On being more than the sum of our parts?

By Bernie Bell

Ness of Brodgar

At the Ness of Brodgar dig, in 2015, towards the end of the time left to the archaeologists for excavation, before the site was covered over for the winter, the bones of a baby were found, tucked in, by the base of a wall.

The finding of the baby was poignant.  Particularly the way she was lying.  What got me, even more, was the pic. in the dig diary of her bones, laid out in two trays.  I know they have to do that, to see exactly what there is of her, but……..when she was lying there, curled up, she was a baby, now, they’ve taken her apart, she’s just a collection of bones.  It seems hard, when she was placed, carefully. It always does seem hard, to me.

Click here to read more about : The baby in Structure One

The first time I had this kind of experience, was when a friend of mine (Anny), was working on a dig in York, in the summer between school and university.  Me and another friend, went to visit her, and, on the dig, they’d just discovered the bones of a teenage boy. This disturbed Anny – in fact, she changed her degree, to Geography! Nice and safe!  That was the first time I came face to face with that particular aspect of archaeology – digging folk up.

I should imagine that, unless a person, has ….stopped being human, it will still get to them, when they find, another person’s, remains. A little baby, is particularly poignant.

Bones hold a lot of information about us – where we’re from, what we ate, what we did, but, really, are they just bones, when all’s said and done?  Especially once they’re divided up, and the person is no longer entire.

babyWhile that baby, looked like a baby, she touches us, as a baby.  The difference when we look at the assemblage of bones, in the two trays, is striking –  the fact that they have been taken to pieces, and are therefore no longer, a person, but, just bones.

She was a person, still is a person ( maybe), but bones only have an attachment, to the person, as long as that person, or those connected with the person, see them as being so.  Once the person, or those belonging to them, have let go of the physical body, are they……..just bones?

I also realize that my tale about Anny could be relevant…….maybe finding human remains, is a good lesson for a young, enthusiastic digger – if they’re happy with that, then they’ll be OK. If not, they need to change what they’re studying!

The ancient peoples here in Orkney, and in other places and cultures, were quite happy to have the bodies of their people, taken to pieces, and, even, maybe some bits lost or eaten by animals and birds.  Once the ‘person’ has gone, it was fine, for the bones to be separated.

Picking over the bones, is fine when the people, themselves, weren’t bothered about the bones, much, anyway.  Once the proper ceremonies were accomplished, they shifted the bones about, quite happily. There is a book, ‘Sky Burial’ by Xinran, in which she writes of the traditional Tibetan method of disposing of the dead by ‘sky burial’, which may seem strange to non – Tibetans, but is entirely accepted in that nation.

But, when folk have been carefully buried, in a culture where it matters, and they think they’ll be left in peace, I find it hard, that they get dug up and messed about with. Some of them, are quite recent – a burial from the 18th century, isn’t long ago, at all.  I’m getting cremated.  I have no inclination to be Yorick, however much the finding of my skull might stimulate thought!

The way this child was laid to rest, marks a bit of a change in what was the usual way of dealing with the dead folk, around that time.  Think of all those cairns, on Orkney and elsewhere, with all the bones, tidied up nicely, but the individuality, is lost.  And yet, here’s a little girl, laid carefully in the ground, entire – a little person. Maybe marking a change in ways, and the time span of the Ness, extending a bit more?

I am aware that she’s possibly gone around, many times since then, and the bones, is just bones. Still, I lit a candle for her – for her, in her totality, not just her, then, or in between, or now, but for her, as one of her passings had been brought to my attention – one from a long time ago, but still, one of her passings.

She’ll have moved on, quickly, as babies do – they don’t have the hang-ups to deal with, that others have, so, she’ll have moved on, quickly, and those bones……. are just bones?  The image of her there, curled up, is still poignant, though.  Something like the ‘scan’ pictures, taken in early pregnancy.

Betty Corrigal’s baby was the same, the baby, just flew, whereas Betty had a bit more trouble to work through.

Betty Corrigall grave by Colin Park

Funnily enough, around the time that the baby at the Ness was found ( I think of her as Nessa), we were talking with some people,  about how we live somewhere, we drink the water and eat the food which has grown in that area, and it, literally goes into our bones, and so, we carry it with us, wherever we go. Also, our occupations can show in our bones – wear and tear can indicate repeated actions on the part of the individual – can even indicate dancing! We were talking about how some folk, need to go ‘home’ now and then, to touch base. Mike said we carry ‘home’ with us, both physically, and emotionally, and so, we talked of the methods by which much about a person’s ‘roots’ can be found, in their ‘hard parts’ – teeth etc.

Here’s a poem, by Mike, along those lines……………..

Home County  or  Chalkhill Blues

Born of hard water, out of soft rock,

Scratch off the scale and you’ll see me

Still rooted in base-rich soil


The light and shadow of a Ridgeway beech wood

Still shade my dream-world.

My feet, all unknowing, have followed the ancient trackways.

But away from my first home

My legs are no longer too thin.


So, our bones are part of us, part of the physical us, but they contain so much of what constitutes……us.  How much are the two aspects of ‘us’ connected?  Hmmmmm – there’s the rub.


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5 replies »

  1. Hey Fiona – when I first clicked on the link in the text, it took me to a link to a more general site about the Ness – fair enough – good idea – so I added this link, to take folk straight to the relevant dig diary day.
    Then….I tried again with the one in the text, and it was the direct link to the right day – so …I don’t know if you want to delete my comment? Or shall we work on the basis that you can’t get too much of a good thing? The ways of t’Internet will always be a mystery to me!
    PS – Who is the baby?
    “Which baby?” says Fiona

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