General Information
Week One
Week Two
Week Three
Week Four
Week Five
Week Six

The Team




2001 Dig Diary

Westray 2002: The Excavation Diary

Week Six


Only a week to go. Doesn't time fly when you're knee-deep in soggy fish midden? Haskins is finding steatite, pot and, of course, plenty of articulated fish-bone. He has begun to excavate a red blobby lens, which is almost certainly not a construction cut. His midden now seems to have built up against the north wall of the house, suggesting that it post-dates it. Tim came up with the goods again today, finding a large piece of steatite vessel. The man's a machine.

"A piece of soapstone the like of which not even God has ever seen."
Mags' horse mandible.

Mags to the south has found a horse mandible in her drain. Current thinking on the drain suggests that the line it takes may imply that it predates the wall of Structure 1. And since it would be pointless to have a drain for no reason, we can further speculate that there might be an earlier structure underlying the house, along almost the same alignment.

The south drain, looking east.

With just a week left, it was decided to close down the interior of Structure 1, having reached a convenient point to stop before we have to start backfilling, rather than start a new phase of excavation at this late stage. The hearths will be left in situ for arhcaeomagnetic dating at the beginning of the next field season. Consequently, the main body of work inside the house today has been cleaning up and recording the interior with plans, photographs and, most importantly, drawn records of the sections at the edge of excavation.

Yet another misty morning played havoc with survey, since visibility was too low to perform any EDM work before noon, and the changeable nature of the weather (from foggy-mist to wind to clear sunshine) with attendant fluctuations in local atmospheric pressure made it impossible to level the fluxgate-gradiometer for magnetometry survey of the field behind Queen O'Howe. Ç'est la vie, ç'est la guerre.


The morning began misty once again, but cleared up gradually, and the weather today was generally better than yesterday. Nevertheless, landscape survey was unable to begin until late in the morning, meaning that Jamie found temporary employment removing a stoney temporary baulk with a mattock. In the field behind Queen O'Howe, the gradiometer continued to misbehave after yesterday. It refused to level, with wildly fluctuating readings over a single spot and a north/south difference well in excess of 9000nT. In the end, a phone call to Steve Dobson back in York confirmed what we had reluctantly suspected: it was the machine that was at fault, not the weather or the operators. So unfortunately, that marks the end of geophyscial survey for this year, despite the success surveying over the burnt mound in Field 189.

Jamie takes out the balk.
Eva takes out the balk.

Fortunately though, work on site has been far more interesting today. Mags and company are taking out the south drain, coming down on bedrock in the east and soil/subsoil in the west. The temporary baulk mentioned above was also removed in the course of this, in order to follow the drain all the way along, and Eva continued where Jamie left off. They haven't found any artefacts in the drain fill yet, but have come across the expected quantities of mammal and large fish bone. It was all one thick layer without any internal stratigraphy, so it was quite quick to remove. The aim of this exercise was to prove once and for all whether or not the drain predates Structure 1. As this has been Jimbo's pet theory for several days now (to James' deep scepticism), he promised to buy Mags dinner if she found that the drain did predate Structure 1. In the end, after much vacillation, Jimbo appears to be vindicated. The drain does not actually run under the wall of Structure 1, but it is very close to it and does underlie a large flag which is itself likely to predate the wall. Radiocarbon dating of a large mammal bone in the drain fill will help clarify things in due course. For now at least there was much rejoicing, not least from Mags' stomach…

Mags gets dinner.
The south drain section.

With work in Structure 1 almost at an end for the season, Zoë and Mike have begun drawing the north and south sections to conclude the recording of the area before backfilling begins later in the week.

Haskins' curved line of stones.

Haskins is still digging away outside the north west corner of Structure 1, coming down onto the sub-soil interface. Nearby, Tim is putting in another sondage, hunting bedrock. Haskins has come across a line of stones running from beneath the north west wall of Structure 1 into FX. The line curves round, and since it underlies Structure 1, must be earlier than it. It was briefly speculated that this might represent part of the wall of a much earlier subterranean structure, perhaps an Iron Age house, or a souterrain. However, closer inspection revealed that there was no cut in the adjacent soil (meaning that the stones would have been at or above ground level when they were laid) and the arrangement of the stones is more consistent with use as paving than as a wall. Investigation of where the stones run would yield more information (one end runs under a wall, the other into the edge of excavation) since there is only a short section currently exposed. At this late stage, though, this will probably have to wait until a future season.

Further excavation of the parallel wall stumps in FX is revealing them not only to be walls, but walls with length, running along the same alignment as Structures 1/2 with a perpendicular end wall 1m west of the robber trench (the latter of which now seems to represent the end of structure 1). It thus seems sensible to rename "F-extension" "Structure 3". The function of this structure is unknown at the moment, and since excavation of the interior has so far been very limited, any speculation would be spurious. However, the building does line up exactly with a structure in the midden of the wavecut bank, excavated in the 1997 field season. This was originally identified as a naust (boat house), but was later re-interpreted as a cellar for an overlying building, an interpretation that fits nicely with its position bang in the middle of Structure 3 (although the chronological relationship between the features has yet to be confirmed - structure 3 may overlie the cellar in date as well as elevation).

