Wednesday, July 9, 2008
On site and deturfing
It’s day three on site at the Ring of Brodgar and we still have to pinch ourselves to believe we are actually digging at this great monument!
The first two days was spent setting up the site – Historic Scotland Monuments Conservation Unit set up the fencing around the two trenches. Also, to our excitement, they set up their conveyor belt for us to get the turf and soil up out of the ditch as the sides are very steep.
Yesterday, we started removing turfs from both trenches and quite quickly located the edges of Colin Renfrew’s trenches from 1973 – which was due to surveyor Mary Saunder’s good work in putting the pegs in for us.
Today we were visited by Patricia Weeks of Historic Scotland, who has worked tirelessly to set up this project, and to whom we owe great thanks.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Trench C takes shape
Friday, July 11, 2008
Experiencing the scale of the monumental ditch
Hello! Antonia here, one of the team from Orkney College who is working on the site.
I will be supervising Trench C during these excavations, whilst Bob Nunn, from Bournemouth University, will be supervising Trench A, at the north of the site.
For the time being, however, we are all working away in Trench C (the southernmost trench), in order to make the most of the earth-moving conveyor belt before it is moved over to Bob’s trench next week. We have spent most of the week so far deturfing the steep slopes in Trench C, which has been quite difficult with all the heather and roots!
Everyone has worked really hard, especially the Manchester students Matt, Ruth, Sam and Seamus.
We will be carefully reinstating all the turf and the heather after the dig is finished, so are taking care not to damage any of the vegetation.
The line of the trench from the 1970s excavations, which were directed by Colin Renfrew, was clearly visible when we cleaned away the turf and the topsoil and we soon saw how shallow the soil was in some places.
Now we have started cleaning away the backfill from Renfrew’s trench and the loose topsoil, we can see the beautiful, cut bedrock underneath and we are really starting to get a feel for the massive ditch that surrounds the amazing Ring of Brodgar.
It is hard to imagine the huge social effort and hard work that would have gone into excavating this monumental ditch in the Neolithic, using only tools that were made from stone, wood or antler.
I still can’t quite believe that this is real and that we are actually digging at the Ring of Brodgar – it’s like a dream come true!
We are going to be having a rest this weekend, to ease our aching muscles, but we will be back with renewed vigour next week to get started on deturfing Bob’s trench and to get one step further to unravelling the secrets of this enigmatic site.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Work begins on the northern trench
Hi there! I’m Ruth, one of the Manchester University students involved in this fascinating excavation.
I have just finished my first year of studying geography and archaeology and cannot believe that my first dig is at the Ring of Brodgar!
We are now into our second week at the site, and, to be honest, it has been extremely hard work so far. However, when I see how much progress we have made, after just one week, it makes it all worthwhile.
The first couple of days were spent setting up the site and deturfing Trench C, which required a lot of hard labour and energy. I think the brilliant conveyer belt has become my new best friend!
The rest of the week involved us removing the remaining topsoil and trowelling away in the trench to uncover the amazing bedrock ditch. I definitely underestimated how much concentrated effort actually goes into trowelling since I have never done it before.
The photographs we took look great and really show how much we have accomplished in one short week.
As much as we enjoyed our first week, we were all obviously looking forward to a slightly more restful weekend!
Refreshed from a weekend off, we are now starting work on Trench A, the wetter trench to the north of the ring (and nearest the road), supervised by Bob Nunn of Bournemouth University. I think we were all anxious about the dreaded deturfing again, but it was amazing how quickly we got back into it. Once again it is a lot of work, but I’m helping just as much as the boys…
The weather seems to have been on our side so far and I think me and the other Manchester students are just about getting used to the wind up here!
I am looking forward to the next few days of working on the site as it really gives me an insight into the practical side of my course. The whole thing is a brilliant experience for me and I feel so lucky to be involved in such a wonderful project.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Hard going in waterlogged conditions
Hi, I’m Sam one of the students from Manchester University.
We’re into the second week of the excavation now and things are going great, to be honest, I was a bit intimidated when we first began, as I couldn’t believe we were actually digging a site that had once been dug by Colin Renfrew!
