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2012 Noltland dig update

The archaeological excavation at Links of Noltland has resumed for the summer season. The focus of attention this time is the Neolithic settlement, last investigated in 2010.

We are concentrating on three buildings (10, 18, 19) - all of which are thought to be houses dating to around 2800- 2600 BC. Structures 10 and 19 appear to have been in use over a very long period and we do not know when the earliest period of occupation dates to in either case.

Work this year will hopefully recover lots more information about the histories of these buildings, how they were used and reused and what happened to them when they were finally abandoned.

Currently we are removing midden deposits from Structure 19, revealing tantalising glimpses of large structural partitions within the interior, together with the remains of a probable dresser of Skara-Brae type.

Finds from this building have included some fine quality grooved ware pottery, a range of flint and stone tools and lots of other domestic refuse - food waste, peatash, shell etc.

Work on Structure 10 is more advanced. We had reached an intermediate stage in the excavations by the end of the 2010 season and we are now removing the last of a series of secondary floors and hearths which represent a late re-use of the building.

Fragments of a possible kiln-type structure have also been found nearby (now removed). This building has very finely built walls of quarried stone and appears to be well preserved. Finds from the late floors have included articulated deer bone, possibly placed there as a closing gesture at the end of the life of the building.

Structure 18 has been excavated to the level of its primary floor. This was made from a thick layer of yellow clay and was resurfaced on several occasions.

Elsewhere in this building, the articulated remains of cattle and sheep are suggestive of large scale butchery or feasting events unlike the bone found in the surrounding middens, these have not been smashed up to extract marrow. Finds from this building have included a cache of flint tools, fine pottery and whalebone tools.

The excavation team varies between 10 and 15 in number and includes many familiar faces who have worked on Westray in the past, including several dedicated folks who have worked almost every season so far at Noltland. We have been joined by several new folks this year, including undergraduate students from Glasgow and Southhampton, several PhD students from Edinburgh and even an archaeologist from the Norwegian state service.

We are especially fortunate to have so many skilled osteologists - both human and animal bone specialists - with us on site since the quality and quantity of bone being recovered especially from the middens is enormous! In addition to being able to undertake immediate identification of the remains, our specialists have also been able to collect samples for future DNA testing and isotope analysis.

Latest News

Today (20th February) we have started a new season at Links of Noltland.

The weather is a bit iffy still - it is February - but we got a lot done today. We now have the covers off 'Structure 13', a small, probably Bronze Age (c. 1500 BC) building which lies to the SW of the site. Over the next couple of days we will clean everything up and get back to the business of digging !

15th August

LoN news up to 13th August 2010

We have now just passed the half way stage of this season’s excavations at Noltland- and there have been several new discoveries and some excitements to relate.

Our excavation team has increased in size with the arrival of Emily and Val and the return of Dawn. Dawn and Emily have been working on a Roman - Byzantine period site in Albania for the past month. They are slowly adjusting to our slightly cooler conditions but are nevertheless taking every opportunity to show off their deep Mediterranean tans!

We are working on three main fronts at the moment- excavating the interior of Structure 9 and continuing to lift cattle skulls from its wall core, extending our trench to the south and east to find the limits of the Structure 8 complex and, finally, we are recording and removing a series of late features and deposits built over Structure 8. Sean is excavating a sondage to investigate a deep sequence of midden deposits which built up to the outside of the Structure 8 complex.

We have been recovering large concentrations of animal bone over the past weeks, together with increasing amounts of well preserved pottery. Star finds this week have included a polished stone axe (from the old ground surface to the south of Structure 8), a basal pot fragment with ‘lattice’ decoration on its inner surface, a (slightly lumpen) carved stone ball and numerous bone and stone tools, including several fine and complete dress pins.

Site visitor numbers are still high- with 10 or more group and individual visits, on average, per day. This may not seems like a lot but we are delighted that so many people have made it out to what is, after all, a fairly remote location. We try to provide site tours to as many people as possible but this is taking up an increasing amount of time and, unfortunately, we may have to rethink our policy. If you fancy a trip out- please do come along but be aware that we are busy, that we have lunch between 1 and 2 pm and that are unable to take tours after 4.00 pm (to allow ourselves time to pack up for 5.00 pm).