The east (end) wall of Structure 3 runs parallel to the robber cut running along the end of Structure 1, where it is presumed the end wall of the house once lay, later plundered for stone. The side walls do not join up with those of Structure 1 though, and there is a 1m gap between the two buildings, presently filled with what appears to be demolition rubble. Why two buildings would be built so close to one another with the same alignment, end on end, without joining up is a puzzling question. Looking at modern houses on the island, though, one can see examples of this practice where the two buildings lie on a slope, and the floor level of one is significantly higher than that of the other, despite their proximity. So it seems to have been here. There is also evidence to suggest that the west door of Structure 1 lined up with a corresponding east door in Structure 3, allowing one to walk from one building to the other with out being outdoors for more than a few seconds. In the harsh Orcadian winter, this would have made a great deal of sense, and the proximity of the two buildings would have made the gap between them quite sheltered from the strong winds. The internal drain of Structure 1 was hitherto thought to terminate at this end door, but it now seems likely that it continued through Structure 3 to the coast, partly because further drain lintels have been found outside of the Structure door leading into Structure 3, and partly because with the buildings so close to one another, the drain had no-where else to go!

The robber cut. The drain continues out of the door of Structure 1, through Structure 3. Revetment wall.
The line of the robber cut, where the west wall of Structure 1 would have lain, with rubble from Structure 3 towards the top of the picture. The threshold of Structure 1, with the drain continuing out of the door and under the rubble into Structure 3. The revetment wall to the north of Structure 1, with abutting midden (right).

However, placing the doors here would have posed a slight problem, in that there would only have been a short space to get outside and away from the buildings, especially since there was a large midden heap (where Haskins is presently digging) immediately to the north of the narrow gap between the buildings. It seems that the inhabitants had realised this though, and the end wall of Structure 1 continued northwards into a revetment containing the midden to the east and leaving a clear path outside. This midden, apparently built up against the wall of Structure 1, now seems to be later than the fish midden eroding out of the wavecut bank. Conversely, Suzi has been excavating in the north-west corner of FX where it looks increasingly likely that fish midden material equivalent to that seen in the eroding coastal section does underlie (and thus predate) Structure 3.


The south drain uncovered.

As Mags continues to excavate and record the south drain, James and Jimbo have been discussing the stratigraphic relationship of the south midden (the brown that was overlying the drain), the destruction episode at the western end of Structure 1, and the secondary (re-use) phase of Structure 2. There is a secondary entrance in the south wall of Structure 2, out of which people dumped ash. This ash dump is quite localised, but it lies within Brown midden deposits which seem to overly (or mesh with) debris from the demolition of the west end of Structure 1, which would suggest that Structure 2 was being re-used at the same time that Structure 1 was falling into disrepair.

Eva managed to throw a spanner in the works of the drain chronology today though, by finding a piece of pottery (predictable for her). The problem with this is that until the 12th century, Scandinavian Orkney was largely aceramic, with soapstone being used instead. If the house of Structure 1 postdates the south drain as proposed, that would put the building of Structure 1 as late as the 13th-15th century. Hopefully radiocarbon dates of bones also recovered from the bottom of the drain will help clear up the confusion.

Down at the western end of Structure 1, the confusion that has surrounded the true extent of the robber trench was finally resolved when it became clear that purely by chance, the original edge of excavation of Area F had run along the side of the cut almost exactly. Of course, when we extended into Structure 3, the side of the cut had become very difficult to locate due to this coincidence. Still, it's all sorted now.

The robber trench.
A cute stones.

However, as some areas are better understood, so some become increasingly confusing. Suzi's fish midden, the far end of the one eroding out of the wavecut bank (but not the one abutted by the revetment wall in Haskins' area) seems to predate the adjacent wall of Structure 3, but it is unclear whether it is in situ or redeposited as fill of a construction trench dug into the fish midden and backfilled with the same material. In the latter case, the midden material itself predates the wall, but its location would be secondary. The best piece of evidence for the second interpretation is a series of stones of no obvious function, lying on edge at an acute angle within the midden material. It seems unlikely that they would have retained this unusual position if the midden had accumulated gradually (one would expect them to lie flat). Conversely, if they had been deposited there along with a lot of surrounding material, their orientation seems more natural. We shall see…

Tim's sondage of yesterday hit natural fairly quickly, but unfortunately it looks as if Haskins' curvilinear arrangement of stones will have to wait until another season before being lifted, followed or investigated any further. We just don't have the time any more; already the site is winding down, everything being recorded rather than dug further before backfilling begins. As a measure of how industrious the team are in this regard, it is worth noting that even Jimbo has done some work. In a similar vein, the flotters were visibly elated to complete the last sample from this year's excavation season. Today Tom, vetran of the past two seasons, arrived on Westray much to everyone's delight.

