Westray 2002: The Excavation Diary
Happy Canada Day!
Another season begins this crisp clear morning, as a new enthusiastic dig crew sally forth to the site to begin another six weeks' work. After a frantic first night allocating accommodation and erecting tents, the first order of the day was to gather equipment and personnel at Quoygrew and the lab, and begin to set up camp, put up the first of the army tents, and send Haskins to dig a cess pit...
In the lab, Jen and Cath began to prepare to receive this year's finds and samples, clearing the barn that will once again serve as our field laboratory, and setting out analysis equipment. Jen begins work on the website and digital photography...
These menial chores completed, the next job was to begin the arduous task of removing the backfill and black plastic sheeting from the longhouse in Area F. This had been placed over the trench at the end of last year's season to protect the archaeology from the harsh Orcadian winter storms, and seems to have done its job admirably, with little or no erosion evident. Hopefully the removal of backfill should be completed tomorrow, leaving us able to continue excavation of the house uninterrupted.
This year, work on Area F has been split into two sections: Structure One (to the west, the earlier part of the building) and Structure 2 (to the east, a later addition). James Gerrard is in charge of supervising work on Structure 1, and Lennard Structure 2.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the survey team (Marcus with Eva and Mags) were also setting up equipment, using the theodolite to reset last year's trenches.
The weather remains warm and relatively still for the whole day, with sunny spells punctuated briefly by light cloud, easing us gently into the season. The day ends with James' annual site tour for the newcomers, providing a summary of the project aims and work to date.
We've been here only a day, and already we miss Tom, Tessa, Sven, Steve Dobson, Sarah, Ray, Craig and Catherine from last season. Here's sending them love from the trenches, and looking forward to a productive and enjoyable six weeks!
A second morning of warm, dry weather began as the previous day had ended; shovelling earth off Area F to reveal the plastic sheet that shields it. At the eastern end, the sheeting was cleared and removed quite soon, and over the course of the day, the rest of the house was revealed. In Structure 1, James and his team remove the last of the backfill, and begin to take out the sectioned balks that bisect the house.
The lab was largely empty today, with Jen, Cath and James Ratcliffe setting up the flotation tanks further down the beach, watched cautiously from the water by a group of seals. The flotation tank was found to be unusable, however, as the drainage tap had seized up.
The morning was punctuated by the southward passage of an oil platform on the horizon, being towed at a fair old lick down from Shetland or the North Sea.
On site, Marcus took delivery of a second TST, on hire from Leica, and put it to good use checking and adjusting the marker pegs surrounding Area F (which will later be used as a guide for planning), aided by Hannah. Mags was particularly impressed with the new TST's laser plumb, allowing for even greater accuracy in the site survey.
After a showery lunch, Jen and her flot team began the year's sample analysis with some coarse sieving, after which she and Marcus removed to the caravan to work on the computers.
By the end of the day, most of Area F had been cleared and photo-trowelled, and was ready to be photographed before excavation begins in earnest tomorrow...
The morning began in Area F, with initial photography and photo-trowelling before excavation began in earnest. Lennard and the Structure 2 crew begin by taking up the bottom layer of flagstones from the floor, coming down onto an ash layer which is in the process of being sampled. This ash floor appears to be broadly contemporary with the construction of this part of the house and underlies two phases of flagstone flooring divided by a layer of re-deposited midden material. On survey, boundary pegs were swiftly laid in and recorded, just in time for the day's first finds to be three-point-provenanced.
Based on work in previous years, Structure 2 was probably originally built as a bedchamber extension to Structure 1, but later it seems to have been used for a wide variety of things, including metalworking and agricultural purposes. With its smooth flagstone flooring and potentially two opposing doors in the later phase of occupation, it is quite possible that it functioned as a threshing barn for a time.
Find-of-the-day today goes to Dave Fell's interesting whalebone object, which would have been used secure two ropes of variable length, perhaps as part of a ship's rigging, or when tying up livestock. Vicky's fishing line sinker (or possibly a rough spindle whorl) came a very close second.
Out on flotation again, Jen and her team made a quick trip to consult with Ivan at Rendall's shop, and came away having solved their seized tap problem of yesterday with the installation of a new faucet assembly. Flotation can now proceed unhindered. Work on the coarse sieving is also much aided by a yellow spray-gun nozzle; thanks, Craig!
