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Sunday 14th September

Just to introduce myself… My name’s Eileen and I’m one of the volunteers who has been digging on Wyre for the last three weeks. Everyone in Sheffield (where I hail from) warned me… “You’re camping on Orkney? It’s always wet and windy. Make sure you take your woolly hat, gloves, hot water bottle, thick sweater…” What did I need? Sun hat, suntan lotion, t-shirt; the weather’s been absolutely fantastic and a lot better than south. I definitely made the right decision to come north.

When I arrived, tent, sleeping bag and pillow in tow, I discovered the generosity of Orcadians, or more specifically, Wyre Whelks. Thanks to Mrs. Margaret Flaws, I had my own bedroom in a warm comfortable house so my tent never emerged from its bag. I should perhaps mention at this point that I’m sixty years old…my bones appreciate the comforts of sleeping indoors!

The first week on site was physically very demanding- lots of mattocking and shovelling. I became quite adept at emptying wheelbarrows whilst the younger, fitter volunteers did the heavy work. The finds were wonderful, polished stone axes, skaill knives, flint, hammerstones, pounder/grinders, well-fired pot… I could go on.

During the following two weeks I learned a great deal about archaeology on Orkney, thanks to Antonia and Dan, the supervisors. I spent over a day excavating an interesting ditch feature outside of the Neolithic structure in Trench C. I had to cover the full spectrum of archaeological activity, from photographing, to sampling to drawing and interpreting. I also spent some time processing finds, which was extremely interesting as I got to see what everyone else found.

In the third week I dug extensively in the rich black soil of the midden in trench A. There were many finds in this context and, as we removed the soil, we uncovered some large stone slabs forming a probable paved area. Unfortunately I won’t be digging next week to see more of this intriguing development. The time has flashed past and here I am already: my last day on Wyre. The morning was spent organizing the community centre, displaying finds ready for our Open Day. The visitors seemed suitably impressed, particularly by being able to pick up and handle the finds. The polished axes were a universal favourite.

Tomorrow I will be back to motorways, cities and pollution. I shall miss the friends I’ve made here, particularly my fellow archaeologists, who have been openly friendly and kind to a stranger. Most of all, I will miss the place I’ve fallen in love with. This has been my first visit to Orkney…it will not be my last.

Thursday, September 11

Hello, my name is Jonny Dye, I’m originally from County Durham but I’ve being living in Orkney since January. I’m here doing my Masters degree in archaeology at Orkney College and there couldn’t really be a better place to do it. I had already made acquaintances with the Flaws family and visited Wyre, so when Antonia and Dan told me there was an excavation on, I jumped at the chance! Plus, the site is Neolithic – a period which I find very interesting so I couldn’t really refuse.

Just before coming to Wyre I was digging at the Ness of Brodgar, which another Neolithic site and the differences between them are vast. Ness of Brodgar is a late Neolithic site and has massive spectacular structures, Braes of Ha’breck has nothing like the standing remains there, but to an archaeologist, it is equally interesting. In one of the trenches we have discovered the footprint of a dwelling, showing in the form of a hearth and postholes where the structure would have been. It is amazing that anything has survived here given how damaged the site has been by ploughing, but it is also amazing how much we can learn from such ephemeral remains.

In the other trench it is less apparent what we have found, but as the dig progresses more and more becomes clear. When we first took off the topsoil from the extension of last year’s trench we could see that there was more midden and some hints of stone structures. Now we have a clear wall with an entrance, suggesting we are digging outside the structure. We have also uncovered more of the massive ‘paving’ slabs that were found last year. Of course there are also the fantastic artefacts, stone axe heads stand out, but I personally like the flint tools. There is a real lack of flint in Orkney so any flint would have required a lot of effort to acquire and also a high level of skill to turn into a useful tool.

I would have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed my time on Wyre, it a wonderful place and has some amazing archaeology and I’m sure more left to discover. Hopefully I’ll be back next year to uncover a bit more.

Wednesday, September 10

After a very wet and windy night, we have been spending the morning sponging out the water of the trenches! Trench A is a sticky muddy mess and all of the features in Trench C are full of water, including the hearth, even though we covered it up with plastic overnight!

