Westray 2001: The Excavation Diary
Monday to Wednesday
The week starts crisp and clear. More than some of the team do... Equipment is whisked to site early. With uncharacteristic gentility, diggers are ferried to the site in gentle stages as they emerge blearily from tents and hostels.
A JCB arrives to break turf at Quoygrew.The caravan which provides us with office space is delivered. Tom's controversial Tea-making Protocol is taped up by the kettle.
Soil sampling work commences almost straight away. The settlement at Quoygrew is associated with a 'farm-mound' and the remains of its infield. For ancient farmers in Orkney, where the average soil depth is around thirty centimetres, it was important to manage the soil to increase its productivity. One way to do this was to add organic matter to an area of existing soil. This could be manure from cattle, (and humans), turves, turves after use as animal bedding, or seaweed, among others. Relatively small areas of soil improved in this way would be used for intensive, continuous cultivation. Such man-made, or 'plaggen' soils can remain buried even after this form of cultivation has been discontinued, and can be detected in a number of ways. This is what has happened at Quoygrew. Tessa Poller has begun the process of sampling the soils in the neighbouring field, using a Dutch auger to bring samples to the surface.
Meanwhile, back at the house...
Once the modern topsoil is carefully shovelled from the new section of Area F, the Quoygrew team begin trowelling to remove the upper layer of modern topsoil which covers the ancient deposit. Even at this stage, bits of recent pottery, ('generic' brown teapot, Willow pattern, etc.), are collected.
Away from the site, the lab needs to be set up, and the flotation and sieving equipment - for processing soil samples - need to be assembled and place at their station on the coast.
Tom and the digital camera make it out to the Links of Noltland to capture some images of the site. It's a curious, almost moonscape environment. To the south, it's Orkney's typical links grassland; sand held in place by a delicate layer of turf. Further north toward the coast, it's a maze of dunes, with sand-blasted areas containing features which tell of various human activities up to c5ooo years ago.
Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson continue their survey work on the upper slopes to the west. Steve Dobson, Marcus Smith and Ant Haskins make up York's survey team today.
As well as recording features, (Neolithic buildings and ancient field systems), they are conducting a magnetometry survey. In the south of the area this becomes challenging; the magnetometer takes readings at timed intervals, and the operator must keep up a steady pace over the terrain if the eventual plot of the readings produced on computer is to remain true. If the terrain undulates wildly and is shot through with rabbit warrens, this is almost impossible. It is eminently achievable in the moonscape of the northern end, however.
The erosion of the upper layers of sand has left a myriad of small shells and bones strewn evenly over a huge area, some presumably dropped by the inhabitants of the area, c.5000 years ago - others more recent.
Steve whisks us on a tour of the salient features of the site. In the last four or so years, wind erosion has removed about 60cm (2') or more of sand from the surface. This has left many ancient features newly exposed.
The small shells and bones that scatter the ground are unlikely to have got there naturally, and indicate a prehistoric occupation surface. There are also the collapsed remains of several prehistoric houses - one of which has a square arrangement of stones on edge which was probably a hearth. Lying amid the scatter of building stone is a broken ard - part of a primitive plough. Standing in this neighbourhood one finds both the prehistoric litter of shells and stones, and the modern day flotsam of seaboots, rusting auto parts and polythene in close proximity. Everything has been combined as sand layers of different age were eroded away.
A little further west among the dunes is a partially collapsed structure, well built at its base, and very square. What is it?! The Picts built square cairns and used them for burials. This is shaped a little differently, though. There were Viking graves found near here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These are often found in association with Pictish monuments. It is tempting to imagine the resting place of some great Pictish warrior... But then there are similar stone structures used throughout the Orkneys for supporting fence and gate posts! Time will resolve the mystery, however: The cairn will be excavated next week to save it from further erosion.
Further west still, recent erosion has made it possible to pick out a series of stripes on a hard-packed soil surface. These are the remains of plough-marks on an ancient cultivation surface.
Meanwhile, back at the Quoygrew house...
After the previous excavation of the house in 1999, the area was covered with protective plastic and a layer of soil. Anthony's merry team have been 'weeding', and are making preparations to remove the plastic. It won't come off just yet though; that which protects the ancient floor surfaces will wait until the new excavation unit is down to the same level. This should make the process of understanding the life of the building as easy as possible.
On the new section, with the turf gone, we have been working (carefully!) with spades to remove the layer of modern topsoil - about 15cm thick - which covers the house. Then we slowly work down to the more ancient surfaces, removing even layers of sediment from the whole area. Although geophysics has shown that there is something down there, we still don't know quite what to expect. Thus there's widespread relief when ragged lines of chunky rubble appear, in line with the walls excavated in 1999. At the end of the afternoon, there's a shout from Kathy, who's found the flat tops of worked stones, exactly in line with the already excavated walls. It's a satisfying end to the day.
Over in the midden, (area G), Tessa, Craig and team are preparing to continue last season's work, excavating and sampling the deposits to study economic changes. A wall uncovered last year is being dismantled and the surface trowelled. Cultivation marks are becoming apparent - probably from the period when this area formed the garden of a farmstead, before its abandonment in the 1930's. The fill of the midden is mainly fish bone and shell in the upper layers, but has more mammal bone in the lower, older layers. This may indicate a change in the way in which marine resources were exploited, and answer questions about the way in which the culture of the islands shifted to a more marine-oriented outlook. The material excavated will be extensively sampled and the contents analysed in an attempt to date the shift from land-based to marine resources.
Diggers continue to swarm over the dwelling house. With the turf and topsoil removed, the surfaces revealed have been cleaned up by trowelling to allow us to look at the deposits. Ray showed me over what's been uncovered. There are three different sediments visible. In the centre is one full of small sharp stones. When we understand it and its extent fully it will receive a code ('context')number. Right now it's known as 'the chippy layer'. We guess the chips come from the period when this section of the house was abandoned, and the walls were dismantled for building stone - still a common practice, and especially sensible as there is virtually no wood on any Orkney island. Away from the walls, the tops of which are just uncovered, the soil has fewer chips, and can be considered separately. At the western end of the section is a small sandy deposit, about which we have few ideas yet.
Back in 1997, the area occupied by this house was investigated by resistivity and magnetometry surveys. These methods allow archaeologists to 'see beneath the soil' without the considerable expense of digging for something that may not be there. It also allows assessment of the likely nature of a site, so that it can be excavated - or left safe in the ground - in the most appropriate way.
The investigation done here in '97 showed a strong resistivity reading of a rectangular feature. In 1999, a ten-metre square area was opened up, to reveal the bases of well built stone walls, with a square hearth in the centre of the room, and a low stone bench running along one wall. The new excavation area showed a strong resistivity reading, but did not show up as well on the magnetometry survey; perhaps it was an area with a different use? Sleeping or storage quarters with no fireplaces, for example.