In the afternoon, stakes were plotted and laid in 6m seaward of Area F, marking the corners of the proposed extension of the trench, which will hopefully allow the stratigraphy of the longhouse and the fish-midden eroding from the wave-cut bank to be accurately mapped together, providing a more secure chronology for the site.
Further down the beach, the flotters caught sight of a rodent scurrying through the undergrowth for a second time. Jen and her crew saw this animal yesterday, and it is most likely to be an Orkney Vole (Microtus arvalis) with a nest nearby. However, this doesn't make up for the fact that Fünf, the original lab cat, hasn't been seen since Monday. Perhaps she's missing Sarah and her unending supply of cat crunchies.
By the end of the day, Terry and his intrepid crew of fieldwalkers had bagged approximately 20 unrecorded monuments this week!
Finally, in the third of what he has promised will be many "boring" after-dinner announcements, James explained that the catering-sized box of cornflakes he had ordered for next week's breakfasts, rather than simply being a large box of cornflakes, instead consists of hundreds of tiny, individually-boxed portions...
Monument survey continued apace this morning as Jamie, Marcus, and Tim Tatlioglu began shooting in the recorded monuments with a TST, starting in Field 96 around the Biggings, immediately south of the Quoygrew site. In Post-ex, this information can then be used with GIS software to relate the known and newly discovered monuments to one another, and place them in archaeological context within the rest of the landscape.
In the same area, Terry and James Ratcliffe were performing an auger survey. In a similar way to the above-ground monument survey, this technique maps the subsurface topography and soil deposits. By comparing the depths of different types of soils, as well as the soils themselves and their inclusions, we can get a better idea of how the landscape would have looked in different areas in the past, and what it might have been used for.
In Area F, James Gerrard has developed an interesting theory regarding the adjacent two hearths in Structure 2. He believes that both represent the same sort of hearth structure, but that the earlier one (here seen on the right) was destroyed in antiquity and immediately covered by a new floor level of ash or flagstone. It can be seen in the later example (here on the left) that this type of hearth was surrounded by a ring of small orthostats (upright stones). These are still in place in the better-preserved hearth, but close examination of the earlier feature shows a thin sliver of stone where an orthostat would once have stood, as well as a patch of discoloured earth marking the depression into which it would have been set.
Elsewhere in Area F, Lennard and his team have also made excellent progress, with fragments of bone and orange, biscuity potsherds beginning to turn up. What was at first thought to be an area of floor-ash turned out to be a boulder clay feature supporting two box-like structures of upright stones in the north-east of the building. These might have been grain-storage bins, or supports for a shelf or cupboard arrangement. The eastern-most of the two orthostat boxes is primary (it is contemporary with the construction of the house). Both "box" features have now been bottomed to the underlying bedrock.
In the north of Structure 1, Mags has bottomed the rock-cut drain she has been working on for the last couple of days. This drain lies outside the north wall of the house, and was cut into the bedrock before eventually being filled in with large stones to make a rubble drain, which would have diverted water flowing downhill around the house, as well as carrying rain water running off the roof.
Being a Friday, the day ended early for the first of three lectures to the student excavators, this one given by Terry O'Connor, on the prehistory of the Orkney archipelago and Westray in particular.
Despite rain early Sunday morning, the Westray field trip took place in beautiful, sunny weather, continuing the tradition of the past two years. We started at Pierowall church, where we discussed the archaeology of the village, church, Viking graveyard excavated in antiquity, etc. From there, we visited Noltland Castle, a z-plan spectacle of the paranoid school of architecture. Bristling with gun loops, this fortification was once owned by Gilbert Balfour who was associated with Mary Queen of Scots; it is now wonderfully ruined and gloomy but is superbly gothic to explore. We then wandered out to the Links of Noltland, site of excavations both last year and in the 1970s and 1980s. The landscape is pure archaeology, littered with Neolithic, Bronze-Age and Iron-Age structures and historical kelp burning pits, as well as excessive numbers of rabbits. Returning to the castle for lunch, we then headed south towards the Knowe of Skea (Berst Ness). An eroding broch, the Knowe of Burristae, was our first stop. This included fulmars nesting on the masonry, and spitting at those who dared approach (dig directors included). We then revisited Berst Ness, site of excavations by EASE archaeology last year. Visits to Tuquoy, another Viking and Medieval settlement and eroding midden, and a puffin colony that may once have been a hermitage site, completed the day.