One More Thing…

Just a silly photo of that “face stone” I uncovered the other day :-)


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Homeward Bound

Thursday passed quickly with scraping and brushing dirt and stones to make them look nice for final photos. Over in Structure 10 they found several unexpected massive flat stones forming a foundation or walkway. Their extent won’t be known for at least another season.

We had all four seasons in one day. It started moist and chilly, went to rainy and blustery, then partially sunny and windy, finishing with full sun late in the afternoon and into the evening for the wrap party at the director’s house, just a mile from the site.

My return travel today started at Stromness with a bus to Kirkwall, then another bus to South Ronaldsay’s southern-most point where we caught a pedestrian-only ferry over to John O’Groats on the mainland. There an express bus took me to Inverness, and another bus got me to Glasgow, where I hopped a shuttle bus to airport.

(The bus from Inverness to Glasgow took four hours and cost only 13 pounds. The shuttle bus to the airport cost 5 pounds and took 20 minutes. But at least the latter had free wi-fi that let me buy and download a book from for reading on the plane tomorrow.)

Coming down across Scotland took us through Stirling, where I studied for a term in 1987. Got some photos of the castle there, and saw a lot of signs with familiar names from biking extensively around the area way back then.

Sadly, I’ve caught a cold, so traveling tomorrow’s not going to be much fun. See you on the other side.



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You Rubble Scum

Second-to-last day for me here at the Ness o’ Brodgar, and wishing it was longer whilst at the same time longing for hearth and home and kith and kin!

For me and my trenchmate Woody it was a day of moving rock, one bucketful at a time, as we removed “rubble” from our area in order to help our trench supervisor form a clearer opinion as to what’s going on in terms of building sequence and other aspects of what we’re digging up.

The apparent rubble is a mish-mash of stones that have no clear meaning or association with any structural elements of the building. They have created a huge mess because in between them are deposits of various color, consistency, and constituency. In order to understand the history of the site we try to go down one layer at a time, but the rubble makes that rather difficult.

After removing a lot of rubble and the material that has filled in between stones, we did find the top of a rather long orthostat (slab of stone standing on edge), which usually indicates an internal division in a building. We also found an unusually long, narrow stone that’s lying on its side, as opposed to its “front” or “back” (determined by its internal grain) as it would be placed if it was used as part of a wall. I suspect it was some kind of pillar that’s now fallen sideways, but alas we haven’t time to pursue any more of these this season.

We also came down on a number of dressed slabs that may be the remains of a collapsed roof. When I think of stone roofing, I imagine modern-type small, thin pieces of slate. While out on Hoy, though, we had close-up views of Orkney buildings (still in use) that have rather larger and thicker slabs of roofing stone supported with a wooden frame and packed with clay for caulking. What we have in our area – stone slabs and deposits of a white clay – could definitely be a collapsed roof, with later material tossed in on top, either over a short term in the past, or over many years.

Tomorrow we’ll begin cleaning, photographing, and planning (drawing to scale on graph paper) everything in the area. That work will be completed next week, and the whole site will be covered with heave plastic weighted down with sandbags for next year’s team to unpack and continue researching.

Elsewhere on site, a gorgeous axe of gneiss turned up under the trowel of a student on her first dig. Below are photos of it as well as her excavation under close scrutiny of her trench supervisor and the project director and media photographers. Talk about working under pressure!

(To be fair: she could certainly abdicate the actual excavation if she wanted to; but even with such fine artifacts, this project allows the finders to bring out their material – the supervisors and directors don’t hop in at the last minute to claim the glory.)



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Stromness Town

That wind did presage rain, enough that it drove us off site today after only an hour’s work. Wet weather made a good excuse to visit the Stromness Museum just down the street from our house. It specializes in the maritime and natural history of the area (as opposed to the archaeological history, which the Kirkwall Museum covers).

Displays included lighthouses, lifeboats, famous local sailors and pirates, many stuffed birds, shell collections, artifacts from the British and German navies from World War I and II, models of sailing ships, expeditions to the arctic, a tin fiddle, etc. I spent a good three hours there, and then hit the library to catch up on blog posts, email, some Facebook, and updates for Angry Birds to play on the way home.

At this point I have two days of digging left. Thursday evening the site director will be having everyone over to his house for an end-of-season party. Friday at 9:00 am I have a bus to catch from Kirkwall to a ferry that goes over to the mainland at John O’Groats (a new route for me). Thence an express bus to Inverness, and after that either a train or bus to Glasgow, and somehow to the airport.

