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Week Three
Week Four
Week Five
Week Six

The Team






Westray 2001: The Excavation Diary

Week Three


Le Weekend...

Over the weekend, the York students were lead off on their annual celebration of archaeology, fieldwalking and moisture on Papa Westray. After exploring, (and lunching in) the chambered tomb of Papa Holm South, and visiting the Knap of Howar and St Boniface Church, they were received back tired, happy, and soaked to the bone, and later reconvened to reminisce at the Pierowall Hotel. Thus 'rested', it's back to work.


Monday dawned bright and pleasant, and now it's a blustrous and wet afternoon. Flotation and coarse sieving are in full swing, the crew barely visible under many layers of protective clothing, as the rain lashes them in their exposed position on the very coast of the coast.

Ten layers and Jen's still cold and wet...

12mm otolithMore samples have been coming out of the midden, as have some attractive articulations, principally fish fins. Everyone remembers their first otolith, and Tom rejoices at bagging his first of the season. Otoliths are the ear-bones of fish, and resemble almonds that have stayed in the bath for too long. They are of great use to environmental archaeologists in estimating the age and season of death of fish, and this is relevant to us in reconstructing the story of the type and scale of fishing activity that took place at the site.

Links of Noltland

Marcus continues to toil back and forth with the magnetometer at phenomenal rates of progress; twelve twenty-meter square grids today. Take a look at what he's finding here.

Hither and yon, hither and yon, hither and yon, yon and... OH, drat!

Berst Ness: and they're off!

Meanwhile, in the south of the island, Graeme and Hazel and their team are starting work at Berst Ness today. They will remove the backfill from the possible Neolithic chambered tomb, which was investigated last year. Then they will carry on down to find out what form the chamber takes, and see what we can learn about its use, and about those who built it.

Removing the plastic sheeting at Berst Ness

Back at the Ranch...

Martha at workUp in the Quoygrew lab, the four winds whistle and the two cats howl. Kathy and Martha have been bagging and logging finds. The medieval pottery will remain unwashed, so it will remain possible to analyse the residues at a later date. They are also bagging 'VFA', (Vitrified Fuel Ash), produced probably during the industrial processes which took place on the Quoygrew site.


In the 'cool' of the evening, with the water seeping through...

(apologies to Paul Simon)

Actually, by half four the sun has come out, though the wind remains high, and the flot tank crew are experiencing the fun phenomenon of having their waste water run out from the sieves, down the pipe, almost to the ground, and then be picked up by the wind and thrown back over them. They seem quite happy about it though.

Flotting at the sharp end

Terminus Ante Quem

Scoop of the evening concerns the coins discovered last week. Continued excavation in the north east corner of the house which produced the coins has unearthed a demolition layer, apparently from the walls currently exposed. This indicates that the coins were deposited on top of this demolition layer, and thus that the building must date from a period before the coins were deposited.

The Coins from Area F



How many archaeologists does it take to construct a photo-tower, and what effect does the gender of the archaeologists have on the proportion of the group who feel it necessary to become involved in the construction? We have been exploring this question in the course of the afternoon. The morning was spent in cleaning up the Norse house for photography. Jen's improvised a photo mosaic, shown below.

Norse house photo mosaic, 14 August 2001 A pleasing articulation of fish bone

Whilst the area F team radiate healing energy from their tower, (yes, it's been that sort of day), the crew in the midden proceed to define the top of their new and prodigiously shelly context, without resort to all that histrionic silliness. Illustrated above is one of the day's more pleasing discoveries; some articulated fish bone.

Berst Ness

Access to site this morning was hampered by an excess of curious bovids. The cattle in the neighbouring field think that the dig is the most exciting thing they've ever seen. They were clustered round the gate in the electric fence this morning, causing an uncomfortable stand-off.

Berst Ness's boistrous bovids

With the Atlantic rolling in to the west and the far off islands of Rousay and Egilsay in the distance, the team worked on uncovering the rest of the site and cutting an extension to the 2000 trench. In a few hours the walls of the central chamber were exhumed from their protective plastic, and work then turned to excavating the stonework outside the chamber. Initial cleaning revealed a number of intriguing features, including the outline of a possible side chamber and a massive outer wall face. There were few finds, mostly sheep bone, and a probable human tooth in the topsoil.


Darling, that's SO last year!

Marcus is still smilingThe morning kicked off with a healthy dose of sideways Orkney rain. We felt we should do something for Marcus, who can't wear conventional waterproofs - or indeed spectacles - during his magnetometry work, as the metal in the fittings would distort the result from the gradiometer, and who spends every day exposed on the Links of Noltland. Some swift work from frustrated fashion empresses Schroeder and Riley produce a masterful rain-tabard in bin liner and gaffer-tape. Marcus refused to wear our matching bunny-tail though. Spoilsport. Here he is, about to depart for the Links, with today's assistant, Vicki.

Berst Ness

Assisted by new volunteers John and Trina Wombell, the rained-upon Berst Ness crew have opened a new trench on the slopes of the mound, to investigate human activity on its surface. Last year some burials and scattered human bone were found in a similar location, which might have been used as an excarnation platform, where bodies would be exposed until de-fleshed, when the bones would be interred in the tomb. The topsoil from the new trench has yet to be fully removed, so not much has been found in it yet, but hopes are high.

Cleaning of the the wall heads which form the central chamber began today, and in doing so discovered a blocked recess at the south end of the chamber was discovered. Hazel writes: "This site is becoming more complex as we dig down - and less clearly identifiable - very exciting stuff".


