Friday, 9 August 2013

Digging Neolithic Orkney - End of week 2

View across Trench T. The island of
Hoy rears impressively in the distance.
What a fantastic week. Orkney has given us a taste of the milder climate of the neolithic; with sun most days, and sunburns to match.*

My lovely teamates in little Trench T, hidden at the back of the main excavation site, have been mattocking, trowelling and recording feverishly. The process is quite satisfying. What's in our trench? Well it's not as sexy as the main site (yet), but there's a wall, lots of midden, and a 'crack of doom' at the top where the ground has split apart. It's only a ~1cm gap, but we're all intrigued. The archaeological theory machine is in full swing.

I tried my hand at 'planning' this week, which is really just drawing very accurately. I'm not knocking it though, it's tough to draw hundreds of stones with precision. I should know, I just drew a hundred or so.

My accurate drawing of a section of Trench T.

I managed to get two blogs on Orkneyjar in the 'View from the Trenches' section below their main dig blog. These cover a little more of my archaeo experiences, including flotation - a rather satisfying if mentally numbing process.

Jennifer and I prepare for flotation.

The 300 micrometre mesh sieve for fine
particulates. Above said particulates
are pieces of pottery and flint we
found in the sample.

Butchering marks on a cattle done from the neolithic.
I was delighted to get a tour of the bone collection at Orkney college, including neolithic cattle bones with butchery cuts where the ligaments and tendons were severed.

More fascinating still was the comparison between the hefty skeletons of neolithic cattle and the comparitively dainty modern highland cow (see pic). This really gives you an idea of the enormity and sturdiness of these animals.

It would be fascinating to utilise the techniques recently used to retrieve and sequence 700,000 year old horse DNA and examine the heritage of the old Orkney neolithic breed.
On the right a modern highland cow tibia.
On the left a neolithic cow tibia

Why stop there? A recent study completed by a team of Oxford scientists found modern Orcadians to have the most unique DNA in the British Isles. If we were to extract DNA from some of the ancient human skeletons found in tombs and cists on Orkney we could shed light both on modern Orcadian ancestry and on the migration of people to Orkney in prehistory.

Anyway, my 2 weeks digging up Orkney are at an end. I don't regret a moment of it. So much food for thought.

*There is no actual scientific evidence that the sun shone most days in the neolithic, nor that neolithic people got sunburnt any more often than modern ones. However, there is evidence to indicate a milder climate, with a richer mix of vegetation to match.

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