Ness of Brodgar textile among Scotland’s ‘most groundbreaking archaeological discoveries’ of 2020

Ness of Brodgar Excavation site. (Scott Pike)
Ness of Brodgar Excavation site. (Scott Pike)

Evidence of a woven Neolithic textile found during post-excavation work at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute’s flagship Ness of Brodgar excavation has been named one of Scotland’s “most groundbreaking discoveries of 2020”.

The Covid pandemic has had a profound impact on Scottish archaeology, with the majority of excavation work brought to a standstill. However, archaeologists and volunteers still managed to uncover new details about Scotland’s past.

Dig It!, a hub for Scottish archaeology, has compiled a list of three of the biggest stories from the last 12 months, featuring the Ness of Brodgar textile impression at number two.

The pot sherd with the cord impression (left) and the textile impression towards the bottom right. (Jan Blatchford)

Organic material from prehistory does not often survive, so the study of Neolithic textiles has to rely on secondary evidence, such as the impression that the fabric left when it was pressed against the wet clay of a pot 5,000 years ago. The impressions appear on the inner face of the vessel which suggests that they were made by the potter’s clothing during the pot’s creation.

The Ness of Brodgar team has been investigating this massive complex of monumental Neolithic buildings, in Orkney, since 2004, but all excavation and fieldwork was put on hold this year due to the pandemic.

The impressions were discovered during post-excavation examination of the huge quantities of pottery from the site. The project uses a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), which combines multiple photos of a subject to create a highly detailed image that can reveal surface details not visible during normal examination.

The Ness textile joins the Tap o’ Noth Pictish settlement in Aberdeenshire, where, in May, archaeologists from the Leverhulme Comparative Kingship Project uncovered evidence that up to 4,000 people may have lived or gathered in hundreds of houses on the summit around 1,700 to 1,400 years ago.

In Edinburgh, when lockdown was lifted in the summer, archaeologists began unearthing skeletons and artefacts from a medieval cemetery in Leith that were to be affected by the work to extend the Edinburgh Tram line to Newhaven.

The discovery of over 350 burials which could date as far back as 1300 came as no surprise, but this wasn’t the team’s only find. Others included a cannonball that may have been fired during the 1559-60 Siege of Leith, pottery and a coin of Dutch origin which dates to 1628, and bones from the fin of an adult sperm whale, dating to around 1800, which shone a spotlight on Leith’s industrial whaling past.

Dr Jeff Sanders, Project Manager at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s Dig It! project, said: “Archaeology is all about discovering Scotland’s stories and these are just some of the new chapters that have been added despite the pandemic, with other finds ranging from a major Iron Age village in Aberdeenshire to a “lost” medieval bridge in the Scottish Borders.

“As Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy reminds us, archaeology is for everyone, so we hope you’ve been inspired to get involved in 2021 when it’s safe to do so.”