Archaeology Live 2012: an award-winning night
Wednesday, 11 April 2012
A couple of weeks ago, archaeologists from all over the UK left their trenches, labs, libraries and museums and descended en masse on London’s Senate House. The occasion? Archaeology Live! Current Archaeology’s annual conference, now in its fourth year. As always Andante Travels was there, along with hundreds of professionals and amateur archaeologists and historians.
Over the weekend delegates were treated to a packed programme of speakers, relating the latest finds and findings from all Britain and beyond. There was a Viking boat burial in remote Scotland; a Neolithic chambered tomb in Orkney (yes another one!); the dilemma of excavating WWI battle sites, and a rather gut-churning discussion of intestinal parasites during the crusades (unfortunately scheduled just before lunch). More details can be found on the Archaeology Live! Website
The conference also sparked much discussion of the state of British archaeology. Many speakers forecast difficult times ahead – highlighting the recent cuts in museum grants and university funding, as well as the untimely demise of several ‘commercial’ archaeological consultancies. However, there were some chinks of light: amateur archaeology in Britain is clearly still very much alive and well – many of the excavations and projects we heard about were run almost entirely by local or student volunteers. In his keynote speech, Prof. Mark Horton from Bristol University also detailed several cases of local residents successfully campaigning to save sites and monuments from developers.
For us, the highlight of the conference came at the award ceremony on Friday night. This year we had double cause for celebration. Our very own Guide Lecturer Tony Wilmott was voted winner of Current Archaeology’s Archaeologist of the Year. Tony is a senior archaeologist at English Heritage and specialises in Romano-British and maritime archaeology. Those wishing to congratulate Tony in person can find him Defending our Shores, and also leading two tours to Pompeii and the Bay of Naples, later this year.
|Tony Wilmott receiving his award from Julian Richards|
We were also delighted to present the seventh annual Andante Archaeological Prize. Every year we offer a £2000 grant to support an original archaeological project in need of extra funds. We received a record number of entries for the award this year and it’s been heartening to learn about so much wonderful archaeology happening all over the world. Notable entries included an investigation of the colonial archaeology of Mauritius; a community-based heritage management scheme in Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and the Pantelleria Proto-History Project – looking at Iron-Age sites on this little-excavated island. However, in the end, we all felt there was one clear winner: The Ness of Brodgar, Orkney.
|Nick Card receiving his award from Denise Allen|
The Ness of Brodgar is a unique, large-scale, multi-phase Neolithic complex. The preservation of the site is, by all accounts, remarkable and recent excavations have uncovered an extraordinary range of structures and artefacts. The award money will help to fund the employment of an archaeologist dedicated to improving public access to “the Ness”, allowing many more people (including, we hope, Andante guests) to experience this extraordinary site. Below, Director of Excavations Nick Card tells us more…
The Ness of Brodgar, Orkney
The Ness of Brodgar lies at the heart of one of the richest archaeological landscapes in Europe as confirmed by the World Heritage status of several nearby monuments. From the Ness, the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Sites (WHS) of the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maes Howe, the Watch Stone and the Barnhouse Stone are visible. On the south side of the Bridge of Brodgar, barely 300m distant, is the Neolithic settlement of Barnhouse.
The central chamber of Structure 10
However this wonderful array of upstanding monuments is only a small percentage of what was present in the area 4-5,500 years ago when these sites were constructed and used in the Neolithic period. Recent research has shown that although there has been great interest in the area since the days of antiquarians, there is still much to be discovered – discoveries that are not only transforming our perceptions of these monuments, their builders and the landscape they inhabited, but also the Neolithic of Atlantic Europe.
The opportunity to excavate at the Ness initially happened by chance. In March 2003, a large stone slab was brought to the surface when the field was last ploughed. The large slab had 4 large notches (like a double pair of hand holds) created along one edge, with the opposite edge beautifully rebated. Trial trenching instead revealed part of a large stone building, exhibiting architecture very reminiscent of Structure 2 at the nearby Neolithic settlement of Barnhouse. It too had very regular architecture with sharp internal angles, beautifully coursed stonework and corner buttresses.
From 2004 to 2007 a series of small exploratory trenches were opened in order to clarify the make-up of the site. What these limited trenches revealed was truly astounding. No evidence was found for activity other than Neolithic, and the large whaleback ridge (circa 250m by 100m) was substantially artificial in nature – up to 3 to 4 metres of archaeology that resembled a Middle Eastern ‘tell’ site rather than an Orcadian Neolithic site – a sequence of structures that spanned over a millennium of activity (circa 3200-2200 BC).
In order to obtain a fuller understanding of the site large scale excavation was deemed necessary. As the trenches grew (though still less than 10% of the area has been explored) the scale and true complexity of the site started to become apparent: the scale of the building at the Ness was in every sense monumental. During the major later phases so far investigated, the site was dominated by a group of large complex stone buildings that were contained within a massive walled enclosure (circa 125 metres by 75 metres with walls up to 6 metres thick). The evidence would suggest that at least in these later phases this was primarily non-domestic, but a complex of buildings that was an integral part of this rich ritual landscape – perhaps a temple precinct.
