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Tuesday, August 19, 2008
(Previous entries available here)

Owen here. It’s my second week volunteering at the Ness of Brodgar excavations.

I am a professional archaeologist, used to working in the ‘cut-throat’ world of commercial archaeology ‘down south’. Most of my year, therefore, is spent appraising brown-field, often urban developments, or trial trenching ahead of road schemes which have been specifically routed to avoid archaeological sites. Resultantly, I try to spend every summer up in the Northern Isles to ‘redress the balance’ and remind myself why I originally became an archaeologist. I count it as a real treat and an honour to dig, what just may be the best archaeology in the world. 

Picture ORCA
Trench P, just about ready for the final photographs, as the last public tour of the day takes place.

For a British archaeological site comprising permanent built structures, this is about as old as they come. Near perfectly preserved, and being excavated under the guidance of Orkney’s foremost archaeological experts, there is no real pressure of a time limit, and the atmosphere on site is a friendly one. The Ness of Brodgar excavations are all that archaeological investigation should be… and more! 

As well as the archaeology within the confines of each trench being unique, aesthetic and fascinating, and understanding, its situation and nature allows a fuller appreciation of the Neolithic landscape as a whole.

Picture ORCA
Martin and Gavin add their own idea of scale to Trench N.

We are digging in the heart of a ritual landscape, amidst many major archaeological features. Despite this wealth of sites, evident and enduring in the modern landscape, not much is known about who built the stone circles and megalithic tombs, or why.

This is where the Ness of Brodgar site comes into its own. A probable communal focus point within the ritual landscape, the site is beginning to provide theories with which to understand and link the well known sites of the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and Barnhouse.  

The site comprises a large area and significant depth of preserved archaeological deposits; enough to keep a team of 30 archaeologists interested for a month (for starters).

Additionally, the structures emerging within the trench, and the rare and interesting finds have drawn hundreds if not thousands of visitors, tourists and locals alike to the frequent tours.

Structures are, therefore, revealed under the eyes of fascinated visitors, which, when combined with a commentary from one of the team, allows people to visualise the structures which once occupied this important 5,000 year old Stone-Age site.

Additionally then, the Ness of Brodgar provides an ideal opportunity for ‘public archaeology’: where new and exciting developments are immediately disseminated out into the pubs and coffee shops of Orkney, where people can know, discuss and be inspired by their own local heritage. 

The state of preservation on the site is staggering, with walls recently revealed as remaining undisturbed over a meter in height below the current ground level. The craftsmanship exhibited is such that you can’t fit a credit card between some blocks in the dry-stone built structures. One structure in particular, relating to an early/original phase of occupation is a large sub-circular revetment wall which tips inwards around its entire circumference. Whether this was an intentional feature, or accidental collapse is currently a moot point, but it is interesting that everyone who sees it has a theory within seconds of seeing it. Everyone’s an archaeologist! 

Most visitors, upon observing the digging process comment that it appears a painstaking process, but this is not always so. Ask any fisherman, that while it may look to an observer that not much is happening fast, thousands of questions, theories and possibilities are being asked and answered in the mind of the excavator. This passes the time. No, the painstaking part is, in fact, the recording. Every structure, layer, cut and fill is assigned a unique number before being described in detail. Then each is drawn, from above and from the side. Then a sample is taken away in a bucket for biological analysis. And not to forget the photography etc etc!

This is what this final week is all about, and we are slowly winding down and ticking the final things off from our list of ‘things-to-do’. 

It’s clear that this is a rich site of which we have only scratched the surface. We know important actions took place at the Ness of Brodgar during the Neolithic, but what?

We’ll be back next year, and this spit of land between two stone circles will give up a few more of its secrets.

Roll on next season. 

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