After a couple of days work though, I was getting more and more enthusiastic as I realised just how much of a great opportunity this was, and just how much fun field work really is.
We made great progress in the first week, getting Trench C well under way – the last three days we have been working in Bob’s trench – the one abandoned by Colin Renfrew due to flooding.
This trench, Trench A, is bigger than Trench C, so we thought it would take a long time to deturf it all, but with us all working together we got it done in one day – which was pretty impressive.
We are now in the process of cleaning the trench and carefully excavating the amazing rock face. It’s a bit harder going in this trench as it is one of the lowest sections of the site, so all the water naturally collects here, making the soil very heavy.
It will be worth it though, as it’s going to look amazing when it’s fully excavated. It should really put in perspective just how much effort the Neolithic people of Orkney put into this monument.
I have really enjoyed my course this year, but this practical experience is definitely the best part of it. It’s really helped show me what archaeology is really about. I’m very grateful to be here on this amazing site with a great group of people.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
The 1970s backfill removed
My name is Seamus and I am one of the undergraduates from Manchester University on the Brodgar dig.
It is really a great privilege to be a part of this great dig. The last couple of days have been quite strenuous and tiresome, but to see the results of our labour have made it all worthwhile.
The work on Trench A, under Bob’s supervision, has required a mass effort from the team. The peaty soils of this trench have made our task that little bit harder but we generally expected that. However, the trench looks really good now.
The backfill of Renfrew’s 1973 trench has been removed and we hope to explore a little further. Hopefully, when we go further, we may find organic materials for dating purposes and possibly preserved artefacts.
Also we have returned to Trench C, under the supervision of Antonia and Jane. We have started to trowel back our own sections. It is quite a tough task. The differences in soil types are quite subtle and the top layers have a tough layer of iron panning running through it.
Overall, the work on the site has been amazing and very educating. We had a couple of bad days of weather this week but the sun is out today and that always lifts morale. However it does encourage the flies to pester us.
Friday, July 18, 2008
Segmented digging and planning a stump
Well, today it rained.
Normally, we wouldn’t work in this weather, but on this occasion there were a number of important tasks that had to be accomplished.
My name is Colin Richards and I’m joint directing the excavation with Jane Downes. As Gordon Childe said, when working at the nearby passage grave of Maeshowe, it is a privilege to be undertaking fieldwork within the great Ring of Brodgar.
Today’s tasks included planning around the stump of a megalith (the one with the runic inscriptions) and lowering and stepping the level of the ditch to comply with health and safety standards.
The project is very multifaceted – obviously a main component concerns investigating the ditch deposits for datable material and botanical remains, but there are other aspects which are less hard work but just as interesting!
First, even in the small area we have uncovered the ditch is anything but regular. Indeed, it bulges outwards in the excavated area and and appears to contract in the adjacent (unexcavated) area.
This suggests that rather than being originally dug as a single entity, the ditch was probably dug in segments, perhaps over many years (even hundreds) and involving different groups of people.
This leads into another aspect of the project concerning the stones themselves.
It was noticed a few years ago that the circle is composed of different types of sandstone. We are now convinced these stones came from different parts of Orkney, again perhaps over a long period of time. The geophysical survey, which will begin on Monday, will tell us if the circle was ever complete.
It may not be – in fact due to its suspected ‘piecemeal’ construction it may never have formed a complete circle.
This is an interesting interpretation because it means that a visit to the site in c.3000BC (of course we do not know yet), may have been similar to that experienced today – with some sections of the circle complete but large gaps present awaiting stones to be dragged to the great circle.
Maybe that is half the fun of archaeology – attempting to imagine what things would have looked like and how people experienced their very different world. Over the next two weeks we will begin to unravel some of the missing information about this site, but as always the past will always be elusive and slip through our fingers like sand!
Monday, July 21, 2008
Geophysically scanning the great ring
Hello! I’m Matt, one of the four Manchester University first year students lucky enough to work on this highly impressive site for our first excavation.
