Monday, 29 July 2013

(Giant Science) Lady of the Lake

Orkney's geology sounds like a work of fiction, the setting for a sci-fi film. An ancient lake at the heart of a supercontinent, fringed with iron-red mountains and deluged by seasonal tropical rains, it's depths stirred by legions of armour-plated fish.

This lake (or series of lakes) was at the equator then, burning up in the full glare of the sun. Hot winds scoured layers from the arid mountains and blew them over the water, where they drifted to the bottom in layers. Fascinatingly, there are patterns in the deposition of these layers related to fluctuations in climate around the lake, and these climate patterns coincide with the Milankovitch cycles - a pattern of earth wobbles, tilts and fluctuating orbit which changes our position in relation to the sun. All this was taking place in the Devonian. What is 400 million years to these islands? That's the time it takes to lay down 5km of sandstone, cover it up, then scour it all back off again. It's the time it takes Orkney to have a facial.

Old man, so Coy
The famous Old Man of Hoy was coquettishly peeking out from under nimbostratus veils as I sailed out of the rain on the mainland, into the rain on Mainland - as the main islands of the Orkney archipelego are known. Did you know the Old Man was still an arch as little as 200 years ago?

Guillemots, fulmars and elegant gannets swooped in and out of the gloom. Best of all, a tiny puffin whirred past. I'd love to rename them sea bumblebees. Inside (where it was drier and warmer) I found a fascinating growth of salt crystals in the gap between the ships glazing.
Salt crystals

But enough of all this, I'm here to dig.

I've made it to the dig partly thanks to the UHI Student Development Fund, who've assisted me meeting the costs. And why am I here? I'm not an archeologist, but I'm fascinated by areas in which archaeological sciences overlap with environmental science. Dating methods, the domestication of animals, how climate influenced the development and collapse of societies - these are just a few fascinating topics.
Brodgar, complete with Baldrick.

Orkney is an amazing place to find out more about this. Neil Oliver (who was filming here last week) apparently tweeted that it's the best neolithic site in the world (or something like that - I don't tweet so I can't quote him verbatum). Tony Robinson turned up today to do some twittering of his own to the camera.

The sun was out all day, re-enacting the Devonian by attempting to lazer our outer layers of skin off. My team got down to some serious trowelling. Raiders of the Lost Ark it was not, but I did find a little flint flake and that's quite alright for a first day.

My team, UHI students doing the excavation module.
I have no reason to be so pleased with myself.
Main excavation site in the background.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Vehicular Orogeny.

My car tried to kill me on Friday.

I'd just finished preparing for a trip to Orkney where I'll be joining an archeological dig with the University of the Highlands and Islands, UHI (my uni). Orkney College is one of the UHI's partner colleges and the hub of it's archeology department. I'd volunteered to join a work team for two weeks, learning the skills of excavation at the UNESCO world heritage site at Ness of Brodgar.

Waterproofs, sunhat, trowel and clothing laid out and ready, I hopped into the car and set off for town, quite delighted with myself. I was zooming out of Muir of Ord, running through final preparations in my head, and that was when Marco (my beloved VW) tried to murder me.

One minute the summer sun was shining on my face, the next, Marco's bonnet was smashing into my windscreen. It was like a vehicular moine thrust.

The bonnet's lock mechanism had failed - by which I mean it disintegrated in a metallic love affair with oxygen - and the bonnet caught the wind like a sail. It had buckled like a child's cheap shoe. I didn't really need a mechanic to tell me the bonnet had to be replaced, as did the windscreen.

And just two days before a 150 mile drive and sail to the northern isles.

Luckily I managed to get the windscreen replaced and the bonnet tied down. It's ugly, but functional. So I'm setting off this morning into the pouring rain.Wish me better luck?

Marco. He's seen better days. What's more appropriate when working on an archeological dig than to arrive driving a relic?