In the fourth episode of his story detailing his experience of studying archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands, MSc student Ross Drummond tells us about his time at the world-renowned Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney.
Conas atá tú? It’s Ross again! Reporting about Pt. 4 of my ‘Summer of Digging’, this time I was taking on the absolute monster which is The Ness of Brodgar; Orkney’s largest archaeological excavation of the summer.
A lot of you may already know about The Ness of Brodgar already through the amount of media attention it has received in recent years, featuring heavily in a 2017 three-part BBC Documentary series Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney; which attracted the attention of a remarkable 2.1 million viewers for the first episode.
For those of you not familiar with The Ness of Brodgar I shall provide a brief summary, but for more detailed info check out the website (http://www.nessofbrodgar.co.uk/ ).
The first work on the Ness involved a geophysical survey in 2002, with revealed a huge complex of anomalies, and had high archaeological potential. The following year a large notched stone was ploughed up in the field between the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, which looked like it could have been part of a Bronze Age cist, with the possibility of human remains.
A small trench was opened and a large rectangular wall was found, this was the revealing of structure One. In 2004 8 test-trenches were opened up uncovering more structures and Neolithic materials, and the rest they say is history… With excavation work taking place for several weeks every summer since.
The earliest evidence on-site dates as far back as 3500BC with activity at stopping around 2300BC, and although there is a large number of buildings present, the site is not simply domestic. It is thought that The Ness was a gathering place where Neolithic people from Orkney and further afield would come together for feasting, trading and celebration of important political and celestial events.
Since Structure One first appeared in 2003, over 30 additional structures have been found since. The largest structure onsite is Structure Ten, measuring some 25m long, 19m across and has 4m thick walls. It is absolutely massive and is the last structure in use on the site, with its “closing” around 2450 BC.
However, the structure was not just abandoned, its “death” was marked by a huge feast and large numbers of animals were slaughtered. When uncovered in 2008, the bones of around 400 cattle were found placed in the passageway surrounding the structure.
Similar to my first excavation of the summer at The Cairns, The Ness of Brodgar also accommodated some of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) archaeological students completing the excavation module as part of the degrees.
This gives students the opportunity to learn techniques and various other components of fieldwork as a graded academic class, in the place of an in-class module in the previous college semester.
In addition to students from the various UHI campuses, The Ness of Brodgar was also home to students from Willamette University, Oregon who spent five weeks on-site; taking part in the excavations and learning a large set of archaeological processes and techniques as part of their academic curriculum.
The Excavation module was again overseen by Rick Barton, Project Officer for Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA). Students were assessed on various different skills and techniques over their time at The Ness, which were explained and demonstrated by Rick and other trench supervisors first; before students were given the opportunity to display their knowledge and abilities independently.
Students were guided through group toolbox talks and given further individual one-to-one training whenever the students themselves felt they wanted to tackle further skills and tasks; with staff and supervisors always on hand to accommodate and make time for everyone.
Due to my placement with the university, I have had the pleasure and privilege of being able to take part in both The Cairns and the Ness of Brodgar excavations. They are both absolutely fantastic excavations to be a part of and no matter if it’s your very first time digging on an archaeological site or if it’s another place to add to the CV – both sites are invaluable in experience gained. The skills and training received is also something that will stand to students as they pursue a career in archaeology; and the UHI Archaeology Institute pride themselves on providing students with the best practical in-the-field training possible.
Students are exposed to a whole range of different techniques and skills which are used on sites in commercial archaeology.
One of the main aims for the university is for students to be able to walk into a commercial job upon completing their degrees, with broad excavation experience behind them; and have the confidence and competency to fit right into any team.
There are a large amount of techniques worked on during UHI fieldschools such as environmental sampling, artefacts processing, archaeological recording (i.e. the written record – contexts sheets, finds deposit sheets), archaeological photography skills, archaeological surveying and the drawn record (including planning and section drawing).
Most of the techniques conducted are helped by the presence of specialists in each area who guide students through the process and all supervisors are well equipped and knowledgeable in helping out with most techniques as well.
The staff and volunteers at both The Ness of Brodgar and The Cairns are also very welcoming and supportive of past former students who return to help out with the excavations each summer. The UHI also highly encourage promotion from within as several of the supervisors from both sites are former Master’s students with the college themselves (as exemplified by my supervisor Andy, who completed her MSc with the UHI a few years back).
I think all students who took part in the fieldschool would testify to how great an experience it was, especially in a place like Orkney where the archaeological landscape is so rich and sites are present in abundance; it’s great to be added to the history and story of these sites (no matter how small/brief your presence on them is). I myself am probably going to have a tough time sorting out my CV once the master’s is done, after all the experience I’ve gained over the summer!
