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Monday, July 26, 2010
(Day 6)

 

My name is Christopher Gee and I am undertaking the excavation here, at the Ness of Brodgar, as part of my MA in Archaeological Practice at Orkney College. Before excavation this year I hoped that I would become as enthusiastic about the site and the Neolithic as those who have already excavated here in previous years.

Now, just a week later, I have no doubt about my interest and enthusiasm; I’ve thought of little else, and last night I even dreamed about the site!

Picture ORCA
Structure Twelve becomes clearer as more deposits are removed from around it.

Structure Twelve, the "new" building in the south-west extension to Trench P, is taking on even greater shape and coherence as more stonework and wall lines are revealed. Although the east side seems to have been badly robbed, the walls, once again, seem to define a truly monumental structure, over 15 metres long and over ten metres wide, with rounded ends, straight side walls and a series of internal dividing piers.

Myself and the other Orkney College students are within Structure One. With exceptionally well-built Neolithic walls, standing up to nearly a metre in places, around us we really have a feeling of being enclosed within this building. I really feel that this building would have been on a par with Maeshowe, in terms of the quality of its masonry and its monumental internal space.

Picture ORCA
Chris Gee excavating in Structure One, close to the 'painted'wall.

It seems as if the beautifully chosen stones perhaps corbelled inwards as the walls rose upwards, with each new course overhanging very slightly the one below - just like the walls in Maeshowe. Further to this, there is a very pleasing aesthetic effect in the way that the walls, as viewed in plan, arc out very slightly between each of the monumental piers dividing the interior of the structure.

Last week, I discovered two possible carbonised stakes in situ in the south-east of Structure One. They are quite near to the wall, in the corner, and seem rather too small to have been structural. Measuring about 5cm in diameter, they await detailed investigation, but, if they are posts, I wonder what they supported so near to the corner.

The other remarkable thing about Structure One is the amount of Neolithic “art” scratched and picked on the walls around us - much of it so subtle as to be invisible on first glance.

However, it turns out that the “decoration” or “art” may not always have been as subtle in, or on, the Orcadian Neolithic stones and structures as had previously been supposed.

On Friday, I could hardly believe my ears when I thought I heard somebody speaking about a painted stone. I finished my context sheet and went over to have a look at this revelation. I was so sorry to find that it had been quickly, but wisely, covered up to protect it pending conservation. Thankfully though, at lunchtime Andy showed me the photographs and I could see a redish zig-zag across the stone.

After lunch, I began to remove the deposit which had been left in the corner of Structure One underneath a modern pipe. As the soil was carefully removed, I noticed that I was revealing the edge of a door, or recess, and that the stones at each side had been selected and laid to give a polychrome effect of yellow, red and black.

The red stone was painted, it seemed, or at least there were extensive patches of reddish-purple on it. But, not only were there traces of paint or pigment but, most interesting of all, I think, was that I could see incised lines in association with the pigment.

There are lots of incised lines in Structure One - and on the rest of the site - and if they were all painted it would have been a very colourful building. And that in combination with the use of the red and yellow sandstone.

My imagination was racing and driving passed the Standing Stones on the way home, at the end of that monumentous week, I imagined the all too familiar megaliths decorated in an unfamiliar reddish purple, ochre yellow and black.


Neolithic paintwork is UK first

Yes indeed as Chris has said above, one of the most amazing discoveries has come to light over the last day or so – painted walls within two of the structures – the first such discovery in the UK!

Although "paint-pots" containing pigment residues have previously been discovered at the Neolithic settlement sites of Skara Brae, Rinyo (Rousay) and Crossiecrown (St Ola), these pigments were generally thought to be for personal decoration. Only at Maeshowe have traces of pigment been hinted at on the walls by the work carried out there by Professor Richard Bradley.

However, we have discovered stonework within Structures One and Eight that have been decorated, and enhanced, with extensive layers of pigments. On one stone, although no coherent pattern can be discerned, there are several different colours covering most of the stone face – reddish browns, yellows and oranges – while on another stone the whole stone face seems to have the same reddish colour applied right across its surface.  Was this a common practice right across the interior of these buildings or was it limited to specific places such as entrances? Time may tell, though, unfortunately, due to differential preservation not all painted surfaces may have survived.

Picture ORCA
The painted slab discovered in Structure Eight.

The pigments are no doubt derived from material like hematite and limonite (iron ores found on the island of Hoy) and potentially made into a "paint" with the addition of such mediums as animal fat, milk or eggs.

Colour to most British prehistorians is an almost abstract concept.

Although many archaeologists believe that the monochrome prehistoric world revealed through excavation must have been in truth techni-coloured – what these discoveries do, is bring these beliefs into sharp relief and reveal a multi-coloured Neolithic world where colour was not limited to perhaps personal adornment, clothes and artefacts but was also used to decorate structures (perhaps even as Chris imagined above standing stones?).

Perhaps not all Neolithic structures were so decorated but it was the special nature of the site at the Ness that necessitated, or allowed, the use of colour to further emphasis the site’s importance.

These painted panels seem to complement the use of naturally occurring red and yellow sandstone encountered in the interior of Structure Ten. Even without decoration, the structures at the Ness are impressive enough - but imagine what they would have looked like painted. Awe-inspiring!

This use of colour may also help to explain the very ephemeral nature of some of the incised geometric designs on many of the walls at the Ness that all too often seem to blend into their parent rock. Imagine how these designs would have been transformed if they had been incised through a layer of colour. The contrast between the lines and the surrounding colour would have really made these designs stand out.

As we wait for advice on how to conserve, sample, analysis and record these unique discoveries, we have covered them to protect them, and can only imagine what else the site may hold in store.


STOP PRESS – While removing some of the collapsed "dressed" stone roofing flags from within one of the side recesses of Structure Eight, Melissa, one of our American volunteers has recovered a beautiful polished stone axe head. With an almost perfect edge to it, was it perhaps specifically resharpened before being deposited in the recess?

Picture ORCA
Melissa with her newly discovered polished stone axe.

 

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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