A large flat stone between the east and west sections of the Norse house had been causing concern. Flagstone-like, it overlay the dividing wall between the east and west sections of the building in a manner that called into question our interpretation of the two sections' stratigraphic relationship. We had hoped that this was due to disturbance from ploughing. However, a little further cleaning today suggests that the stone is a step, part of a doorway between the sections of the building. This reinforces our idea that the new building was originally constructed as a secondary chamber (perhaps sleeping quarters) of the house exposed in 1999.

Some pleasing imported Medieval pottery is coming out of the house. Fashions in the form and decoration of this type of pottery changed rapidly, and much is known about them, so they can be quite accurately dated.

Presumed step Decoration on imported Medieval pottery from the Norse house More imported Medieval pottery, this time from the midden

Away from the Norse house, the strong and silent team in the midden continue to define the top of their contexts, ready for extensive sampling tomorrow.

Some of the more soulful members of the Quoygrew team take a ride to the Noup Head bird reserve during the evening, and after grinning at the camera solemnly watch the sun go down.

"This one's for Mom" Sunset from Noup Head


Links of Noltland

Today the Berst Ness crew worked as two teams. One went to work at the Links to excavate a small assessment trench across the wall of a probable prehistoric house. They discovered that very little of the surrounding ground surface survived intact. Beyond the walls and some internal stone features, it seems that little has survived here.

Berst Ness

Work continued inside the chamber. A second new recess has appeared - this one appears to have a lintel stone above it. Nick found an enigmatic broken stone disc for which we have not been able to find a parallel yet.

Close to the possible entrance at the south-west corner, a possible pivot stone has appeared.

In the new trench on the mound slopes trowelling has continued apace. Towards the end of the day a possible wall line was uncovered running downslope - it is difficult to know what this structure belongs to- some more excavation is needed before we can tell how this wall relates to the chamber.

What do you think of Archaeology?

The first batch of Sven Schroeder's questionnaires have been collected, as local people give their opinions on the future of their island's archaeology. Sven's on his way back to York on Friday, but there's still plenty of time for questionnaires to come back to Rendall's , Miller's and Tulloch's stores, Cleaton House and Pierowall Hotels. Thank you to all of those who have taken the time to respond; your help is much appreciated.


At the south and North-west corners of the Norse house excavation area, diggers are trowelling down through the demolition deposits toward contexts dating from the occupation of the building. The easternmost wall is the subject of some discussion today. Whilst its size and construction strongly suggest an exterior wall, the stonework is barely keyed in to the north and south walls it connects. This suggests that it may be a secondary wall, added to the structure at some point after its construction. Perhaps the building extended further east at some point, and the east wall we are now discussing was built when the building was truncated. It will be interesting to observe the form of the next courses of stonework, once these topmost ones are removed.

Bog Iron?

Possible bog ore?In the north east corner of the Norse house, someone has uncovered a roughly hemispherical, dark grey lump. It's rough to the touch, and heavier than one would expect. After some pondering, we suspect it's bog ore. This is a concretion of iron found in peat bogs, which can be smelted and worked. Perhaps this suggests metal working activity in the building.


Cath Neal has been trowelling at the East end of the Norse house, scanning the sediment longingly for finds, whilst she defines the contexts in this hard to interpret area. This is her last full day digging this season, and she is delighted to make a find in the last ten minutes of it. Admittedly, there would be more glamour in finding a hoard of silver than in a coprolite, (fossilised turd), but Cath is happy anyway. As her first career was in nursing, she feels that to experience how this material, with which she has been professionally familiar in a modern context, survives from antiquity is especially apt.Fragments of a coprolite
Cath excavating at the eastern end of the Norse house


Over in the midden, sampling is once again underway. Up in the lab, satisfaction is being taken in the amount of ecofactual material that is stacking up. The context currently being sampled contains a good deal of rubble, some of it burnt, and quantities of ash. It also produces prodigious quantities of well-preserved bone.

Excavating in the midden


Jane Downes of the University of the Highlands and Islands visits today.

Quoygrew - Giving it a whorl

The quiet team from the midden turn up for a midmorning cup of tea looking quietly pleased with themselves. They have an attractive find; a steatite spindle whorl. Here it is. At the end of the day, they turn up another. Craig begins to speculate that there might be a whole knitting kit down there...

Spindle whorl from the midden

In the Norse House

Finding myself with a spare hour amid myriad manic gofering tasks, I hop into the Norse house to assist the trowellers. Around the outside edges of the southern and eastern walls, a variety of deposits testify to a number of activities. Abutting the southern wall in a narrow band of rubble-free, regular, brown soil. This is likely to be the fill of a construction trench, in which the lower courses of the house wall would have been built. At the southern edge of this band of soil is a mound of orangy-coloured material of a different texture. This material looks as though it has an ash component. Maybe it was domestic hearth waste? South of this deposit are a couple more, of grey and greasy sediments. All of these deposits disappear into the earthen baulk left across the excavation area for planning purposes... And in typical fashion, none of them appear to continue on the other side... At the Eastern edge of the building is a good deal of rubble - perhaps if the building was truncated, this is the record of that process.

Exposed contexts, southern wall Ray and Cath at work, south east corner, Norse house

End of a week, a season, an era...

Good progress has been made in the last three weeks. It's now time for the first wave of York's field-school participants to head home; a new set arrive on Sunday. Thanks to all you wildly-assorted 1st wave diggers for your effort.

Participating in a field school can be daunting, with skilled but physically demanding work - and a surprising amount of mental agility - expected from the outset amid strange and often uncomfortable conditions. To rise to the expectation that you will function as an efficient if relatively inexperienced field archaeologist, well within fifteen working days, is a tall order. Our first dig crew rose to meet it in a manner which impressed even Dr Barrett...

The first team, 2001 Sunset from Cleaton House
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