On arrival to the site, the new recruits and I were given a run-through procedure and Health and Safety, followed by a tour and explanation of the site by director Nick Card. This was followed on by a talk about finds and what to look out for while excavating by Anne Mitchell.
After the morning briefing the new diggers were split up and sent to various different trenches around site. Kacey, fellow UHI student Hannah and I made our way over to Structure One, which was being excavated under the wonderful guidance of Andy (who was a former MSc graduate with the UHI Archaeology Institute herself).
Also part of the Structure One team were my classmates from the Neolithic module in semester two, Fabrizio and Allessandro; as well as Giles and Marc. So we had a solid little team, with a good representation from the Institute as well which was nice.
I spent most of my time working in the midden area between Structures One and Twenty One with Hannah. The midden area was very artefact rich, containing animal bone and more pieces of prehistoric pottery than I can count.
It was a constant process of cleaning and taking down the ground level in spits, as midden deposits are very rich in information; so it’s important to keep an eye out for any changes in soil or any possible finds of high importance, which could be missed if the process was just rushed through.
Towards the end of the first week, our patience paid off as Hannah discovered a large vessel within the midden area. Exciting as the find was she then had the arduous and difficult task of lifting the vessel, which she did expertly and the pottery survived intact.
My own time to shine came the following week, when on my second last day on the Ness I brought the ‘Luck of the Irish’ in full force with me to site.
Having only seen and heard about miniature pots found at The Ness off Anne the previous day while I was discussing finds with the ‘Digging up the Past’ workshop; I was fortunate enough to find two of these little pots in the one day!
While trowelling back in the midden area just near the exterior wall of Structure Twenty One I came across an oddly shaped piece of pot. Had there not been the discussion with Anne the previous day, the odd shape of the pot when the first glimpse of it was revealed from the ground, may not have stood out so much.
I called Andy over and her excitement about the find made me realise it was fairly significant. Unfortunately the pot wasn’t fully intact when found, with the top missing. There were a few incisions on the exterior of the pot but it is difficult to judge whether these were deliberate or just random.
There have been a few of these thumb pots found over the years, but as of yet their exact use and function remains a mystery. My own favourite theory about the pots is that they could be prehistoric shot glasses, although given the size of the pots, the Neolithic people would have had to be drinking some fairly strong concoctions!
One pot would have been regarded a great day anyway, but I wasn’t finished yet.
As the clouds began to darken and approach, the rain began to fall, and the team began preparations for covering up the site until the morning. I was just finishing cleaning up the loose soil when I noticed the base of something sticking out of the ground around the same area where the first pot was found. This time I knew exactly what it was!
With pack-up for the day looming and the weather worsening, I decided to save the pot from possible damage from being left out in the elements overnight. Upon safely removing it from the ground I knew I made the right choice as this pot was in a lot better condition than the first one and possessed clear incisions. Andy couldn’t believe it when I popped up with another pot, and Nick and Anne were delighted; this time more so as there was still soil contained within it.
On-site pottery specialist Roy Towers judged the second pot to be different than the previous thumb pot, his thinking is that this was an imitation pot and would have mimicked a large vessel. The material that fills it will have to be examined carefully and possibly analysed for pot residue, but the expectation is that the base of the imitation pot will be flat on the interior, just like a full-size pot and in contrast with the often-rounded base interior of thumb pots.
When the second pot was found, Roy was in the middle of a tour and, in astonishment, had to pause briefly while examining the pot. I ended up getting a round of applause off the 50 strong tour group, so it was an unexpected and added bonus to go with the finds. I even got the blog for the day called after me ‘Luck of the Irish’ and as fate would have it, it would have to be Day 33 and all! Rick thought it was hilarious due to the ‘th’ coupled with the ‘r’ sound, which has already been discussed in my previous blog about the Skaill excavations but Rick is probably just jealous it wasn’t him who found the pots.
The following evening was the end of site party, and marked the departure of many of the Ness of Brodgar team who had been working on the site over the summer. Nick graciously had the whole team over to his house, and everyone celebrated the season’s great work and progress made over the few weeks.
As we all sat around the fire pit Nick thanked all the team for their hard work over the summer, and reiterated how the Ness was like a family, and how great it was to see faces again who had been there previous summers. Everyone had a great time, with a fire-spinning show (provided by Andy), singalongs, laughter, fake tattoos and maybe a beverage or two consumed; but it was a lovely way to bring official excavation proceedings to an end, and a good note to mark my end of involvement with the excavations.
My final day of involvement with the Ness would be at the Open Day.
