• Aerial view of the Ness of Brodgar in 2019 - image by Scott Pike

Archaeologists ready to return to the Ness of Brodgar

After almost two years under wraps, the covers come off at the Ness of Brodgar next week, with the excavation reopening to the public on Wednesday, June 30.

Due to COVID-19, no archaeological fieldwork took place in 2020 and the archaeologists’ return this year will see some differences to previous seasons.

The 2021 dig will last seven weeks instead of eight and will see a much smaller excavation team than usual. With no student placements at the Ness this summer, excavation director Nick Card has worked hard to bring together a hand-picked group of archaeologists to allow work to continue.

A smaller dig team reduces the size of the area that can be excavated, so only parts of the site will be opened up this year. In Trench P, this means only Structures Twelve and Ten will be uncovered and work will continue in Trench J, which contains Structure Five and the “Great Wall of Brodgar”. Trench T, to the south-east of the main site, will remain closed and for their protection the remaining structures will remain under cover.

Unfortunately, to avoid the crowding that accompanies them, there are no guided site tours this year and no viewing platform overlooking Trench P.

A one-way system will control movement through the site and to make up for the absence of tours there will be information panels in place. These will inform the visitors and help ensure they get the same Ness experience as previous years.

Planning a major excavation in the current COVID-affected world has proved challenging but it was considered that a reduced-scale excavation was better than no excavation at all. The measures introduced this year are to ensure the health and safety of both the diggers and the visitors.

Now the plans are in place, what can we expect in 2021?

Every year the dig team hope for amazing discoveries and the Ness rarely fails to deliver. This year the focus will be on the crucial, but very delicate, floor deposits within the buildings. Work to reach the primary occupation levels has been ongoing for years and that goal is now in sight. Although the floors will take considerable time to excavate, disentangle and sample, this painstaking process will reveal how these 5,000-year-old structures functioned and were used over their lifetimes.

A pressing concern this year – especially due to the cancellation of last year’s excavation – relates to funding. Contrary to what many think, the Ness is not paid for by business or large government grants. Almost 80 per cent of the dig’s running costs come from public donations – especially during the summer dig season.

No dig in 2020 meant no visitors and therefore no donations – a situation that inevitably impacted the project funds. Having the site open again this summer will help, although it is expected to be much quieter season than usual. With that in mind, the Ness of Brodgar Trust, the charity which runs the excavation, is relying on the generosity of visitors this year to help keep the dig running – leaving donations or buying from the on-site shop. Every little helps.

The archaeologists will be back on site on June 28, and the gates open to the public two days later, on June 30. Although things might seem slightly different this summer, it’s worth remembering that for many years excavation at the Ness of Brodgar was on the same scale as it will be in 2021. Back then visitors were delighted by what they encountered – incredible archaeology at a working excavation in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

Hopefully over the seven-week 2021 dig, visitors won’t dwell on what they couldn’t see but instead on the remarkable things they did. Now all we need is the weather to play ball.

The Ness of Brodgar excavation is open weekdays from June 30, until August 11, 2021, between 9.30am and 4.30pm. There is no need to book a visit, just turn up on site. Visit the official website to find out more.

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