Archaeology, Islands and Music in Orkney
The Orkneys are 70 islands (only 20 inhabited) filled with sheep, small crofts and rolling green hills to the north of Scotland. Locals say “Dig anywhere and there’s probably archaeology” and this is why I came back—to work!! For two weeks I spent most of my time scraping dirt away from an Iron Age structure in the newest trench at the Ness of Brodgar. Amazing to me how meditative and silent this work is and how much I loved doing it rain or mist, sun or gale force winds, all of which probably presented themselves every day.
The Ness is an absolutely spectacular site, unique from every other Neolithic site in Britain and possibly even Europe as here lie many finely crafted large buildings from 3500 BC. Just 10% excavated with at least 27 structures, what’s thrilling is to see the level of architectural design and finish that these long alcoved buildings have—perfect right angled corners; plumb walls; masonry of a higher quality than Bronze Age brochs (three story towers found on Orkney as well) and the Iron Age wall I worked on.
I was there primarily to write an article about the Ness; but the way I wanted to do it was to experience archaeological digging first hand. Scraping is easy and exciting when anything turns up—I found cow bones and a tooth—but shoveling dirt, carrying and wheelbarrowing it to the “spoils heap” is heavy work. We had seven hours’ actual work time, two 15” “Tea Breaks” (this is Britain after all) and a 30” lunch made rather delightful by two local fellows who showed up daily with goodies — Lamb and aubergine pie; fresh broccoli, tomatoes, apples and lettuce; ice cream; an hors d’ouerve platter of cheese and crackers; brownies; rice crispy treats; and even freshly baked blueberry muffins.
I did write the article about the Ness which I hope to publish. It was like doing a term paper complete with primary source interviews and a lot of reading and note taking. I think I got a fresh appreciation for what my students have to go through when they write papers as it’s been a really long time since I’ve had to write one.
On my days off I took a couple of hikes on different islands. Rousay has beautiful hills and wildflowers all around fabulous cairns (tomb mounds). One was a rare two-story tomb; another was a chambered tomb for maybe eight people; and the third one was an astounding 108 foot long, 12 foot high gargantuan chambered tomb built right by the sea. Next to it was a Bronze Age broch and an excavation of structures being threatened by rising seas.
On Hoy I saw (through a telescope) a huge “baby” white tailed Sea Eagle nearly toppling out of its nest above the oldest rock cut tomb in Britain. Then I walked up the cliff, Hoy having the only cliffs in the Orkneys, to see “The Old Man of Hoy”, a tall stack of red sandstone standing next to a sheer cliff filled with nesting sea birds.
My other free time was spent listening to Orcadian Celtic music at the Reel, a really sweet little venue for accordion and fiddle players. The place has free concerts most nights and has such a welcoming vibe that I went almost nightly and got to know the folks who ran it.
My sweet little Peedie Hostel was right by the sea so I watched ships and fishing boats move in and out of the harbor every day while I made my food. It was right in the very small and lovely town of Kirkwall with its 11th century Gothic Cathedral and it’s stone buildings with step pitched roofs and sometimes turrets.
I made some new friends there as well— Bruno from France who teaches English in Marseilles; Ivy from Surinam who is traveling all over the UK; and Vere, a wild New Zealander on an around the world trek that has included climbing Mt Everest, taking Ayawasca for spiritual enlightenment, and visiting the Egyptian pyramids with a healer. She is a stunningly beautiful half Scot, half Maori who sold her house and is really on a flight to a new life.