Building up to a new season at the Ness of Brodgar
Today marks exactly two months until archaeologists return to the awe inspiring Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney, ready to reveal another season of secrets. For eight weeks from the 8th of July, visitors will be able to take a free tour of the site to see the sheer scale of it for themselves. But, as we've been hearing from dig director, Nick Card, in the meantime, preparations continue.
As May gets underway, Orkney’s tourism industry really comes alive, with warm welcomes and open doors.
Visitors come armed with the results of their research on the sites they want to see, including Skara Brae, Maeshowe and St Magnus Cathedral. But, despite some high profile global coverage in recent years, one popular local location currently remains, quite literally, under wraps.
The sprawling six acre Neolithic site of the Ness of Brodgar is still covered over with plastic sheeting to protect it from the elements before excavation work continues in July. But, much like the detailed holiday planning that comes before trips to Orkney, behind the scenes, the Ness of Brodgar project never really stops.
“I think most people believe we just turn up on the day and start digging. In reality, planning for each new season begins at the end of the previous one. We have to raise funds, get the right team together, liaise with various bodies, it really is almost a military campaign!” says Nick Card, from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
He is Director of the Ness of Brodgar dig and has been working at the site, in the heart of Orkney’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, since excavations began in 2004. For him, even the painstaking process of awakening the site from its winter slumber has its merits.
“Uncovering the Ness is quite delicate work – you’re removing covers from walls that are 5,000 years old, but at the same time it’s a lot of very hard graft.
“Over the winter the site is protected by several thousand sandbags and tyres to hold the sheets in place. That all has to be taken away, but at least when you’re uncovering it you have that sense of ‘instantaneous archaeology’ being revealed.”
That process will take place on the 6th and 7th of July this year. Then the gates will be open to members of the public and the thousands of visitors expected over the eight week dig period. It’s a relatively rare occurrence, to have such an important excavation project carried out with visitors merely a couple of feet away, but Nick believes it has become an important part of the Ness of Brodgar’s reputation.
“The involvement of a worldwide audience does complicate matters when you’re trying to balance everything, including orchestrating what actually happens on the site. But I think we’ve hit a happy medium now, in terms of the numbers of tours we do. It’s not just a site for the archaeologists; it’s a site for everybody.”
It’s anticipated the number of people taking advantage of the free tours will continue to grow this year after the international coverage the Ness enjoyed in National Geographic magazine in 2014. It has also featured prominently in television documentaries, in newspaper print and online.
“It’s not surprising in many ways, as the Ness is a dream archaeological site. It’s very photogenic and it has produced fantastic finds. I think National Geographic has had a massive knock on effect that should benefit everyone – not just the Ness, but Orkney as a whole.” says Nick.
But the growth in interest isn’t just down to the international media coverage.
“We do a lot of work behind the scenes to publicise the site. There are social media updates, the daily dig diary is hosted on the excellent Orkneyjar webpage, and, this year, we’ll have a brand new visitor booklet, with all the profits raised going straight into the excavation fund.”
Along with helping to rewrite Orkney’s Neolithic past, the Ness of Brodgar team faces the constant challenge of finding the finances needed to fund the ongoing work. The dig only lasts for eight weeks every year, yet it still costs hundreds of thousands of pounds.
2016 dates are in place already only because of ongoing help from the American Friends of the Ness of Brodgar group, launched last year to provide assistance and promote the project across the Atlantic. It’s that level of support that Nick acknowledges keeps the site open year after year.
“Even though the Ness has this worldwide reputation, in the current economic climate we have to rely on financial assistance and the help of volunteers.”
That help comes in various forms. For example, every year, Orkney residents Neil and Rosemary McCance pre-number around three thousand finds bags for the excavation team. Meanwhile, the local community council has contributed to landscaping and fencing work at the site this season.
“It’s great to see that level of support.” says Nick. “It’s such a huge operation and we do rely on hard cash, but also that ‘in-kind’ help from a whole range of people. Without it, we just wouldn’t be able to function.”
The Ness of Brodgar continues to capture the imagination of not only the visiting public, but also of the archaeology fraternity, eager to get their hands dirty, digging down into five thousand years of history. Students from Willamette University in Oregon will return to the site once again this year, along with representatives from several other institutions. According to Nick, applications keep flooding in.
“We’re inundated with offers from volunteers. Last year we had to turn away something like 1,200 applications! Some people want to come back year after year and it’s good to keep that continuity, but it’s nice to introduce new people to the site too. It means we can train up the next generation of archaeologists, and also gain from their expertise as well.”
So, the accommodation is booked. The tools and equipment are organised. The finance is in place. What can we expect this year from a site that has already revealed monumental walls and painted stones?
“The Ness is one of those excavations that just throws up the unexpected all the time. You’re adjusting what you’re doing day to day and hour to hour sometimes. This year we hope to further understand the function of all these massive buildings in a bit more detail, and we also want to clarify the history of the site and how it developed and changed over a millennium of activity.” says Nick.
“To have something on the scale of the Ness is quite unusual. It has an ‘aura’ and its fascination and wonders never diminish with me. It’s just a fantastic opportunity, and I’m very honoured and privileged to be part of it.”