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Saturday 22 August 2009

Ness of Brodgar dig

I was standing in the middle of a field, with rain dripping off my nose, holding a stone mace head that, up until a few weeks ago, had lain hidden under tons of earth for the last 5,000 years...... I can't really find the words to express the feeling, but it *was* brilliant!

I'd finally got a chance to go and visit the Ness of Brodgar dig. (This blog post won't do justice to the site and all the hard work of the archaeologists, so do take a look at *their* blog.) Unfortunately the day I was over on the Orkney Mainland was also A Very Blustery Day (as Winnie The Pooh would say) and it was chucking it down, rainwise. However undaunted I parked on the edge of the dig and joined around 30 other enthusiastic people to hear one of the team working on the dig give us some insight into what they had been doing this summer.

The excitement of the young archaeologist giving us the guided tour was palpable. The dig had been revealing it's secrets slowly but surely. Stones with curious markings, the remains of a shattered but still upright standing stone, pieces of pottery, an axe head, and the beautiful smooth remains of the mace head that I held in my hand.

The site is huge and, thankfully, funding has been found to continue the work next year. There are tempting glimpses of other structures yet to be revealed, and the geophysics hinting at past shapes of stone structures.

The stone walls are made of sandstone which naturally breaks very cleanly so the old walls look like "dressed" stone, with clean lines. No one is yet sure what the site would have been used for. Several of the structures are too big to be domestic dwellings, so the archeologists are piecing together the evidece as they slowly scrape and sift through all the earth that has covered the site for thousands of years.

And right through the middle of the site is a Scottish Water mains water main! This was put in during the 1960's when no one was really aware of what lay beneath. One can imagine the cursing and swearing that went on as the workmen tried to lay pipe through all that stone. In one sense it seemed sacrilege to see the water main cutting it's linear way through the ancient stone settlement, yet in another, it felt like a natural continuity as humankind makes its mark on the landscape, generation after generation.

And another team of archaeologists are excavating on the island of Westray (Links of Notland) and this week unearthed a neolithic carving of a human figure (picture and report here). It's reported to be the earliest carving of a human figure found in Scotland. It's tiny (3.5 cm x 3 cm) but is a significant find. Well it has been said that "scratch the surface of Orkney and it bleeds archeology" and that's certainly been true this year.

My memory will hold the feeling of the stone mace and I will continue to wonder at the craftsman who carefully fashioned the stone into a working tool with skill, patience and effort over five thousand years ago.......

(Sunday note: I've just found some information on a dig going on at the Brough of Deerness (East Mainland of Orkney) too - for more info click here


  1. I envy you the opportunity to hold that mace head, Sian. What a feeling!

    This is so cool!

  2. I've only gotten to the first paragraph today, and I already have goosebumps!!! I think I'd probably burst into tears.

    OK - now I've taken a deep breath, and finished your post for today. What an incredible experience for you! Where is the Ness in relation to the Ring of Brodgar? And what exactly is a Ness?

  3. I'm so jealous. I've been enjoying the blog of the dig since you mentioned it. What a thrill to be allowed to handle something of that age.

  4. Pat - yes it was great to be able to actually handle the mace "in situ" instead of just looking at it in a museum in a glass case!

    MaryZ: Sorry - forgot you'd asked those questions last time! Have checked and "Ness" means "point of land". As in many Orkney names it's derived from the Norse (Viking) I think. Very common in Orkney as in "Stromness". Though modern day names sometimes get a little confused - as the campsite in Stromness is at the "Point of Ness" - which trnslates as the Point Of Point of Land.

    Where is the Ness in relation to the Ring of Brodgar - well it's between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness just before you get to the causeway between the Lochs that links the two. It's on the same side of the road as the Ring. So it will have been a key site as there is the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and the settlement at Barnhouse (near the stones of Stenness).

    JeanZ: I forget how lucky I am to actually be in the vicinity as history unfolds. It's brilliant! And I found a link to another archeological site today too - I've put a link at the bottom of the blog post.

  5. Anyone interested in the history of Orkney will find a great resource at which is produced by Sigurd Towrie, a local Orcadian writer and reporter. Well worth a look!

  6. Sian, you are so fortunate. The sense of the past is so overwhelming in Orkney and to be able to see it unfolding must be emotional as well as exciting. My daughter, Maria, is going to study Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge - yes, the college came up trumps after all the stress! I do so envy her. Perhaps I will have to pursue some study of my own - if only work wasn't quite so necessary & time consuming. No. you've quite inspired me; perhaps I'll start with the OU Prospectus. Who knows.......?!!

  7. Jo - congratulations to your daughter! Fantastic news and how exciting for her. And yes you should try the OU - I've done various courses over the years - some for fun some for work, and I do highly recommend the OU! Go for it - especially if it's for fun! Even if you don't complete all the assignments the course materials are a brilliant resource for use anytime.