Tuesday, September 9

Hello, I’m Antonia Thomas from the Archaeology Department at Orkney College. I am completely absorbed with the excavation of the hearths in Trench C at the moment as they are very enjoyable but quite fiddly features to excavate. I am excavating a quarter first of all, taking that quarter down layer by layer and recording and sampling each of these layers as I go. Excavating it in quarters means that I will be able to draw both sections across the hearth and will help record the sequence of ashy deposits filling this feature. When I have finished this hearth, there is a second (but earlier) hearth that will need the same treatment, so that should keep me busy for a few days!

There are so many other features in this trench as well though, making it hard to keep track of them all. They are nearly all what we call ‘negative’ features, holes and slots that have been dug into the ground in the past and have since filled up with soils that are different from those surrounding it. Some of these features are quite ephemeral but a couple of the postholes are really quite substantial. It seems strange to think that at one time, there would have been a sufficient number of trees in Orkney to build houses from timber!

We have not really had any finds from this trench, as it is so badly truncated. This is in complete contrast to down the slope at Trench A, where there are literally hundreds of pieces of pottery coming out of the rich black midden covering most of the trench. We have been lucky in that many of these fragments of pottery are rim or base sherds, and will be able to be identified – and dated – by a pottery expert. We will have to wait to see what they say about the pottery, but it seems that they are mainly sherds from round-bottomed bowls, suggesting an Early Neolithic date. There have also been some more unusual finds coming out of Trench A, including a lump of galena, or lead ore. This is found naturally in Rousay and other parts of Orkney but not on Wyre, and would have been specially brought to Ha’Breck, perhaps to be used as a pigment. I am hoping that the next week or so will give us some finds in Trench C, as it would be very useful to be able to relate what is happening in this trench to the features in Trench A.

Monday, September 8

Greetings! My name is Lesley McEwan and I was thrilled when I learned that I would dig on Wyre. Orkney is famous for its Neolithic archaeology and I have now visited a number of these sites, spectacular and amazingly well preserved. I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Archaeology and Scottish Ethnology. I am enjoying spending time on Wyre and meeting new people, not least retired schoolteacher and fellow Edinburgh alumni, Margaret Flaws; a Wyre resident who has welcomed me into her home whilst I am digging at the Braes of Ha’Breck. Margaret is no stranger to local language and lore and has authored a number of books on the subject. I am happy to be excavating Trench A after the heavy work of the past two weeks. The weather was bright today and we were all in fine fettle. The abundance of finds is a joy, from the volume of stone axes, knives, pot and flint it is hard to imagine that this can be exhausted. Large slabs are gradually appearing, possibly a path and as soon as I have planned this trench we can uncover more of this grandiose structure!

Friday, September 5

We are now nearly two weeks into this year’s excavations at the Braes of Ha’Breck on Wyre, with a further two weeks to go.  

We spent the first week deturfing the two trenches by hand – a painstaking task but well worth it, as we found four polished stone axe heads just in the topsoil!

Picture Orca
The four stone axe heads found so far.

That brings the total number of axes from this site to seven, but unfortunately they have all been recovered during fieldwalking or deturfing and we don’t have contextual information for these beautiful objects.

But with another couple of weeks of digging left, who knows? We may find many more yet.

Picture Orca
Cleaning back Trench C.

Now we have finished the deturfing and cleaning of the two trenches and are recording all the archaeological features we can see by drawing a pre-excavation plan and taking detailed photographs.

This is so that we have a permanent record of the archaeology before we start to remove it by excavation.  

Picture Orca
Deturfing Trench A.

We have extended Trench A by several metres to the west to try and catch more of the area associated with the flagging revealed at the end of last season.

We have a spread of rich, middeny material in this trench and a short line of walling that relates well to an anomaly on the geophysics. In Trench C, we have opened up a 10m2 area centred upon the hearth revealed in last year’s dig.

Picture Orca
Trench A after cleaning.

The plough has taken away nearly all of the remains in this trench, and all we are left with is the slightest hint of a dwelling. Surrounding the hearth is a series of very truncated post-holes and slots – so it looks like this dwelling would have been made using wooden posts, somewhat like the structures discovered at Wideford, in 2003,by Colin Richards.

This suggests that we have quite an early building here… 

Unfortunately, the heavy rain showers over the past couple of days are really hampering our progress, and it seems that as soon as we get the trenches nice and clean, the heavens open again and it all turns into a quagmire!

The hearth and associated features in Trench C are particularly vulnerable to the elements, so we are keeping this area under wraps until it is time to excavate it.

Fortunately we have had a lovely sunny day today and it is all drying out nicely. 

Orkney Islands Council
Orkney College