Over the past few days we have had visits from an illustrious array of folk- including a Norwegian civic dignitary, Rolf Hestness and his wife in the company of OIC convener Stephan Hagan and his wife, archaeologists Colin Richards, Mark Edmonds, Jen Harland, Caroline Wickham-Jones, Jane Downes (Orkney College), Julie Gibson (County Archaeologist) and geologist Scott Pike. Colin Richards wrote most interestingly of his visit and his impressions of the site in the Orcadian newspaper. It is great to have the opportunity to discuss the site with so many experts and to get some feedback whilst we are still in the field.

The coming week promises to be exciting- with the excavation of internal floors and the entrance passage to Structure 8 in prospect. Digging for Britain starts this week too (Thursday 9.00, BBC2) and Noltland should feature early in the series. We also have visits planned from National Geographic and University of Glasgow dating expert, Dr. David Sandison. Watch this space !


More news from Noltland (at last)

It has been a long season this year (18 weeks) and it has to be admitted that we got very busy towards the end and the blog suffered. Hopefully there are still a few people out there keeping an eye on this Still, the intention now is to add some more entries to bring us up to date for the filed season and then to add occasional entries over the winter as post excavation work progressess on all the finds we recovered.

We finally finished up on site at the end of last week, in the middle of gales which were so bad that the team couldnt get off the island (ferries cancelled). We suffered a bit from the weather over the final couple of weeks and its true that some time was lost, even if we did soldier on through it. The site got covered in sand more than once and Sean grew weary from continually having to empty out his sondage. Through all this we have been constantly reminded of how vulnerable the site is to erosion, with the surrounding area changing quickly as the wind and rain scour away more and more of the protective covering of sand. Some elements of the site which previously were only known through techniques such as geophysics or soil auguring, such as the filed system which lies to the north, are now clearly visible on the ground as surface features.

This season, though, has been a great success and we made a huge amount of progress through the Area 5 deposits. Structure 9 (the house with all the cow skulls in the foundations) was completely excavated, vast amounts of midden were carefully sampled and excavated, and we got to grips with the structures lying beneath the middens.

Structure 8, in particular, proved to be very exciting. This is where the first figurine came from last year. This year we began the painstaking task of excavating the rubble filling into the interior. We soon hit some very interesting things such as articulated animal bones, including a complete deer skeleton, and a complete pot, smashed in situ. When we lifted the bone and the pot we hit a layer we think represents a very late reuse of the building, probably at a point when it was already ruinous. This layer was gridded and sampled in its entirety for wet sieving. We hope to recover all of the charred material such as plant remains, grain, charcoal and so on as well as very tiny finds such as the chips of flint associated with flint working.

Anyway, thats all for now. The next update will follow soon....

Wednesday 4th August

This week has seen the excavation of midden spreads covering the east side of the site in the extension. The middens are extremely rich and contain large amounts of grooved ware pottery, bone, worked bone, flint and stone tools. Maeve and Alexis have been excavating a dense spread of butchered bone and stone tools- no easy task since each fragment and tool must be separately drawn and numbered. Maeve’s plan is a work of art! Work is also continuing to record and lift the cattle skulls from amongst the wall of Structure 9. Sheena provides a rundown on this:

Hi, my name is Sheena Fraser and I will be examining the animal bones recovered from the Links of Noltland site. I have been on site for the last two weeks, my second visit this season.

There have been thirty cattle skulls recovered in the east and west wall cores of Structure 9. They were packed into the base of the wall core, sometimes with their horns intertwined. Apart from two skulls, all have been deposited on their dorsal surface (face down). The skulls have been crushed by the inclusion of stones in the wall core and by the weight of material placed above them. They may also have been damaged by later ploughing. The bones remaining varies from skull to skull, but all include horn cores. There is a range in the size and shape of these horn cores but some are large and in the upper area of a graph compiled by the archaeozoologist Caroline Grigson for basal circumference plotted against length of outer curvature for British and European male Neolithic cattle. The project conservator (Pieta Greaves, AOC) has lifted five cattle skulls already, after pre-treatment (see previous blog).

The midden area currently under excavation further to the east of Structure 9 with the cattle skulls has produced large quantities of bone in good condition, but fragile. The distribution of bones is not homogenous and some areas seem to be particularly dense in bone material. The bone finds include a large number of sheep and cattle lower jaws. We have just uncovered a section of articulated cattle vertebrae. When these bones are fully excavated they may give some insight to butchery practices employed by the Neolithic people at Links of Noltland.