Westray 2001: The Excavation Diary
Refreshed from a weekend off, relishing the extended spell of good weather and fortified by prodigious quantities of cake courtesy of Anthony, we return to the site with renewed vigour. The morning is spent completing the planning of the contexts in the new excavation area of the Viking house, while in the midden, the team continue to remove the last of the garden soil.
Links of Noltland
Hazel Moore, Graeme Wilson and Sarah King begin excavation work on the square cairn at the links. Hopes are high, but expectations restrained. Magnetometry shows a sharp 'spike' in the reading over the cairn. Perhaps a Pict buried with grave-goods ... or perhaps a fragment of 1930's barbed wire: Time will tell.
What do you think of Archaeology?
That is the question that Sven Schroeder is pursuing with the inhabitants of Westray, in a study of the islanders' perceptions of their heritage to form part of his undergraduate degree. This afternoon Sven and I take Mabel the van and criss-cross the island, distributing questionnaires. Sven aims to elicit the islanders' wishes with regard to the portrayal and use of their archaeological heritage. Many people are extending Sven a warm Orcadian welcome, and he's enjoyed much conversation and tea in the pursuance of the project! Local shops and hotels are assisting by acting as collecting points for completed questionnaires.
Back at the square cairn...
By mid afternoon, excavations at the cairn have revealed a central partition and some lumps of coal. Burning could account for the high magnetic signature of the cairn. Mundane as it is, the excavation team's thinking is now that the cairn is likely to be a comparatively modern structure associated with the kelp burning that took place here during the 18th and 19th centuries. The alkaline kelp ash, used in the production of soap and glass, was a major export from Orkney, and hearths used in this process can still be seen at the Links, as well as many other locations in the islands.
By the end of the day
at Quoygrew, a 'spit' is being removed from the surface of the Norse house area, as we descend towards the top of the next context, and the small finds in the midden, which have been bagged and pinned to the ground at the point of discovery, are being surveyed in to the site plan using a 'total station' theodolite, which will record both their position and elevation.
The square cairn has now been bisected by the excavation, and proves free of Pictish warriors. At the bottom of the two chambers lie flagstones, and underneath them are some pieces of metal, the function of which is not obvious. Presumably this is a comparatively modern structure associated with kelp burning. Maybe a coal bunker?
Dropping into the lab en route to the links, I find Martha cooing over Anthony's find of the day; a pair of small coins from the layers over the Norse house. They're corroded, and the patterns on them are hard to make out, so they won't be identified until a numismatist takes a look at them. They should prove useful in providing a date for layer that they came from, though coins can remain in circulation for a long time, and can be hoarded, so they cannot provide the fine temporal resolution that one would ideally prefer.
The Norse house itself is providing us with surprises today. As the excavation extends east, we can see the tops of the walls exposed in previous years terminate where they could be expected to. The line of the building then continues east, but with internal partitions that do not appear to be keyed in to the rest of the structure. Many stones lie flat at this level; some kind of floor? Tomorrow we will clean and plan the area, then carry on down.
The merry ring of trowel on stone is in the air as we dig further into the mystery of the Norse house. Internal divisions are becoming apparent, some of them forming a room to the south, about four feet square. Although we are uncovering more, our understanding of the way this building functions, and its relationship with the structure uncovered in 1999 are still unclear. We will remove another layer and see what that reveals. Removing sediment in careful 'spits' keeps the excavation process controlled and disciplined. Should we come across the top of a different context, we will follow the interface between the two deposits instead.
In the midden excavation, the diggers are busily exposing more of the upper layer of ancient deposit. They have already taken samples for flotation and coarse sieving, and these have made their way a quarter mile down the coast to the flotation tank.
The team in the Norse house are cleaning up the surface by trowelling proir to planning the features currently exposed. Once the current surface is recorded in this way, we can proceed downwards, further into the building's past.
The flagstone surface we've revealed is looking increasingly like an occupation floor. Pot sherds are being found on its surface, (mainly by Sherd-Hound Haskins, to everyone else's growing disgust) and the ashy material between the flags is consistent with that found at the west end in 1999. Ideas are being floated about the form of the building. Some houses in Shetland had a raised dais at one end; maybe that's what we have here. Ray, trowelling in the south-west quadrant, is beginning to suspect he's found a doorway.
In the midden excavation, sampling has started. Sediment samples for both flotation and coarse-sieving are taken, and will be processed at the station down the coast. Sherds are coming out too. These are of steatite, (soapstone), and curious as they are twice the thickness of the average steatite vessel.
Our flotation station must be a contender for the most picturesquely situated in Northern Europe - sadly our image doesn't show the seal or the lighthouse to advantage.
By the end of the day, the website is up. Hello Mum. Thanks to all those who've helped make it happen.
Merde: Il pleut.
A raucous alarm shatters the morning's peace and breaks the easy rhythm of Ray's indelicate snoring. After a variety of muffled curses and two more alarms, a curtain is twitched. Ah! It's Orkney after all; some of us were suspecting we'd ended up off Florida by mistake.
When it's dry, we dig. When it rains, we keep digging. With a short season and students who need to experience as wide a variety of excavation practice as possible, we only take shelter if to keep working would start to damage the archaeology.
In the midden, an even spit is being removed from the upper context. Bones uncovered during this trowelling are collected and the assemblage will be analysed later. Articulated bone - an assemblage of several bones, 'hinged' when deposited and remaining in situ - are bagged seperately. Finds are bagged, pinned to the ground where they were uncovered, and will later be 'three point provenanced' with the theodolite.
The majority of bone recovered from this layer is fish bone, delicate but well-preserved. Mammal bone is present too, from a fragment of whalebone about 3cm square, to the 12mm femur of a probable immature Orkney Vole.
In the Norse house, planning continues. Some more of last season's walls are exposed.