After dinner three of us drove over to Kirkwall to attend a lecture by a Japanese professor who’s traveling on his sabbatical. He spoke about Jomon Ware, a kind of pottery he’s excavated and studied for a while now. If you thought our 5,000-year-old pots were old, check out his. They date back to 14,000 B.C. – yes, they are sixteen thousand years old (by C14 dating of carbonized plant remains stuck to their pieces). His lecture packed the venue with some 75 or more people in attendance. That demonstrates the keen interest in such things in Orkney, where it’s said that if you scratch the landscape it bleeds archaeology.

Back from the talk we found a heavy fog settled over town, so I went out and shot half a dozen immersive panoramas for later posting. The fog drapes the town and makes it feel even older than its few hundred years. All that’s really missing is the noise of horses and wagons on the stone streets to push back time.

One of the coolest items in the Stromness Museum is a large collection of then / now photo pairs. To create these, the photographer found numerous early photos of the town – back to sailing ship days – and then went to the exact spot and shot what’s there now. Much has not changed. Much has. Comparing and contrasting the differences and similarities adds perspective to both views.

Stromness definitely beats Kirkwall for me in terms of atmosphere. It does not offer nearly as much to do in terms of venues and shopping, but it’s more on the sea, and offers easier access to seaside hikes. And it does not have modern cruise ships parked in the harbor.

The house to the right of the white one in the photo is where we’re staying.


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Hang On To Your Hats!

All night we listened to the wind howl. It did not let up today. At all. It actually grew in strength through the day, and it feels like it’s blowing in some nasty weather. Right now, at 10:30 pm, it continues to howl and bluster outside. The ocean outside my window looks mean.

Because we had so much sun and wind over the weekend, some diggers on site today ran a hose from the nearby house and sprayed their area with it. Others used a backpack sprayer instead. It’s amazing that we had to wet down the dirt in Orkney!

Sometimes digging with this much wind requires safety goggles or very large sunglasses, and indeed some people wore them. Others worked down deep enough in the trenches, though, that they could hide from blowing dirt and dust being generated by others.

For my part, the day passed working in the midden area of Structure 8. Even before first tea break an interesting stone came to light. As I removed dirt from atop and around it, I noticed a resemblance to a face, with the way it had two large symmetrical curving nose-outlining areas, and then the “nose” appeared to be truncated. Others viewing the stone – without my prompting – also remarked on the strange appearance and face-like features. Most thought that one such curve might be a natural flaking of the stone, but two, and symmetrical, not so likely.

That stone remains in situ for the moment. The more I look at it (and as it dried out and the lighting changed), the more it seems purely natural flaking to me. The human mind likes to see faces, and to have this be a human-made Neolithic anthropomorphic stone would be unprecedented. We spent much of today preparing our work area for photos, which were taken late in the day. Tomorrow we expect to clear a layer of rubble and go from there. The face-stone might then be removed for closer examination.

That is, if the wind doesn’t blow Orkney away during the night!

(See the official dig blog linked on the right for news about some cool finds made by others today.)


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A Hoy There

Shelley and I visited the island of Hoy today, arriving there via 30-minute ferry ride from the pier just down the street in Stromness. We rented bikes in order to be able to see more of the place in our mandatory eight-hour stay (there’s only one ferry back on Sundays). Hoy dominates the skyline for much of this area – if you see photos of our dig with a pair of (usually cloudy) mountains in the background, you see Hoy.

Our primary objective was to see the Old Man of Hoy, a geologic formation known as a stack, which is the free-standing remains of harder rock that results when softer rock is worn away to each side and behind. This one is the tallest in Britain, about 450 feet high, and often serves as am emblem for all of Orkney, and anyone who arrives via one of the major ferry routes from mainland Scotland will see it along the way.

We also planned to see the Dwarfie Stane, a large block of stone out in the middle of nowhere that’s been carved out so that it is mostly hollow, but has kind of a divided chamber to one side and a more open on one the other. Most likely this was a tomb made thousands of years ago by a laborious process of pecking out the interior with other stones or antlers. Or perhaps careful use of heating / freezing cycles could be employed to achieve the result we have now.

Luckily the weather cooperated for this trip: sunny and dry for the most part. But windy! Oh, so windy. At times we had to pedal downhill. With respect to hiking out to the Old Man, not so far away from cliff edges, and then viewing the Old Man from rather close to cliff edges, the wind was not welcome at all.

