The Birth of Christ is more recent…

The Jewel in the Crown of the annual archaeological dig season in Orkney opened for business this week at the Ness of Brodgar – currently the most significant Neolithic site in Europe – or the World for that matter.  I briefly touched upon the Ness in a recent post The Heart of Neolithic Orkney

I spent a day helping the archaeologists and students to uncover the site from its protective winter covers – acres of heavy plastic sheeting and tarpaulin weighted down by thousands of old vehicle tyres.


First break after starting to clear the main dig area
Tyres are preferred for ease of handling and storage but traditional sand bags are still used to support and protect delicate areas of the site

The Ness of Brodgar is a narrow strip of land between two lochs that until relatively recently was seen merely as a natural causeway between significant but well-researched and conserved Neolithic structures – the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness plus the adjoining Barnhouse Village.  Then in 2003 archaeologists were called upon to examine a curious stone slab uncovered here.  Just over a decade on, the Ness site is now the biggest Neolithic excavation in the world drawing emminent archaeologists and archaeology students from around the globe for an annual dig, this year extended from six to eight weeks.  The site comprises numerous buildings or ‘structures’, some of which are superimposed upon earlier features and requiring several layers of archaeology to be carefully recorded and removed. The archaeological excavation site is a tiny fraction of the overall settlement that has been identified by geophysics.  Remains have been uncovered of a monumentally huge encircling wall, one end of which is naturally dubbed, “The Great Wall of Brodgar”.  The overall site is interpreted in a ritualistic context, but as more artefacts are uncovered there is increasing definition of possible activities that occurred in some of the individual structures.

Typical of archaeological sites, the Ness is very exposed.  Lochview cottage sits on the site which the owners have incredibly generously bequeathed to the project.  A viewing platform is erected each year to enable the thousands who will visit the site over the following weeks to have a grandstand view of the proceedings.  A few temporary site huts are used by the project team to record finds, store equipment and run a visitor shop. Surrounding the site are spoil heaps and huge stacks of the aforementioned tyres. There is little shelter for the dig team however and traditionally July can be a wet and windy period on Orkney, although so far this year the weather has been mercifully clement.  Consider however that many archaeologists spend their entire careers looking at post holes and similarly ephemeral traces of the past; here students get to excavate standing buildings constructed from dressed stone, some with artwork. You will appreciate the appeal!

This is Structure 14 with the covers removed and airing out.  Two hearths can be seen in the centre of this complex together with the remains of outer walls and extensive internal partitions

I find it extraordinary to consider that building at the Ness commenced around 3,300 BC, although each year this date is pushed back a little by new discoveries.  To us, the Birth of Christ is a considerably more recent historical event than it was in the future of the people who built and lived at the Ness.  The quality of the 5,000-year old stonework is incredible, notwithstanding that it is on a par with that found at Skara Brae and Maeshowe.  This, along with pottery finds, is of a quality that was not seen again until Roman times, some 3,000 years later.  I borrow from the blog of Archaeology Orkney this picture and caption:

This is not a rough assemblage of stones, piled one on top of another, but a carefully crafted building project that required skill and knowledge to assemble.  In many respects the stone looks as if it was set in place and is just waiting for the builders to return from their lunch break! (Courtesy Highlands & Islands Archaeology Institute)

The BBC is covering the dig in force this year and Neil Oliver was present from the very start to be filmed helping to shift a few tyres and rolling up a tarpaulin.  To be fair, he could hardly spend the rest of the day in front of the camera looking as grubby as the rest of us!  A three-part ‘special’ will go out on BBC in the Autumn, fronted by Neil Oliver, Chris Packham and a new presenter.

Neil Oliver in discussion with Stonehenge specialist Professor Mike Parker Pearson
Neil Oliver is filmed discussing a Structure 14 feature with site director Nick Card

Those involved in the dig were invited to a ‘BBC party’ last night.  Wow, this is going to be good, we thought.  Fear not dear viewer, your licence fees are being spent wisely – about 50 of us shared a few bottles of cheap beer and two Tesco’s wine boxes.  It was a sober but very pleasant evening!  That said, the BBC is contributing to some of the research. In addition, C14 analyses cost about £140 each and donations are vigorously sought, which is one reason why Tish and I will be found helping in the Orkney Archaeological Society shop at the Ness, hopefully relieving all those cruise ship visitors of a good few dollars.

The season continues – The Cairns, Rousay, Westray …

The summer ‘dig season’ is firmly open on Orkney and in one case is just drawing to a close – a relatively new project at The Cairns on South Ronaldsay is excavating the discovery of an Iron Age broch.  This is the first ab initio excavation of a broch in the last century and the opportunity to do so using modern scientific techniques on a site undisturbed by heavy-handed Victorian antiquitaries is totally unique.

Tish and I have been following progress at The Cairns very closely and, true to past form, it has thrown up some incredibly exciting finds in the final few days before the site is hibernated for the winter (the resources being needed at the Ness). Therefore, to avoid encumbering this report I will devote a separate post to The Cairns at a later date.

Digs are just getting started on the isle of Rousay which, although not particularly dIstant, is still remote enough not to demand exacting archaeological qualifications if you are prepared to devote a week or more of your holiday working there.  Also, the rescue dig at the Links of Noltland on the isle of Westray continues along with other archaeological initiatives including some community projects.  More on these in due course too.

There is an oft-repeated truism on Orkney that, if you stick a spade in the ground, you will unearth archaeology.  Never is a truer word spoken in jest and many Orcadian farmers are struck down with ‘selective blindness’ at ploughing-time.

The Giddy Limit – The Orcadian 27 April 2006



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