So far, everything seems to be going great, with us starting the third week and having none of the flooding problems that Colin Renfrew suffered, when he partially excavated Trench A over 35 years ago.
Today, we’ve been carefully excavating the top few strata of that trench down to the iron pan, while, in the other trench, samples from each of the soil contexts are being taken.
Today is also the start of the most detailed geophysical survey of the site and surrounding area yet undertaken taken, which will hopefully answer questions such as whether the stone circle was ever as perfect and complete as is often assumed.
Excavation of the associated Ness of Brodgar Neolithic settlement site has also begun today so it’s a very busy time for everyone involved.
Some archaeologists from the Ness have been kind enough to give us a helping hand excavate Trench A, so we’re very thankful to them.
I feel particularly lucky that everyone I’ve been working with seems really nice and that everyone in the team not only gets on, but has great fun working with each other.
The team also seems to grow all the time as archaeologists volunteer their help purely because of how much of a tremendous opportunity it is to work on such a prestigious site.
In fact, on a calm sunny day like today it would be hard not to be grateful to be involved in this amazing experience. The only possible complaint would be to all the flies that are out today.
Special thanks to everyone that’s been involved in the excavation and made it such a memorable and enjoyable experience.
The best part of the dig, for me, is after every day’s work admiring how increasingly impressive the whole site seems, as the awe inspiring dimensions of the henge becoming increasingly more revealed and when realising we’ve been working in the shadows of those charismatic standing stones.
How strenuous it’s been just to excavate the ditch with modern tools makes us all more appreciate the feat of it’s construction by cutting it into the rock using the stone and bone tools of the Neolithic.
There’s a whole load of interesting things left to excavate that seem to have been left as treats for later on, like the enigmatic paving around trench A’s standing stone stump and the yet-to-be-bottomed wet trench. Theories and enthusiastic speculation abound as to what may be found under both, so I also can’t wait until we get round to those.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Investigating the Comet Stone
Hello! Ruth here again, and I’m here to update you on our latest progress at the wonderful Ring of Brodgar.
We began our third week with two of us working on Trench C, with Antonia and Jane, while the other two students continued to excavate Bob’s trench – Trench A in the northern section of the Ring.
We found working on Antonia’s trench rather difficult as it was hard to identify each particular layer as we were troweling down in order to obtain our samples. However, the end result yesterday looked brilliant and we were ready for the paleoenvironmental scientists, who have come from Stirling University to take samples in order to study the botanics and geomorphology of the soil. They are hoping to take some pollen samples from the top layers, which will be useful for their studies.
Over in Trench A today, we are continuing troweling down either side of Colin Renfrew’s 1973 trench in order to reach the bottom – something he never achieved due to the trench becoming waterlogged.
We are also sampling the layers which can become quite challenging, due to the wet nature of the material. I think a good clean of our waterproofs is in order when we are finished!
An interesting point to note in this trench are a number of mysterious stones in the bottom, which we are excavating around, and we are not sure yet as to why they are there, so this is something to investigate.
Other new events this week include the start of the Ness of Brodgar dig, which is getting well under way now.
Also, Adrian and Norma have started their resistivity studies around the Comet Stone and other surrounding areas of the ring to see if there is evidence of other standing stones which may have once been here in order to complete the circle. I have found this particularly interesting and hope to learn more about this.
Studies are also being undertaken carefully in the middle of the ring in order to see if there is any evidence of past features.
It really is astonishing how much we have accomplished on both trenches, particularly Trench A with it’s rich array of blue and orange colours depicting the different layers. So far so good, and with less than two weeks to go there is still plenty of work to be getting on with!
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Looking for the lost megaliths
Hello, from Norma and Adrian Challands on this warm, sunny day in Orkney.
We count ourselves lucky to be working on Brodgar and are currently carrying out tomography surveys.
Adrian has worked in Orkney practically every year – sometimes three or four times a year – since 1987, when he did geophysics at Barnhouse, and I have helped and dug on many Orkney sites too.
