Return to the Ness! Day 1

Layers of ashy midden deposits sitting on glacial till
A dizzying view of excavations in Trench T
After a small adventure involving delayed flights, gale force winds and navigating with no GPS signal (how did we ever cope before smart phones with Google Maps?), I finally arrived in Orkney yesterday. This is actually the last week of excavation before the trenches are covered over until next year, so it’s all very quiet on site. Most of the students have left, and the remaining teams are working to complete recording by the end of the week. I have had a quick tour around to get a feel for what’s happened since I was here last year, and have spent today planning my sampling strategy. As usual so much is going on and there’s plenty for a micromorphologist to do. This year I am focusing on collecting samples from middens in Trench T. Regular blog readers will have seen the snippets I’ve posted about my analysis of middens in the central excavation areain 2013. Although analysis of the 2013 slides is still in progress, we can already see some interesting features, possibly related to burnt fat deposits, but also small fragments of wood charcoal, which is interesting considering the low volume of charcoal recovered from excavation (is this a result of taphonomy/preservation? Or is it a result of not much wood being used?).

There are two strands to my work. The first is to help resolve questions that arise during excavation related to the formation processes of these deposits and the activities they represent. The second is to examine the nature of resource use, particularly the use of fuel, through the remains that we see in middens, with comparative material from ‘primary’ ash deposits in hearths. Even in the field we can see differences in the thickness, colour and extent of different ‘ashy’ layers. What sorts of fuels are represented? Did this vary seasonally or on longer timescales? How is this linked to fire-related activities such as pottery production?   
Sampling underway in Trench T

Interdisciplinary work is key when addressing questions like this. The team of specialists includes magnetic susceptibility, pXRF amongst others, and to understand these deposits requires integration of all these different lines of evidence. The most exciting bit will be when everyone has completed their analyses, and we get to compare all of our data! Will it tell the same story, or will there be conflicting lines of evidence? And how do the results from on-site analysis compare with what we know about the wider landscape? Pollen records from Orkney have traditionally been interpreted as showing a 'treeless' landscape by c. 5000BP, though the picture may be more complicated depending where on the islands you are looking, and newer studies show woodland may have persisted into the Bronze Age (Farrell et al. 2012)