapted from anthropology and psychology, yet the people we wish to understand will never speak.

We can touch their very bones, but they remain forever tantalisingly beyond our reach, as indifferent as the stones they left behind - phantoms without consciousness.

And so we find ourselves working here on the Ness - the living among the dead; constantly questioning those who cannot respond.

Archaeologists are very fond of their theories and often become unusually attached to them, reassured, perhaps, that it is much harder for their opponents to shoot them down; it is, after all, impossible to prove a negative.

Unlike physicists and chemists, who know that their hypotheses can be short lived and vulnerable to disconfirmation, we are often tempted to build castles in the air. Perhaps, then, one thing we should remain aware of is the ambiguity of the archeological record.

Each day the Ness buzzes with conversation and the workaday sounds of any archaeological dig.

Yet, when the last barrow has been safely stowed away for the night, when the last car has left the site and the gate closed at the end of another busy day, the silence of 5,000 years descends, once again, on this narrow strip of land between the lochs.

In the face of the mystery of the distant past we are humbled. No matter how loudly we shout our questions, no matter how confident we are in our interpretations, the stones will maintain one thing above all: a profound silence.

Mike Copper

Maeshowe Alignments
A Neolithic focal point?
Stone Age art
The Great Wall of Brodgar
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
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