As the majority of the lecturers from the Skaill excavation were away at the time and, on Anne’s suggestion, I was given the task of running a stall and communicating some of our findings from the season to the public.
Having played such a major role in the Skaill excavations myself and having only recently completed the blog post on the experience this was a great opportunity and the day went off really successfully.
I discussed the history of the site, the team’s findings from the season and even had a few finds with me to show visitors on the day. The Stenness Hall had a constant flow of visitors throughout the day, who came for a look having already been to see the magnificence of the Ness of Brodgar in the flesh.
On site however, the Ness proved its importance and wide appeal yet again with over 1,100 people visiting the site on the Open Day.
As part of my work placement focusing on outreach and social media use in archaeology, I also had the pleasure of taking part lending a hand with two ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops as well as helping out my supervisor and Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist Dan Lee in hosting a group from Connect.
These were fantastic opportunities to be a part of and it was great to introduce archaeology to people who have never dug before. As well as getting tours of the site and talks about finds, participants were able to get an insight into the archaeological process as a whole and having a go at specialist workshops with Chris Gee (stone working) and Dr Ingrid Mainland (animal bones).
It was also particularly great to see the joy and excitement on the faces of the participants when they uncovered finds from the ground (all of which were added to the site’s find collection as a whole). I even surprised myself in how much I had learned about the Ness in a week, when I was conducting the site tours for ‘Digging up the Past’ in Dan’s absence the second week.
My experience at the Ness is one I won’t forget quickly.
Besides my luck with finding the two miniature pots, it was great to meet up with people again who I had been working with at The Cairns such as Rick and Gary (A Team for life!). It was a very worthwhile and enriching experience also to be a part of the two ‘Digging up the Past’ workshops while on site, and great to see the fantastic work HES Rangers and UHI staff conduct as part of those activities.
It was also a brilliant experience just to be a part of an excavation on that scale, having been on smaller projects the previous weeks on Rousay and Sanday; the first few days were a bit of an adjustment, but it was a great comparison and shows the potential that archaeological sites have up here in Orkney to capture the public’s attention.
I would like to express my thanks to site director Nick Card, for not only allowing me the chance to take part in the excavations on the Ness of Brodgar, but who also kindly offered some time out of his ridiculously busy schedule on-site to sit down with me and talk about how the Ness has developed and expanded over time – not only in a physical sense with the trenches but also in terms of outreach and media attention.
It was a great insight into the excavation itself and also very helpful in relation to my own placement aims with the institute.
I would also like to thank Anne Mitchell, who was very helpful on-site and also instrumental in pinning down my role in the Ness Open Day.
Anne’s role in the excavations in general is absolutely crucial and Nick described her as an ‘indispensable’ part of the team, especially behind the scenes. I also want to thank Sigurd Towrie, who I liaised with every day, discussing social media agendas and was very helpful in finding a role for myself in using material for the UHI social media accounts.
Also a massive shout out to all the volunteers and students who endured long days and early mornings of tiring work, I think all would agree it was worth it in the end!
I was only onsite for two weeks myself due to my involvement in other excavations, but some of the team members were working at the Ness from start to finish all summer – so a massive admiration and appreciation must go their way, which was reiterated by Nick at the end of site party.
A large amount of gratitude also goes to all those who work behind the scenes not only during the excavation period, but throughout the year cataloguing finds, etc. There’s too many people to name but Nick holds you all in the highest regards and the Ness ‘machine’ would not be able to run without your continued hard work and effort.
As massive and globally known as The Ness of Brodgar is, only ten per cent of the site has been uncovered so far, and unfortunately there is no real constant source of funding coming into the site.
The only way the site keeps going and excavations continue each summer is from the kind donations given by the public. If this has peaked your interest in the site or if you have already been, and want to keep the Ness of Brodgar going for not only future generations to enjoy, but for the team to come back again next summer, donations big and small are very welcome, information can be found on the website. Your continued support and interest in the site is very much appreciated by all!
Also can’t sign off without giving another shout out to Kirkwall Accies (last time I promise). I may have turned up to the Ness Open Day with a slight sporting injury from a football final the day before, but as they say ‘No pain, no gain, we won the final and completed the Double! Hon Accies!
Well this blog officially brings an end to my placement with the institute this summer. I will have one more blog to come out in the near future about my experience at the newly formed Islay Heritage Project, run by the University of Reading and UHI, but for the next few weeks I’ll be putting the head in the books and attempt to transfer my crazy summer of digging into an academic paper.
Thanks for all the support and interest shown in my blogs and social media posts over the summer! I’ll see ye all on the other side (hopefully)!
Keep it Breezy!
Slán go fóill,
Ross Drummond. UHI MSc Archaeological Practice student