Earlier phases of the site are now becoming evident with several oval structures starting to appear under, and in some cases partially incorporated into, the later phases. These may not however be the earliest on site as the potential depth of archaeology points towards earlier activity below. To date however the complex would seem to all date to the Later Neolithic as indicated by a rich material assemblage dominated by Grooved Ware pottery (a pan British Isles phenomena that probably had its origins in Orkney).
The main structures so far revealed are impressive not only with regards to their scale, and symmetrical architecture, but also their art (with over 200 stones exhibiting both finely incised geometric designs and pecked motifs), and their preservation with walls surviving to in excess of a metre in height (1.8m in places!). Their unusual nature has been further emphasised by the discovery of evidence for stone tiled roofs and the use of pigments to decorate their walls.
In the penultimate major phase four main buildings all are of the same monumental nature and exhibit the same angular and symmetrical architecture with tapered stone piers employed to create recesses along their inner wall faces. The extraordinary array of finds so far recovered include a large whale tooth, many polished stone items, a whalebone macehead, and a polished shale object - indicate a special non-domestic function.
|Selection of polished stone axes and mace heads - beautiful but deadly!||Rare Neolithic figurine "Brodgar Boy"|
Despite the splendour of this phase of the Ness, somewhere around the mid third millennium BC these buildings were partially demolished and infilled with ashy dumps of material. However what they were replaced with was even more extraordinary – Structure 10. In terms of its scale (at over 20m long by 19 metres wide; with 4metre thick walls); complexity (the incorporation of standing stones, surrounding paved passage and its alignment with Maes Howe); design; and its art, Structure 10 shows a marked departure from earlier phases. Does this change mark a major change in society or beliefs – the emergence of a hierarchy?
Until 2011 one of the puzzles regarding Structure 10 was the contrast between the beautiful external stonework and the less than perfect, almost shoddily built internal wall of the central cruciform shaped chamber. This was thought to imply that Structure 10 was merely meant to impress from the outside from where most people would have viewed it and that internally the finish was of much less concern. In 2011 it was realised that internally, Structure 10 has been quite dramatically altered and that the corner buttresses (like those in Maes Howe) are later additions. In its primary phase its internal floor plan was a square with rounded internal corners, much like Structure 8 at Barnhouse. In this initial plan is some of the most elaborate, visually stunning and best Neolithic stonework to be found anywhere in the Neolithic of northern Europe (even surpassing Maes Howe)!! Unfortunately most of the inner wall faces of this earlier phase have been robbed out but what remains provides a tantalizing glimpse of the inner grandeur of the original Structure 10 that matched if not surpassed its exterior. It is hoped that some of this primary walling may have escaped robbing behind the later SW buttress and may be revealed in 2012.
It is not only the construction and use of Structure 10 but also its demise that is quite extraordinary. As part of a closing process, a massive bone layer was deposited in the surrounding paved passage that encircles Structure 10. This deposit is reminiscent of that uncovered in association with two Early Bronze Age barrows at Irthlingborough, Northamptonshire and Gayhurst, Preliminary assessment of the Ness bone by Dr Ingrid Mainland has shown that it is predominantly cattle tibia representing perhaps hundreds of individual cattle – remnants of a final ‘decommissioning’ feast?
|Excavating a massive cattle bone deposit|
All of these discoveries would seem to emphasise the special nature of the Ness - not only the buildings, the art, its enclosing walls but also the wide range of finds including ones that indicate widespread contacts such as flint from Yorkshire and pitchstone from Arran.
But this is not just a site for professional archaeologists. The sharing of these wonderful discoveries to all aspects of the wider community is a very important element of the Ness. Each year we are joined by students and volunteers from around the globe, and encourage the next generation of archaeologists through our ‘Excavation Club’ for 12-16 year olds. Thousands of visitors attend our twice daily free guided tours. Fieldwork in 2012 will take place from the 16th July - 24th August – do pay us a visit and share the experience. Or if you are unable to visit in person you can still follow the progress of the site through an illustrated ‘daily diary’ on the website Orkneyjar (highly recommended for all aspects of Orcadian history, folklore and archaeology) where you will also find more background information on the Ness of Brodgar.
|The excavation club proving you're never too young to trowel!|
Excavation have been supported by Orkney Islands Council, Orkneyjar.com, Historic Scotland, the Russell Trust, European Leader Funding, the Robert Kiln Trust, Orkney Archaeology Society, the British Academy, the Royal Archaeological Institute, the landowners the Taits and Carole Hoey, and numerous individuals from around the world – and now Andante Travel – thank you all from the whole of the Ness of Brodgar Team at the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology, Orkney College University of Highlands and Islands.