Last of the Flot Samples.
Inside the Gentlemen's Ha.

In the evening, some of the more adventurous team members visited the "Gentlemen's Ha", courtesy of Sam Harcus. The Ha is a small cave set into the cliff wall, and tradition claims that it was used as a highly effective hiding place by local lairds lying low after the 1745 rebellion. On visiting, it is immediately obvious why it could have been so effective; in order to reach the entrance, one must traverse an extremely steeply inclined cliff face (below which there is only the sea and sharp rocks), made all the more treacherous by thick wet grass, a lack of hand- and foot-holes and narrow ledges. Once inside the cave is narrow, cramped, wet and slimy, but surprisingly warm, with narrow side-chambers to elude even the most diligent of searchers. After this excursion, we stopped off briefly at Sam Harcus' place, where he showed us the Westray Skiff he is involved in building. Even in her current half-built state, she's a beautiful and elegantly constructed vessel, a reminder of the times when such skiffs were common around the island.

The Westray Skiff.


The excavation is truly winding down now, and all that remains to be done is paperwork, recording, and backfilling. Unfortunately, today has been very wet, dampening feet and spirits equally.

One of the apparently less-significant finds from a few weeks ago has caused quite a stir. A small fragment of relatively recent pottery (perhaps 18th or 19th century) found in what was at the time thought to be the southern edge of the robber cut, has taken on a new significance after our recent reinterpretation of that area. It was found in what is now thought to be rubble from the collapse of Structure 3 (which on circumstantial evidence seems likely to post-date Structure 1 and possibly Structure 2) suggesting that Structure 3 fell into disrepair more recently than was hitherto supposed. Thus, rather than being associated with the cellar excavated in 1997 (and dated to the 12th century), it seems more likely that Structure 3 merely overlies it as the most recent building in this location. Coupled with the discovery of pre-Structure 1 features to the north and south, the possible reinterpretation of the demolition phase at the western end of Structure 1, and Eva's pot from the drain yesterday, the chronology of the site has suddenly become far more complex and perhaps lengthy than originally imagined. Ultimately a secure sequence for the occupation and use of the settlement will depend on post-excavation analysis of the finds and records, and on science-based techniques such as radiocarbon and archaeomagnetic dating.

"Sticky Toffee Pudding!"

We spent the evening at the Cleaton House Hotel, sharing a delicious celebratory meal and drinks to mark the end of this year's excavation season. We also listened to bad music, discussed the relative merits of NOGMs, and played Bok.

"If you've got a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find them…"


The last view of the site.

Fortunately today was a little warmer than yesterday, and the final recording photography, put off from yesterday due to the rain, could finally be completed in the morning. Once this had been finished, and with all cleaning and section drawing completed, backfilling began in the afternoon. In contrast to last year, the backfilling simply flew by, aided by Geordie's experienced hands at the controls of the JCB. Even so it was all hands to the pumps as we first layed black plastic sheeting over Area F, and then covered it with 15cm of soil. Even Jimbo did some work. Winter in the Northern Isles is characterised by strong winds, intense storms, cold and rain, so we made sure that the site was fully protected from the elements in it's cocoon.

George in the digger.

Less fortunately, not all of the recording had been completed by the time we had to start backfilling, and we ended up laying the black plastic sheeting and topsoil around Vicky and Jimbo as they feverishly worked to complete the last of the plans, frantically calling for levels as the digger circled for the kill…

We took a break for dinner, and returned to finish backfilling just as the sun was setting. Having gathered and sorted equipment to pack the van for the morning, the team joined George and Maggie at Trenabie for whisky.

Le Journey Home

We all caught the morning Rapness-to-Kirkwall ferry on Saturday morning (running an hour early due to the Dounby Show), and those of us not flying abroad continued on from St. Margaret's Hope to John O'Groats on the Pentalina B. Staff and Tom travelled home in the minibus, a fairly soporific and uneventful journey, punctuated by interesting archaeological sites depositional hotspots.

Everley Broch. The team at Everley Broch.

The first site we stopped off at was Everley Broch in northern Caithness, near Freswick Links. This broch and parts of its surrounding settlement, truncated by antiquarian excavations in the late 19th century, is being excavated by Andrew Heald of the National Museums of Scotland, partly in order to examine the primary floor layers of a broch, which has seldom been done before. After a comprehensive site tour, the bus continued southwards to a University of York excavation at Tarbat, near Portmahomack, where we were entertained by Prof. Martin Carver. The Tarbat Discovery Programme focuses on the site of the 8th century St. Colman's Church and a probable associated monastery.

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