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Westray 2001: The Excavation Diary

Week Five

Le Weekend...

The weekend was once again divided roughly equally between intensive rest and stimulating field trips. One such outing included a visit to Skaill Bay, where the eroding midden at Evertaft yielded a surprise find; an ingot mould.

Evertaft midden The Ingot Mould Debz seductively models some bits of dead cow she found on the beach

Berst Ness

Sunday was Graeme Forsyth's last day - he has been on site for a week now and has been greatly appreciated. Working in Trench B, Graeme has been excavating in front of the outer wall of the central chamber and has revealed that it stands only a few courses high and that it was built over deposits of shattered stone. Does this mean that we might have an earlier structure below? Work inside the house has slowed now because we are recording the interior fitting in detail and Eland Stuart has begun to draw a plan of the interior. Iona and Graeme found fragments of human remains encountered in Trench B and Debz Butterworth was on hand to provide spot identifications of the bone.


Berst Ness

Today the weather was slightly better- only wind- no rain! In Trench B work is progressing quickly, with the new team members from the York University contingent- Alix Lee and Jamie Andrews. We are uncovering several wall faces which were revealed when we removed a covering of shattered rubble. Jamie found a very well preserved otter skull from the upper deposits, whilst Alix and Nick Card made headway uncovering the wall faces. At the top of Trench C, Julie Franklin investigated what appears to be part of a very narrow passage which leads up to the central structure. Eland finished planning while Donna, Iona and Debs continued work in Trench B, finding more fragment of human bone, this time incorporated into the core of a wall.

Debs digging a wall in Trench B.


The Area F soakaway. The Area F pivot stone. Nick Holmes of the National Museums of Scotland has now had a chance to see digital images of the two coins found overlying the secondary extension in Area F. Although they are only partly legible at this stage, he suspects that they may be of early 16th century date. This sets a later terminus ante quem (cap date) for the buildings than we had originally imagined. In other developments, the soakaway in the north-east corner of Area F seems to have been used to drain water from the eaves of the building. The pivot stone (a stone with a depression to admit a wooden rod, forming a door hinge) found on the southern side of the trench finally confirms the presence of a secondary entrance related to late use of the structure. This feature, combined with the multiple superimposed floor layers, suggests that it was a long-lived building possibly serving a variety of functions through time.



Stone flagging from the southwest corner of Area F along its southern side, outside the house walls, suggests the existence of an external courtyard, perhaps a stackyard, used for drying hay or barley. Steve has found an ash dump in the eastern side of Area F. Area G continues to churn out more bags of bone than the mind can comfortably conceive. The larger the sample size of this 'ecofactual' material the more convincing any subsequent economic interpretation will be.

One of the stone flags from the possible stackyard. A tiny percentage of the bone that has emerged from Area G this season.

James takes a nap waiting for the Berst Ness crew.Later this evening, the team from Berst Ness brought some of their more interesting finds for the Quoygrewites to see. The ALT text for each image provides a description...

A weaving sword A decorated piece of rib 'Detail' of the decoration on the rib Catherine entertains us all with her 'Sad Song' A spindle whorl A comb A fragment of comb

Berst Ness

The day started off clear and sunny - ideal since we plan to set up our photo tower and take some pictures of Trench C. This morning work continued in Trench C to further define the northern end of the passage or staircase. This passage runs from the exterior of the outer wall towards the interior - but it does not appear to be contemporary with the late "Pictish" phase of occupation. The alignment of this feature through the wall and the fact that it is 50cms wide is quite unlike anything seen in a broch. Our current thinking is that the outer wall face may represent part of a thick walled Iron Age house in which the "Pictish" occupation remains are but the latest phase of use. Deposits associated with the passage yielded few artefacts, although some articulated cattle vertebrae and a probable human long bone were found amongst the rubble. Nick supervised the photo cleaning and then the whole team assisted in setting up the tower. The York students, Jamie, Debz and Alix, who had been working in this trench, also took photos for their field school portfolios. In the afternoon the wind dropped and we were attacked by a storm of voracious midges! Luckily it never remains still for too long in Orkney.



Mystery feature: what could it be...? Some of the peatash by the door Mystery features have come to light in the possible bog iron/metalworking part of Area F; two rounded stones with peck-marked and grooved surfaces surrounded a large unworked rectangular stone. It is unclear what they were used for, but they do suggest some kind of workshop activity. Lumpy deposits of peat-ash have also been found flanking either side of the secondary entrance to the longhouse in Area F. Perhaps some lazy occupant had poked his head round the door, dumped the days' hearth-residue and dropped the find of the day - another coin (which will need conservation to be made legible) - on his way. This coin was found in one of the floor layers itself and will be crucial to dating the use of the building.

Find of the day; another coin from Area F

Also in Area F today we began to lift the next layer of rough flagstone flooring. It lay over a leveling deposit of midden, which was in turn dumped on top of in situ ash floors.

Lucy, visibly elated on finding a piece of coprolite Catherine's 'knife' So far this week in Area G, Catherine has found what appears to be an iron knife, Alex has found an antler handle, Lucy has found a couple of coprolites (fossilised faeces), Tim has found what may be a cauldron handle, and Emily discovered many lumps of purest green (as yet unidentified). Much frustration has been caused by the protracted existence of context G052, "The Context That Wouldn't Die". Finally today, however, it was bottomed, and the crew mitigated their frustration (and PMT) with some of Craig's toffees. Everyone on site suffered a blight of midges and other biting insects for the final part of the day.

No, not the Somme public baths, but Area G. The mood in Area G is noticeably varied...