Returning from the Old Man trek, we decided to visit the nearby beaches of Rackwick. In the early afternoon, with the sun on the azure water and white sand, it almost seemed tropical. Not a day for swimming, though, with the cold water and blustery winds!

On the way back from Rackwick we stopped at the Dwarfie Stane and hiked a short ways out to it, across a nice boardwalk. Whilst there taking photos and poking about, a small group of people arrived. I could hardly believe it, but it turned out to be Jennifer Wrigley and her family! (She’s the fiddle player I went to see in town the previous weekend). We had a nice chat about playing fiddles, music, archaeology, the Dwarfie Stane, etc. It turns out that she hasn’t visited the Stane since a grade-school field trip.

Last on our agenda, we tried to find the Braebuster broch, but no joy. We cycled around where the map indicated it would be found, but if it’s there it must have been down near the shore, out of sight, and too far away to allow time to hike to find out for sure. So we headed for tea and scones at the cafe next to the ferry pier and found it – most thankfully – to be open. The wind had – if anything – picked up and become worse, and colder, and clouds had come in to block the sunlight.

We feared the ferry ride back to Stromness would result in loss of both tea and scones, because the water looked rather rough (with wind and strong tidal effects). However, the ferry ran smoothly and we returned in time for a late dinner and our last cider together for this trip: Shelley leaves in the morning.




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County Show Day

Yesterday we ended the week with a chilly digging day, making me wonder why I didn’t sign up for a project in the Bahamas or Mediterranean somewhere. We spent the day slowly troweling in our midden area trying to figure out the deposition order of various layers, especially in relation to lots of rubble that did not make much sense.

My contribution to the interpretation: we should call it the Rubble Without a Cause.

Anyway… by the end of the day the trench supervisor left happy he had a better understanding of the deposits and a clear way forward for removing it next week.

Later in the evening, a couple of diggers came over for a visit, and much was drunk by all. They recently married and didn’t like their hyphenated last names, so they chose something complete different: Calrissian.

Today, Saturday, Shelley and I attended the County Show in Kirkwall, along with most of the county. It’s not much different from fairs that we attend at home, except that it’s just one day, and all the animals are showed and judged outside. We started with breakfast while watching the showing and judging of a huge bull. Then we visited the sheep, followed by horses, specifically very young kids on led miniature ponies.

Later we watch some horse jumping (the winner easily cleared 1.5 meters to win 100 pounds). There was a dog show, owls / raptors display, tractors and farm equipment displays, arts and crafts vendor tents, food of usual and unusual sorts (smoked cheddar cheese, lobster, whiskey from the local distillery), etc. All in all, a nice little fair.

Around noon the sun came out – and stayed out will past 9:30 pm – so a great day finally for being outside here. We walked back to central Kirkwall, bought some skate wings for me to make for everyone at dinner (with browned butter and capers), and had a very fresh lunch of fish and chips.

Unfortunately – because it was County Show Day – The Reel’s Saturday-night trad music session was canceled.

After dinner Shelley and I went tide-pooling along the shore near our house. We found a large dead eel and a cool mudskipper kind of fish.




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Pots and Spatulas

Shelley arrived Tuesday, so I worked only up until tea break in the morning, in order to get over to Kirkwall via bus to meet her at the airport. We caught a taxi back to town, then a bus to Stromness. We got her settled in and oriented, then I caught a bus back to the site and arrived at afternoon tea break, finishing the day with removal of the balk in the central midden area.

Wednesday passed uneventfully with balk removal. My discoveries included only a couple flint flakes and a few deposits of rotten pottery. Near the site, however, a local potter and at least one American student set up an experimental kiln. They built a circle of turfs with three stone-lined air intakes at the base, about two feet high. Inside they piled kindling and pots and cow bones. They lit that, got the fire going, and then piled grass into a large mound over the whole thing.

And boy, did that thing stink! Smoke wafted over us all afternoon, and the smell of the burning bone really put us off wanting any BBQ for dinner. Hopefully their efforts will result in some useful data. They have various sensors and indicators inside the kiln to make measurements of heat so that they can learn from the process.

Today – all day – we had to endure the lingering odor from the experimental kiln. When we arrived on site, all the material in and over the kiln had burned to ashes, leaving only the fired pots inside, and some burned bone bits. One of the very large pots had cracked badly, but the rest looked good to me. I didn’t get a chance to speak with the potter to learn what he found out with this firing.

