In just one week the covers will be coming off at the Ness of Brodgar once again, opening up one of the most important archaeological digs to be found anywhere for another summer season.
The sprawling project has become one of the most popular stops on the Orkney tourist trail, visited by thousands of people every year who are keen to see archaeologists painstakingly uncover thousands of years of history by hand.
And, for 2017, the focus is not only on the main trench of Neolithic buildings. This year the attention also moves just outside the massive walled enclosure to a nearby location, Trench T, which contains a mysterious stone structure.
‘Trench T is one of the most exciting things for me this year,’ said Excavation Director Nick Card. ‘In 2016 we started to see structural remains and they seemed to indicate a completely new type of monumental building , one with monoliths of stone up to four metres long. We don’t know how deep they are, we don’t know if it’s part of a dismantled stone structure, we really don’t know too much about it. It’s completely unique.’
It’s another example of how the Ness of Brodgar continues to confound expectations and surprise even the most experienced archaeologist. Over the years the site has provided many special finds, including painted and decorated stones, human remains and huge, cathedral-esque structures.
But Trench T is something completely different. It could be a chambered tomb, built using the huge monoliths and a type of stone cladding, which has never been seen before. The building is over seven metres wide internally, but its entire size still has to be determined as it disappears beyond the edge of the trench. It’s thought several chambers could be contained within.
Exciting times for the archaeologists indeed, but also for the visitors – Trench T is set to form part of the daily tours for the first time this year.
‘The tours just get increasingly popular and are an essential part of the Ness and what we do,’ said Nick. ‘To be able to share all these discoveries and places like the new trench with as many people as we can is just great. It’s going to take a lot hard work to expose more of the building, and I think visitors will be fascinated to see that process underway this season.’
Visitors can take advantage of tours daily throughout the dig season, with diggers on site on week days. They are the perfect way to get a better understanding of what is actually happening at the site and are hosted by experts who can paint a picture of the 1300 years of pre-history in evidence at the Ness of Brodgar.
Despite the anticipation about the Trench T investigations, up to a hundred archaeologists will still be concentrating on the main part of the site during the summer too. The incredible structures there will continue to be uncovered, with the focus on identifying how the buildings were used and how that changed over the years.
‘The main section is always so busy, although it sometimes doesn’t seem like it as the site just swallows them up,’ said Nick. ‘There will still be plenty of action, and hopefully some new discoveries too. Looking back, I felt the finds between 2010 and 2012 were the high point of the Ness, but it just continues to produce and make such an impact on people.’
Despite all the fantastic archaeology around Orkney, the Ness of Brodgar has captured the imagination of both locals and visitors unlike any other site. ‘I think the public see it as an ongoing story,’ said Nick. ‘It’s what the Ness can do very well, and it still fires the academic imagination too.’
As well as being one of the main attractions in Orkney during its short season, a recent business study estimated that the dig brings in more than £1m annually to the Orkney economy. But the need for financial support for the excavations continues.
Despite being manned by students and volunteers, professional supervision and support is required, and the infrastructure costs add up too. International publicity, both on television and in print, continues to help, but according to Nick, every little helps.
‘We don’t have huge sums of money to play with, so if you’re visiting the site please do consider giving us a small donation or buying something from the dig shop. You can also donate online to help – whether it’s pounds, shillings, dollars or yen, it all goes to toward the excavation.’
And if that means the team can continue to uncover the mysteries of Trench T, then that can only be a good thing for everyone.
Public tours of the Ness in 2017 begin on Wednesday 5th July. Find out how you can visit via the official website. Please note there are set regulations in place for larger group and coach visitors. Visit the donation page for details of how you can support the dig.