We live in North Cambridgeshire, near Peterborough, where we met both Jane and Colin at Etton, of the famed causewayed enclosure.
Bob Randall, who developed the TRS equipment we use for both resistivity and tomography, lives in the next village.
Whereas resistivity surveys take readings on a square grid in plan, tomography surveys take resistance readings in section – like, for instance, a bran scan which also employs tomography.
We are placing 40 probes, spaced at 0.5m intervals and equal depths, and taking readings on each probe, increasing the spacing at each of seven or eight runs.
The software produces readings in the shape of an inverted, truncated pyramid – representing a depth of 2m or so from the ground surface.
What we are looking for are stone holes between the standing stones and stubs. No luck so far, but we have only done one survey.
Now we are off to do more.
Friday, July 25, 2008
The end of a good week
Hello, Jane here again.
We are at the end of our third week of the four, so already the time to be thinking about the timing of filling the trenches back in again next week. Oh no, more backbreaking work for everyone!
We have had a good week.
The two trenches are now fully excavated to their deepest extent, and looking splendid.
The time capsule that Colin Renfrew’s team put in the bottom of the ditch in Trench C was out on display in the Orkney Museum, Kirkwall, and we are thinking what we will put in for our time capsule.
Bob McCulloch, and his partner Mary, who came from Stirling University to sample the trench sections, retrieved the samples successfully, and Bob had some interesting observations about the ditch having filled in very rapidly and perhaps being infilled deliberately. These issues will become clearer when the lab work has been done on the samples.
David Sanderson is here from SUERC, undertaking his sampling for dating purposes, and he will be writing to let you know how that is going.
This excavation is more about the retrieval of samples and the results that will come after the fieldwork. I say that because if any of us had had hopes of finding artefacts, we would have been sorely disappointed – unlike our friends at the Ness of Brodgar!
Monday, July 28, 2008
More to the ring than once thought?
An exciting day today, with Norma and Adrian Challands confirming the presence of no less that 19 stone sockets, running from the edge of Trench C, anti-clockwise past the south-eastern causeway, to Trench A.
Including the surviving stones and stumps, this means 36 stones once stood in that section (roughly half) of the stone circle.
The sockets near the south-eastern causeway were placed at a distance three metres apart. Although the space between the stones increased in the northern and north-western sections, the number hints that the Ring of Brodgar could have contained more than the 60 it has long been believed to contain!
A survey of the final section will be required to confirm this.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
What was it for?
Well, yesterday we finally completed the excavation of the larger northern ditch trench. In all honesty it looked absolutely spectacular.
It certainly took us a lot of time and energy simply removing its soft silts and fill. Completely rock-cut, the ditch in this sector is deep, very broad and flat-bottomed.
Working at its base makes you realise just how impressive this monument must have appeared when it was first excavated back in the third millennium BC.
Similarly, you appreciate the sheer scale of labour that was involved in cutting through the rock to form the ditch, let alone in quarrying and moving the stones forming the circle.
The colours of rock have been influenced by waterlogging, so the orange brown Orkney flagstones gives way to a deep grey-blue near the base of the ditch. Strangely enough this actually gives the appearance of water standing in the ditch bottom.
From this evidence it is quite clear that in the northern area, at least, standing water collected soon after the ditch was dug.
This may seem strange, but it is worth remembering that the surrounding ditch was cut to enclose the area of the stone circle and in the Orcadian island world water surrounded islands and people. Therefore, the use of water to create a division – to separate it from the rest of the world – was an appropriate strategy employing everyday imagery.
The great feat of labour employed in the digging of the ditch, albeit in segments or sections, provides some insight into just how important this separation was to Neolithic people.
Because it is such a striking monument, a common question that is asked of the Ring of Brodgar is “what was it for?”
I think the actual construction process is the key to understanding the monument and the labour mobilised.
However, in terms of architecture, the circle may not have been the most significant point in the landscape. With its opposed entrances, the circle may have been built around a pre-existing pathway and passing through it may have altered a person’s state – a bit like entering a church and moving towards the altar.
In this case the end point of the journey may have been further along the Ness of Brodgar.