Despite the foul air, the day proved productive. We completed removal of the balk, and found some stones beneath it that appear to be significant in terms of defining some of the wall or pier structures in the area. These findings work against the expectations of the trench supervisor, who’s now not as sure what’s going on activity-wise in our area. Later work turned up an area of burning, apparently in situ (i.e., not dumped burned material), and this is causing the trench supervisor even worse problems in terms of interpretation of what was going on here.

After the balk removal, I was assigned an area to clean (scrape with a trowel to remove traces of people trodding in the area and get rid dried soil to bring fresh colors to light). A few minutes of scraping later, out popped my first stone tool! It’s a nice one, to be sure, and warranted its own photos as it was found. What is it? Some kind of spatula (see photo below). Of course its exact purpose cannot be known, but it was probably used for grinding something, given the wear and chipping on its rounded “front” end.

Elsewhere on site, causing great excitement, others found a large, oblong quern stone, which had its worn, polished basin situated within a rather uneven base stone – it does not sit level on its own. Also, a rough stone ball came up. Polished stone balls are exceptional Neolithic finds and everyone hopes that one will eventually turn up somewhere on the site. I believe the rough one is unique here so far. (My stone spatula is not the first for the site although it may be the first for this season.)

Tomorrow we’ll probably work toward determining what the burned deposits mean and removing a lot of rubble in the area to get a better idea of what’s going on with the stones underneath it. The weather is expected to be dry and overcast as it has been for the past two days, with the occasional light shower passing through.



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Knapping in the Rain

Just after lunch started, so did the rain. When it had not let up after an hour, the director sent everyone home.

During lunchtime, though, one of the site supervisors demonstrated flint knapping, i.e., how to make stone tools out of a large block of flint. First he used a large piece of antler as a hammer to knock the rock into a generally workable shape, then he continued further rough shaping with a large round cobble whacked against the flint.

This process resulted in an almost usable hand-sized chunk of rock with sharp edges. Lastly he used a small piece of antler repeatedly pressed to the stone in order to flake off little pieces, producing a sharp, shaped edge. This process demonstrates how little time it takes to make utility stone tools from scratch. Somehow, I’ve never seen someone do this before, so I found it most interesting.

With the afternoon free, we came home and I finished up “Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages,” a book about tracing these and other drink backwards in time using various kinds of archaeological evidence, including high-tech analyses of residues found on ancient pottery. Many cultures, time periods, and fermentation methods are examined throughout the world. The author also covers several attempts at recreating ancient beverages, some of which I’ve already tried, and others that are at home to try soon. You can buy these at stores with larger selections of beers and wines.


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Eday Day

The open session last night at The Reel started slowly with only three musicians, but ended with the Wrigley Sisters performing some amazing tunes, especially the one with the fiddle. Astounding skills to be sure, and only a few feet away from me for the evening. I’ll be looking up more of their music on Spotify or buying some if they aren’t on there.

The buses from Kirkwall back to Stromness have an irregular schedule, and given our plans for the day out on Sunday, I opted to leave the music about 10:45 (just when it was getting good) rather than wait for the next – and last – bus at 1:00 am. Upon boarding the bus, though, the driver informed me that because of connecting ferry issues, it would be likely that I’d be riding around on it for two hours, and still end up back in Kirkwall for the last bus. So I opted to return to the music. But that ended (early) at 12:15, which meant hanging out in the bus stop with quite a few highly drunk teenagers.

The waiting passed without incident, thankfully, but the bus ride itself was marred by a group of four American college kids. Loud. Really, really loud. And crass and crude. Obnoxious to say the least. All four are affiliated with the dig as part of a larger group from one institution, as was quite clearly proclaimed from their own mouths on the bus. I’ve never been so embarrassed. About 10 locals on the bus seemed that way too.

Anyway, despite a thoroughly miserable wet and chilly day we took a ferry to the island of Eday, about 1:15 ship time north of Mainland Orkney. We visited a large standing stone and a small chambered tomb that’s thousands of years old. These things are open to the public to explore and each is unique in some way. I shot the interior 360-degrees as well as a complete panorama from atop the hill where it’s situated, but I don’t have post-production software on the iPad, so the end results won’t be ready until back at home.

(No, I’m not going to try to use the iPad to control my home desktop computer again for this stuff. It worked as an experiment, but I don’t have good Internet here and don’t want to waste time abroad trying to pull that off again.)

Tomorrow it’s back to digging!


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