Westray 2001: The Excavation Diary
The second contingent of fieldschool diggers hopped on the ferry for their field trip to Papa Westray. They managed to get (marginally) less wet than three weeks ago, but still sought shelter in the Chambered Cairn of the Holm of Papa Westray South. Many seals were also seen. Other visits included St. Tredwell's Chapel, the Norse church and farm mound site at St. Boniface and the Neolithic settlement at Knap of Howar. As the day progressed they got ever wetter, at significant detriment to their appreciation of the oldest upstanding Neolithic houses in north-western Europe. This was followed by a trip to a local history museum at Holland Farm, where the team waited for the Minibus. Nick, wearing Dr. Barrett's waterproofs, and jumper, and still shivering, said, "this morning, I looked into my caravan, and saw my waterproofs and jumper, and thought, 'nah,' and picked up these instead", holding up his sunglasses. But all too soon, it was time to leave, and it was with heavy hearts that the team boarded the "Golden Mariana", this time adorned with a singing figurehead in the form of Catherine. Who got very wet.
Ray went to site today to continue planing the next phase of the house floor, but was eventually forced home by the driving rain.
Sunday... and the Open Day
It was another wet and windy day - poor weather for an open day, but not enough to keep away the visitors. Approximately 100 people braved the weather for tours of Quoygrew and Berst Ness. Excavation of the farm mound middens continued as routine, but Catherine found a steatite vessel shard, on cue, Time Team-style, just as visitors were coming by. Many sweets were eaten to keep spirits up. In the morning, Jamie (visiting from Berst Ness) found a fragment of bone or antler comb. This was closely followed in the afternoon by a second piece. Concurrently, it was all hands to the pumps as the trench took on water. The day simply flew by after that.
In Area F, the interior floor was half sectioned, with context F173 being removed from the east end of the building and intensively sampled on a 50cm grid. This layer underlay a rough flagstone paving, and may represent a disturbed leveling deposit. More pottery was found and work progressed well in the hands of Nick and Suzie (as James, Ray, Mags and Tessa led site tours).
Our visitors made numerous helpful suggestions based on local experience and tradition. The consensus among those familiar with dry stone building was that the east end of the structure was in its original location (rather than being truncated) - although it may have partially collapsed and been rebuilt at some point in its life. It was also suggested that shells were sometimes excluded from use as manure on cultivated land, one possible explanation for patterns seen in some of the farm mound middens.
Wind and rain brought an inauspicious start to the day and for the first few hours we wondered if anyone would turn out to visit the site. We needn't have worried - Westray folk are a hardy lot and, true to form, they turned up in force. Close to a hundred people came, some travelling over from Mainland and other islands as well. Iona, Hazel, Graeme and Eland conducted site tours, often having to bellow at our visitors because of the strength of the wind; nobody seemed to mind, though! Many people expressed surprise at the sheer size and good state of preservation of the site, especially since this is a popular place for Sunday walks and many people had walked over the site without suspecting what lay beneath. A lot of people commented on the internal fixtures and fittings and said that just as at Skara Brae, you could imagine how this building must have looked when it was used as a house. Features such as the compartments (or "box beds") lining the walls, together with the hearth and the pivot stone at the entrance, were of particular interest and many of the older people could remember traditional crofts in which similar features could be found. All of our visitors were really excited by the work being carried out and many of them commented that archaeological projects such as this and the excavations at Quoygrew had an important role to play in the development of Heritage initiatives on Westray.
More wind and rain hit the moral of the more junior members of the crew, but everyone soldiered on. Excavation of the delicate floor layers in Area F eventually had to stop due to excessive water-logging. South of the building, a rubble feature was located just outside the secondary entrance. It is too early to tell whether it is the fill of a demolished earlier structure or something more prosaic (such as a drain). In Area G, the removal of G058 continued apace in this Day of Many Finds, mostly iron objects. An articulated calf-foot was also recovered. Articulated bones like these are useful for C-14 dating because they are unlikely to have been disturbed (moved to earlier or later layers) after their initial deposition. Catherine's singing by the flot tanks attracted a lone selkie, who stayed in rapt awe as she sang "The Gasman Cometh".
To much rejoicing, Jen was released from hospital, and she and Tom returned to a hero's welcome at the Pierowall Hotel.
Autumn is definitely here! More gales and rain today - but this is our last week and we are trying to beat the clock and cannot now afford to loose time to the weather. Sometimes such difficult circumstances bring out the best in people and the whole team worked hard and with great good humour. Martin inadvertently began a singsong teabreak, which threatened to become a dancing session as well - luckily a lull in the storm led us back up that cold wet hill again! Today's heroes were Donna, Iona and Julie who managed to continue drawing despite the fierce wind which threatened to carry off tapes and drawing boards. Eland and Jamie (York student) worked at exposing the human burial on the northern slopes of the mound, while Martin and Debz (also a York student) carefully excavated the articulated sheep skeleton. Mhairi and Claire excavated a sondage in the interior of the building to probe the depth of floor deposits while Hazel zipped about checking up on the site records and samples. Graeme went away to see a man about a JCB for backfilling and got mired down in a muddy field for such a long time that we were beginning to suspect that he might be at home drinking tea - but he denied this!
Today was overcast, but dry! In Area F excavation of the ash floor layers under F173 revealed a new feature along the north wall of the house at its eastern end. It seems to be an ash filled rectangular enclosure marked by small orthostats (upright stones), but this should become clearer tomorrow. In Area G, Emily found three shards of a very large steatite vessel. Lucy, trying to beat Marcus' record of the previous year, found yet another coprolite. G058 was bottomed, meaning that we are near subsoil in the farm mound. Yet more "Magic Mints" were consumed, thanks to Tullochs store in Pierowall.
The rain is back - more or less continuously through the day. Nevertheless, work continued to clarify the new feature in Area F. The orthostats are in double rows in places, and divide the rectangular feature into cells. They may once have been the footings for stone uprights or planking which would have formed box-like features running along the north wall of the building. There is no indication of their function as yet, but they were apparently filled with ash in the end (which was in turn penetrated by stakes - the holes for which remain visible). Further investigation will have to wait, however, as it is time to complete final recording prior to back-filling. Work progressed apace in Area G, with the team returning for a few hours after dinner in order to make it possible to finish the area by Friday.
Chris Morris of the University of Glasgow, a specialist in the archaeology of Norse Scotland, visited both sites today. After a site tour and discussion of the finds he picked up a trowel and helped out in the farm mound deposits of Area G.
Strong winds and lashing rain were with us again today. In Area F everyone was occupied drawing sections and plans. Excavation continued in Area G, with the last stratum before subsoil now fully exposed. Ray and Tessa stayed late in the evening, tidying up as many loose ends as possible prior to backfilling on Friday.
Very strong winds and rain are with us again as the site drawings and photographs are finished in Area F and subsoil is reached in Area G. Sieving continues until the very end of the day, keeping up with intensive sampling in Area G. Area F is backfilled (with the help of a tractor loaned by the Drever's from Trenabie Farm), but Area G will be left open over the weekend in order for Tessa, Ray and Mags to complete the section drawings. Niall Sharples of Cardiff University makes a site visit in the lashing rain. At the end of the day the sun breaks out, producing a rainbow over Area G. We have found metaphoric gold, as Martha packs up the thousands of bones recovered for analysis back in York.
By 7:00 everything is finished and we make our weary way to dinner, where James congratulates the crew for a job well done. It isn't over for Tom and Catherine, however, who spend the rest of the evening packing the minibus for a 9 am ferry Saturday morning.