It is a given in archaeology, that the most perplexing finds are unearthed in the final stages of a dig. So, as the dig at Ness of Brodgar in Orkney started the final week, some of the most intriguing finds of the season started to be unearthed in a trench which goes under the title of ‘Trench T’.
This area of the site is not open to the public, but is part of a research programme to discover what lies beneath the largest Neolithic midden yet discovered in north Scotland.
The Ness of Brodgar site itself is no stranger to discoveries, with human remains, possible Neolithic seaweed, rock art and of course the structures themselves giving archaeologists many things to think about Neolithic society in the last few weeks. However, nothing prepared the site director Nick Card and supervisor Ben Chan for the discovery made this week in Trench T.
As digging progressed, the archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute became more and more excited. A structure unlike any other discovered so far at the Ness was emerging from the midden. It was huge being nearly 10 metres wide internally and of unknown length as it disappeared out of the trench, but the construction – the way it was built – seemed to be unique. Although the outer wall faces were constructed of fine, large masonry the inner wall faces were much rougher. However, these inner faces would have been hidden behind upright orthostats ‘cladding’ the interior. More amazing was the size of large prone orthostats that helped support the upright slabs and pinned them in place against the inner wall faces. The only one that has been fully exposed is over 4 metres in length, but there are others, only partially revealed that could be longer!
The excitement intensified as the archaeologists realised that this structure was probably built before the main structures present on the site and that it had been deliberately buried by the huge midden.
The mystery deepened as more questions were asked. Where do these huge stones originate? They have rounded edges that suggest they were weathered or worked in the same way that some of the standing stones at Stenness appear to be. They are smaller than the surviving nearby Watch Stone, but road widening in the 1920’s unearthed evidence for a twin for the Watch Stone. Could these two stones have been part of another stone circle that was mainly dismantled?
Nick Card Site Director suggests, “The sheer size and scale of the stones unearthed are unprecedented on this site. The way the stones are built into the construction is also unique to the Ness. This all suggests that they may have been re-used and taken from elsewhere. Perhaps they may be part of a stone circle that pre-dates the main Ness site. It is all a bit of mystery and we won’t know more until we do more work.”
Other questions also remain unanswered for the moment. Was this structure roofed? If so then how was such a space spanned. Was this indeed, the first building on the site? What was it used for? Was it a chambered tomb? In any event it was clearly a special structure to the people who built it, but why was it covered in the largest Neolithic rubbish dump in Scotland?
As the digging season comes to a close it is a fact that these questions will only be answered through more research and more hard work next year.
Many thanks are due to James Robertson at http://orkneyskycam.co.uk/ who completed the drone photography and video work for free.