James discusses the geophysics on the Links of Noltland with Rod and Tessa Both sites and the Links of Noltland were visited today by Rod McCullagh, who is Historic Scotland's inspector for Orkney. He seemed pleased with our progress to date, and suggested priorities for the last week of work.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Survey, but Were Afraid to Ask

Marcus spent the end of the day on the Links of Noltland, conducting geophysical survey of the fields south of an eroding possible broch or chambered cairn site at Queena Howe. A variety of irregular features suggest associated settlement, which is confirmed by Tessa's auger survey. She has detected middens and deep cultural soils. These discoveries, along with material eroding from the site to the North, confirm that it is a settlement rather than (or in addition to) a funerary monument.

Tessa's auger survey has now extended over the entire Links of Noltland area, detecting islands of surviving archaeology in a landscape otherwise denuded by wind and rabbit erosion. This low tech but effective technique has gone a long way towards providing what is known as an archaeological 'deposit model'. It will prove vital to future management decisions regarding the famous site.

Berst Ness

Following a tour of the site with Rod McCullagh and a discussion of the findings to date, Hazel and Graeme went to visit the Links of Noltland, leaving Nick to hold the fort (or at least, substantial house!). The afternoon was spent catching up with context recording and collecting soil samples. In the interior of the building Eland excavated the area around the hearth, a rectangular stone-built structure located at the north end of the building. It soon became apparent that the hearth had been enlarged during the occupation of the building. Two sockets found to either side of the hearth may have once held supports for fittings associated with cooking. On the exterior of the building Julie excavated down into the passage, revealing it to be, in actual fact, part of a staircase. A large lintel survives above the stair at the exterior; but how this feature functions in relation to the inside of the building remains unclear since it does not descend into the interior. Once again, it appears that this building has been redesigned on several occasions during its period of use.


...was a miserable and wet day. Mags worked on context sheets in the morning, while Ray set up his overlay plan for the updated version of the interior of the house. Steve and Laura worked on the southern exterior surfaces removing some of the final layers above the subsoil on that side. During the afternoon, Laura went off to do flotation and so we were down to three people. As rain set in during the afternoon we all did some drawing, Ray on his plan, Mags on the north section and Steve adding the 'bog-iron' feature onto an earlier plan. It is curious as it extends into the voids between the stones of the wall. After this Steve excavated the rest of this feature and in so doing found four pieces of imported pottery which surprisingly fit together.

Graeme brought a visitor to site: Joffy Hill, an expert in the interpretation and reconstruction of archaeological buildings. He suggested that the east end of the building was original, not a later addition as we had earlier speculated. Its irregular northern portion was more likely to result from having being cut into the turf - this portion of the wall would not have been visible above the surface. We were also pleased to hear him pronounce that the building could potentially be conserved for future presentation to the public.

Meanwhile, in Area G, the curse of G052 lives on, as the crew discover to their horror that there is another one a few layers down that looks just like it (with an extremely high density of bone and shell), only thicker. We are trying to complete the excavation of this area by the end of next week and the high density of finds in these layers make progress slow. James is pleased, however, as the rich midden material will be crucial to our understanding of the site and the wider issue of economic change at the Viking Age-medieval transition.

At the end of the day everyone was glad to get back to dry off - in time for most of the crew to join the public lecture given by Graeme and James at the Pierowall Community School.

Another lovely day sampling in Area F

Berst Ness

Autumn is coming! More wet and windy weather today. It is on days such as today that you can appreciate just how exposed this site is - it is frequently difficult to stand upright against the might of the westerly winds, which come straight in off the Atlantic, never mind keeping the roof on over a house! In the interior of the building, Mhairi, Claire, Donna and Eland have been investigating the floor deposits. It appears that the floor consists of spreads of compact peat ash up to 30cms deep. Below this level, there is a very rough rubble spread and ample evidence of otter activity, in the form of munched up fish remains! Keyhole investigations suggest that the rubble spreads may be derived from an earlier building and possibly one of slightly different plan, since the rubble runs under some of the walls. We had a visit from Joff Hill, an expert in the reconstruction of ancient buildings. Joff, who has built reconstructions at sites such as Mine Howe and Barnhouse on Mainland, was struck by the similarity of the architecture at the north end of the interior of our building to Structure 2 at Barnhouse, which is of Late Neolithic date. This was interesting to hear since it was exactly this part of the structure which was revealed last year and interpreted as being part of a Neolithic chambered tomb. As yet, there is little else to back up this idea, but it certainly looks like the structure has been altered considerably since it was first built. With this storm of ideas raging in his head, Graeme gave a public talk about the site at the Pierowall School in the evening. Rather than tying up all the loose ends of our numerous theories about the site, Graeme invited the audience to come and visit the site on the Open Day next Sunday, to see for themselves!


With the open day scheduled for Sunday, and a field trip on Saturday, the student diggers from Quoygrew take the day off. Ray, Tessa and James head back to site in order to catch up with record keeping and sieving the many samples. With Jen, our lab supervisor, in hospital James has donned his waterproofs and taken charge of flotation. In the evening there is a lecture for the fieldschool participants. Marcus outlines geophysical survey and James introduces the archaeology and history of Scandinavian settlement in Scotland.

Berst Ness

Today was Nick Card's last day on site before he returns to assist with the organisation of the Iron Age Conference (Sea Change: Orkney & Northern Europe, 300-800 AD, see OAT's website for details). Nick has managed all our day to day work schedules on site and kept things shipshape - his wide knowledge of Orkney archaeology has been invaluable and he will be missed by the whole team (as will Fin, his dog). True to form, Nick left us with much to be getting on with by discovering a human burial set into the rubble outside the wall of our structure. The burial appears to post date the latest use of the building and may be contemporary with a burial found on the surface of the mound during the 2000 season. A second articulated skeleton found in a similar location today was later revealed to be that of a sheep. We were almost washed off site in the afternoon by a huge downpour and decided to pack up early and conserve our energies for the Open Day on Sunday.

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