Archeology: I'm Missing the Big Dig
by Jim Richardson
It’s not exactly a malady. It’s more FOMO (fear of missing out) or craving a particular excitement. It seems to infect only people who have traveled to Orkney, those Scottish islands in the North Sea, in July and August during an archeological dig there. The cure is in just one place, exactly 4,129 miles from where I sit.
Summer here in the American Midwest where I live has its July excitements. Just now the combines are gnawing their way across the wheat fields. Fireflies dance in the summer dusk. Last night the air was rent with dazzling fireworks all around town. Fourth of July skyrockets and the rattling of firecrackers sent our Jack Russell terrier to hide in the closet.
But July in Orkney means something quite different: the archeologists are back at the Ness of Brodgar. That is what I miss.
They are swarming over this narrow finger of land that divides Loch Stenness from Loch Harray on Orkney’s big island. By now the tires and tarps meant to protect the site from winter storms have been pulled back, exposing stonework from more than 5,000 years ago. It is the handcraft of Neolithic folk. Sprawling structures that lurked unseen under a farm field are now exposed and giving up their secrets to the clever diggers. The air is rich with the sounds of discovery, as if the breeze blowing in off Loch Stenness might drive off a fog of ignorance. Suddenly we would know these people who built this vast edifice so long ago. Such windows into another age are rare.
Orkney folk are accustomed to ancient places and archeology in their daily lives. Even for them this dig is something new.
On any ordinary day an Orkney resident from, say, the town of Yesnaby, might travel into the big town of Kirkwall for a job or appointment. Starting down a one-track road on Ness of Brodgar, the commuter would pass the huge Ring of Brodgar stone circle lurking on a hill. Then they’d travel the road edging on Loch Harray, over a wee bridge, then past the even more ancient Stones of Stenness. Same road on every trip to Kirkwall, same stone circles, same cows grazing in the verdant pastures.
Then in 2003 something changed. Archeologists led by Nick Card from the Orkney Research Center for Archeology (ORCA) arrived with ground-probing radar. That lumpy field behind an old farmhouse on the Ness of Brodgar turned out to be a vast Neolithic settlement sprawling from loch to loch. Suddenly every bump in the land became suspiciously meaningful. Summers on the Ness have not been the same since.
Now July and August are dig season on the Ness. University archeologists from Aberdeen, Glasgow and Cardiff (even Oregon USA) gather, abetted by eager students and older volunteers seeking a bit of adventure. Tourists approaching the dig fence gasp at the scale; reporters and film crews document the excavations. Many of these visitors fall under the spell of the dig and return year after year — including me.
Most dig followers were denied a return for two years because of Covid-19; however, vivd memories make easy work in my mind’s eye. I imagine a day when the breeze is light and air clear, the sky decorated with puffy white clouds and swans swimming by. (It being Orkney, rain is just as possible as that clear day.)
The dig site is a hive. Archeologists are scattered about, cocking their heads, reasoning and reckoning. They direct students from around the world who are hunched over in the trenches. Nick Card is seemingly everywhere. As director of the dig he is constantly consulting, pondering, stopping to talk to reporters, worrying that it might rain. At 10:30 a.m. he calls out “tea time” and the work stops. Snacks come out and laughter follows chatter with Bryn the Dig Dog hoovering up all crumbs. Visitors arrive for tours, agog (and rightly so.) New trenches reveal new structures and hint at the gathering truth: eventually that farmhouse on the site will have to be brought down to make way for more digging.
Any discovery lights up the day. One student finds a carved stone ball so rare that Nick cradles it in his hands like a baby. Another unearths a polished stone axe head that some powerful person may have safety deposited under a stone slab. That student gets to be the first person to touch the axe head in 4,500 years — and she nearly bursts out of her skin with excitement. Pottery shards require delicacy. (One day I was on site, a shard revealed the fingerprint of the potter.)
Mostly, the days follow a routine — the arduous digging down, centimeter by centimeter, charting and mapping layer by layer, peeling off slices of soil, going further back in time with each gentle scrape of the trowel.
Like Nick, the Ness dig is an enormously friendly place. Nick’s colleagues are friends; students and volunteers easily catch that spirit. The dig community is intellectually curious and serious about the work but the dominating spirit is shared friendship. Historic Scotland rangers Sandra and Elaine chart for visitors the wider picture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. (They once loaned me their trailer so we could use it as a makeshift studio to photograph artifacts. Friendly.)
