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Westray 2001: The Excavation Diary

Week Four


Off the late Sunday ferry from Kirkwall came the new Quoygrew crew, and after a flurry of tent pitching and a few hours sleep, they entered the fray.


In the Norse house we are taking samples of the sediments from the floor levels exposed last week. The interior of the house has been divided into a grid of 1-metre squares. Each of these squares is divided into four, and from each of these new squares samples for chemical and micro-refuse analysis are taken. Then the whole square is sampled for flotation (a process which uses a stream of water to separate seeds and charcoal from the soil).

In the north eastern quadrant, we continue excavating down through the extensive flagging onto the top of the a new context, which is very rubbly and uneven. It has been speculated that this floor could date from some late medieval reuse; maybe as an agricultural outbuilding. Meanwhile, more sampling continues from the current very bone-rich context exposed in the midden.

Julie Gibson, the Orkney Archaeologist, visits Quoygrew, Berst Ness and the Links of Noltland, touching base regarding the work thus far and providing advice for the weeks to come.

Jamie taking samples from Area F Taking samples from Area F

Berst Ness

After a long weekend (2 whole days!) the Berst Ness team returned refreshed and ready for action. Martin continued planning for part of the day until the wet and windy conditions made it too difficult to continue. Still, that freed him up to do some deturfing! There was a new arrival on site today: Graeme Forsyth, who is a fireman in Glasgow usually but is now having a 'holiday' digging with us for a week! It was a busy day, with visits from Ann Brundle of Tankerness House Museum (Orkney Museum) in the morning and Julie Gibson, Orkney Archaeologist, in the afternoon. Everyone seems excited by the findings so far, even if it is not yet clear what the structures represent.



Life moved from the blustery to the gale force today, and the team continued with the tasks of yesterday for as long as possible. The increasingly rainy conditions lead to a steady trickle of diggers making their way to the increasingly cosy lab to wash bone.

But the die-hards amongst us were undaunted, and it was 4pm by the time the team at the Norse house abandoned excavation in favour of record maintenance. The midden crew, afforded more shelter and lead by 'bulletproof' Barrett dig on until 6pm.

Nick, Debz and Tim joined the Berst Ness team today, and our drenching in the north of the island was as nothing compared to their battering on the exposed peninsula. Progress is slow but sure.

Anne Brundle, of the Orkney Museum, makes a site visit to comment on the artifacts found thus far. She suggests that bone or antler pins found near the base of the farm mound middens are most likely to be Viking Age or medieval rather than Pictish.

James excavating Area G Excavating Area G Brrrrrr! The less hardy of us (and me) head off for the lab to wash bones in the dry. '#...for hands that wash fishbone...'

Berst Ness

New arrivals are on site today- Nick Coakley, Debz Butterworth and Tim Cornah, archaeology students from York University. Unfortunately it was the last day for John and Trina Wombell, volunteers from Inverness, who have helped out enormously in the last week- and withstood daily deturfing! Thanks John and Tina; hope to see you again soon. In the chamber excavation continues, now revealling the top of several upright stones, amid tonnes of fish bone. Martin bravely planned on in the wind and weather. Eventually we had to give up in the afternoon and abandon site, but not before collapsing our tent in case it took off with the wind, never to be seen again.



Out comes the sun again, and the flotation crew heave a sigh of relief and restart the processing of their burgeoning pile of samples. Sampling is still underway in the Norse house, along with planning. Along the northern wall a 'robber trench' has been discovered, matching the missing courses of stonework. Nick finds a fragile copper alloy pin in the house floor. There is a news flash as the British museum (courtesy of Dr. Gareth Williams) suggests that the coins found overlying the house are of high or late medieval date based on digital images that were emailed.

The coins from Area F Planning Area F 'Harold?! Harold?!'  'You diiirty old man!'

Berst Ness

The team was joined today by a new York student, Suzie Richer who will replace Nick. The pace picks up with the improved weather and excavation nears the bottom of the 'chamber'. The entrance (with pivot stone), internal divisions and other features are beginning to look more consistent with a house than a funerary monument, but the jury remains out and there is no clear dating evidence.

James Barrett called over for a visit and was excited to see the unusual quantities of fish bone we are finding inside the upper fill of the structure. It seems to be filled with cod and ling bone, but only certain elements. These bones, the caudal vertebrae, cleithra and fin rays, are the ones left in processed dried fish (stockfish). It seems possible that the site was used as a fish drying 'skeo', a roofed structure built to allow the wind to blow through it. It will be necessary to rule out other options, such as otter spraint, during post-excavation analysis. We wonder if the placename of this site 'Knowe of Skea' may refer to its being used in the past for this purpose- since a 'skeo', at least in Shetland, refers to a fish drying building, although none of our local Westray informants were familiar with this word.

Tonight the project directors, Graeme, James and Hazel, take the ferry to Kirkwall to give guest lectures on the excavations. Another will be given in Pierowall (in the community school) at 8pm on Thursday 30 August.

The house at Berst Ness The house at Berst Ness Not the house at Berst Ness



Another piece of imported pottery is found in the house floor and the middens of the farm mound produce an unusually complete fish articulation. Bones from this deposit will be crucial to our interpretation of economic changes associated with the Viking Age to medieval transition in Orkney. These changes probably included a major increase in the importance of fishing for cod and related species (of the kind possibly dried at Berst Ness).

Some imported pottery from Area F An unusually complete fish articulation.  Mmmmmmm.....*fishbones*

Berst Ness

Excavation in the chamber has now revealled that the interior is fitted out with a series of rectangular compartments along its walls, surrounding what appears to be a central hearth. It would appear that we have a house, or at least that the latter stage of use of this building was as a house (possibly later used as a 'skeo'). We are not certain, however, that it was originally built for this purpose. Nevertheless, it is nestled in the top of a rubble mound and must represent reuse of an earlier monument of some kind, be it a chambered tomb or not. Excavation within two of the compartments, which are informally being referred to as 'box-beds', produced some stunning finds. On the east side of the hearth Julie Franklin found a broken but almost complete decorated double-sided bone comb and a weaving sword made of whalebone. On the west side of the building Donna Maguire found a spindle whorl and a worked bone object with carvings on it. The carving appears to represent a duck or goose and a symbol which may be a bow and arrow. The comb appears to be of 7th century AD type.



Excavation continues in both the house and the middens of the farm mound. Mags reaches subsoil outside the north wall of the house, confirming the height of the wall in this location (three courses), and demonstrating the depth remaining to be excavated elsewhere in the trench.

Our webmaster and field lab supervisor, Jen, takes ill and is forced to leave Westray accompanied by Tom, site manager and web author. They pass the torch to Marcus. Get well soon Jen!

Mags reaches subsoil in Area F

Berst Ness

Today we continued excavation in the central structure, revealing more internal slab fittings. Tim (York) found a bone comb side plate from a double sided bone comb - from the same comb as the tooth plate found earlier by John Wombell. Also, in Trench B, fragments of human skull were encountered- but there is no sign of any further articulated burials yet. The puzzle becomes even more complex.

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