Today we were visited by Peter Yeoman and Trisher Weeks of Historic Scotland. They are very enthusiastic about our work and finding out more about the Ring of Brodgar. Indeed, they have both been great in working hard to set up the project and it’s excellent that they will see the ditch in its current colourful state!
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Work at the Ring of Brodgar is almost over and the northern trench is being backfilled by hand. Normally, this would be done by machine but given the fragility of the archaeology in the area this was not possible.
It was hard work excavating the deep ditch and it seems a shame to almost immediately return the soil back into the ditch. Still, we have our conveyor belt which helps a lot and hard work is good for you…
Friday, August 1, 2008
Changing the story of the monument
Another voice to add to the blog: Laura Watts, here, an ethnographer from Lancaster University. I’m in Orkney until November researching the unique futures of these unique islands.
And the Ring of Brodgar is certainly a unique place, with a very unique future. It has endured for thousands of years, and will endure for thousands more.
Thanks to Jane Downes and Colin Richards, I’ve been helping on the dig.
What’s so exciting about being on site is being part of the long process by which our understanding of the Ring of Brodgar changes.
Through shifting buckets of earth and troweling a trench, in taking samples of soil for the lab, we are making new knowledge about this wonderful monument.
And so we are changing how the story of this monument will be told in the future. What will be in the guidebooks ten years from now, I wonder…
I have learned so much about how archaeology goes from soil, to sample, to sewing together interpretations of the past. Not least, I’ve learnt that doing archaeology can be hard work.
My hard-hat off to Bob and the four Manchester students, Ruth, Matt, Seamus and Sam, for their (seemingly always cheerful) sheer hard work in moving so much spoil from both trenches, to reveal their gleaming rock-cut magnificence.
And then, on Tuesday, we reluctantly had to begin the very sad process of putting it all back again, to make it as it was. This is what I wrote in my notebook after that day with a spade in my hands, helping to backfill Trench A:
“Blue spade, just the right weight, and I paddled my dirt downhill. Like a canoe. I bent forward and pulled my spade down from the end of the conveyer belt, where the soil piled never-ending, ceaseless, remorseless. And pulled hard, navigating through the soil, finding the end of the day. It ended at seven. We did stop in between, but the weight of soil pulled us down, down and in and on.”
But, of course, this is only the beginning.
The samples have to return from the various labs, all the results have to be woven together, and so the Ring of Brodgar’s new story has yet to be told…
Monday, August 4, 2008
It’s all over…
Well its Monday today, and I feel quite lonely now all the team have left Orkney (except Antonia who has moved on to the Ness of Brodgar).
We got the soil back in, and the turf back, on the, very rainy, last Friday – quite dispiriting, but all done now and back in one piece, except for a hole in the turfs in Trench A, where there weren’t enough to go back. Wonder if those Orkney voles spirited them away?
We had a visit last week to the site by Mike Russell, Minister for Environment and he also made a visit to the Orkney College Archaeology Department. He appeared very interested in Orkney’s archaeology, and we were glad he had chosen to visit when the Ring of Brodgar excavation was happening – and on a fabulous day too!
Colin and I gave a lecture in the Stenness Hall on Friday night, talking about our results, interpretations and thoughts so far. The hall was packed out and was another sign of the high level of interest in and enthusiasm for the work that has been done at Brodgar.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank those many visitors to the excavations for their interest and good wishes – and to those of you who have followed our progress online.
While we’re on the subject of thanks, we extend our sincerest thanks to the hard working excavation team – Bob, Antonia, Ruth, Matt, Seamus, Sam, Norma, Adrian, Dave, Louise, Duncan, Laura, and Donald too for lending a hand, to Sue, Mary and Amanda for geophysics and survey, to Adrian and the rest of the Historic Scotland MCU who were on site, to Sandra, Elaine, Keith and the other HS Rangers for their enthusiasm and fantastic tours, and to Historic Scotland themselves for permitting us to undertake the work and for their support.
Thank you all!
We’ll sign off now, to await the specialist results from the sampling…