I can’t help but marvel at the good fortune of the students, coming here for a few weeks of their summer from places like Willamette University to take part in the dig. They are dropped into another world to search for another time in another age, and they become part of a great intellectual undertaking on these remote and tiny islands in the North Sea.
Knowledge grows day by day, expanding ever closer to understanding more about who these people were, what they did, how they thought five millennia ago. (Did the clouds pass over them, I wonder, like these pass over me, sending shadows racing across the land to make their day fresh and thrilling, like this one is to me?)
What can we know of their days this far into the dig?
Sigurd Towrie has thought about that a lot. Sigurd was the newspaper editor of The Orcadian for years until a recent buyout. During that time he worked diligently to create Orkneyjar.com, his website compendium of Orkney history and prehistory. After the buyout, pondering what next in his life, he decided he would become an actual archeologist. So he earned a masters degree at the Orkney branch of the University of the Highlands and Islands. As Nick Card said: “Sigurd’s problem is he’s overqualified for a masters degree.” But the idea of a small town newspaper editor (Kirkwall is 8,000 people) yearning to be an archeologist resonates with my own infatuation with the place. It’s part of what I miss by not being there.
One day Sigurd recalled a conversation. “I remember standing there with Nick years ago and asking him, ‘We’re never going to really know these [Neolithic] people are we? Never going to know what their lives were like?’ ” I understood his yearning, the tantalizing quest, the lure of hoped for understanding. But could Nick ever hope to glimpse even one day in these Neolithic lives?
As it has happens, the answer is “yes.”
Out of all that digging, answers to just that question have begun to emerge — sometimes in startling detail.
We can now imagine a day in the life of a Neolithic family seeking to pay homage to their clans and ancestors. In the morning the family would pack for a day’s travel, walking from their village of Skara Brae on the western coast of Orkney. They would travel several miles overland to the Ring of Bookan up on the hill overlooking the Ness of Brodgar. Down the hill, they would walk through the Ring of Brodgar (entering on one side of the circle, exiting on the other). In another half mile they would arrive at a huge “temple’ site, which is what is now the Ness of Brodgar excavation site. After a time they would continue — fording the shallow waters that connect lochs Stenness and Harray, walking on past the Odin and Watch Stones to the Stones of Stenness, the oldest stone circle in the area. Their journey would end a half mile beyond Stenness at Maeshowe Tomb. From the land of the living to the land of the dead in about five miles — and then enough time to make the return trip to their village at Skara Brae in time for supper.
Archaeologists at the Ness now know that one particular day was not ordinary. On that day some 4,500 years ago, the decision was made that the massive building that Nick and his crew call Structure Ten would be abandoned. By all available evidence it appears the Neolithic folk pulled the roof down! Besides that, they had a gigantic celebration, which included the slaughter of 400 cattle whose bones were buried around the base of the demolished building! That’s some barbecue. With that, it seems an era had come to an end at the Ness of Brodgar. Life and habits had apparently changed, and building at the Ness of Brodgar was over. For Sigurd Towrie, this research brings an answer to his long-ago question. He now knows these ancient people much better than he could ever have hoped.
My case of Dig Deprivation is about that, too. I miss Orkney and those halcyon days at the dig. Moreover I miss the sense of being in the midst of great discovery, of pulling back to veil to see life in the distant past as if it happened yesterday. Author George MacKay Brown said that in Orkney “the imagination is haunted by time.” Surely now it is also haunted by facts.
Archeology is about those discoveries and how they can stoke the fires of understanding. It is also about assembling a community of capable people, able to undertake arduous work and remain filled with enthusiasm for finding necessary funding to carry on a six- or eight-week dig coordinating hundreds of people. That gathering of resources is in danger — not just the money but the gathering of talent to do the work. That would be a great loss after we have come so far.
I can deal with the Dig Deprivation as long as it is not permanent.
If you would like to know more:
The Ness of Brodgar
Useful background information, local links and the ever popular Dig Diaries, where you can keep up on the discoveries and goings on virtually every day.
Orkneyjar by Sigurd Towrie
Sigurd’s voluminous and wide reaching web site delivers on it’s stated theme: The Heritage of the Orkney Islands. Years in the making, covering every era, well written, this site rewards every interest.
Orcadia: Land, Sea and Stone in Neolithic Orkney by Mark Edmonds
A compelling overview of Neolithic life as now understood thanks to all this recent research. Edmonds is a good storyteller and evokes the era as few can.
The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands
Edited by Nick Card, Mark Edmonds and Anne Mitchell
Lavishly illustrated, comprehensive compendium of research from the Ness of Brodgar. Ranges from broad overviews to full scientific papers. The new standard.