Last year's Minehowe excavations yielded over 2,000
registered collections. These consisted mainly of pottery fragments
and stone artefacts ranging from a single flint chip to polybags
containing 70 or more pottery sherds. They seemed to have only one
thing in common, a coating of earth which needed to be removed before
detailed investigation of them.
As a consequence, most Thursday afternoons last autumn
and winter a small group of people could be seen arriving at the
old Orphir school clutching an apron and a toothbrush. These were
not evidence for a new secret society but were Anne Brundle's "pot
washers". Six of us then spent about two hours in a complicated
pirouette within the confines of the old school room carrying boxes
of crocks, basins of muddy water and trays of cleaned sherds under
the direction of Anne as mistress of the dance. Throughout Daphne
managed to remain free of the worst of the mayhem documenting "her"
bones in the far corner of the room.
Each box of pot sherds had to be fetched from the store and their
polybags removed one at a time. Care had to be taken that each pot
sherd removed from a bag remained associated with that labelled
bag until the clean dry sherd was returned to its bag and the bag
to its box.
The sherds were cleaned by gentle scrubbing with a wetted toothbrush,
preferably not that currently kept in your bathroom.
Dunking the pot sherd in the basin of water was a criminal offence,
the aim being to remove the mud without soaking the pot.
Once free of mud, the sherds were laid out in trays on absorbent
paper and left to dry until the following week. They were then rebagged
and return to the store for subsequent perusal by experts.
The pottery varied greatly from heavy, coarse material to much
smaller quantities of lighter, fine material with a smooth finish.
The latter should not be confused with the occasional fragment of
glazed and colour decorated Victorian crockery, presumably the relic
of a picnic which went wrong.
One began to wonder who got the blame for all the breakage both
ancient and relatively modern!
Our enjoyment of the pot washing exercise was heightened from time
to time by the "discovery" of fragments clearly showing
the rim or base of a pot as opposed to the usual, less distinctive
Bedrock and Beach Pebbles
As the supply of untreated pot sherds slowly dried up, attention
turned to the "lithics". These I understand to include
any stone item emerging from the excavations which might have been
subject to human intervention.
In some cases, the evidence for these lumps of rock having functioned
as tools or ornaments seemed at least questionable. In other cases,
what looked at first sight like a beach pebble was revealed, once
cleaned, to have obviously been used as a grinder or pestle. Others
appeared to be whet stones while some round discs had clearly been
fashioned by man and were described as pot lids.
Each of these items required cleaning with our faithful tooth brushes.
Unfortunately, for reasons I never fully fathomed this process was
carried out in the dry. The resultant "stoor" was quite
impressive and all-pervading.
I look back on these activities with a certain sense of achievement
and also with a range of pleasant memories.
There was the scramble to clear one of the tables of ancient pots
to make room for the modern ones of a mid- session coffee break.
There were the stories of life's eccentricities during these breaks
and a general sense of camaraderie.
However, possibly the best moment was to see the expressions on
the faces of the inspector from the National Museums Service and
on that of the OIC Heritage Officer when they came to look at the
status of the Museum's store and opened the door to find Brundle's
elves at work in their cave.