Jo McKenzie’s Layers Of Colour

By Bernie Bell

I first came across Jo McKenzie’s work at the dig at the Ness of Brodgar, last year.  Jo was working in the place which is known as Trench T, in a Sondage. What is a Sondage?  It’s kind of a little trench, within a trench, and in that little trench, Jo was taking samples, in what Jeanne (Bouza-Rose) named Spladongas.  Spladongas ( not an official term yet, but I hope it will be!) are neat little rectangles, with rounded corners – a pleasing shape – which Jo fits into the side of the Sondage – as Jeanne says – Spladongas in the Sondage –

Jo then removes these little sections of time, for analysis.  By analysing these layers and levels of deposits,  Jo can see into the past – the past activities and life of the people, in that place.  She reads soil, like others read tea leaves or palms, except she reads the past, instead of the future.  What might have been, instead of what may be.

I next encountered Jo’s work in an exhibition in Tankerness House Museum,  Kirkwall  which included  pictures of the Spladongas…..

…….and some images of her microscopic samples layers, which, to me, are like art-works……….

They wouldn’t look out of place in the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness.

I see this, more and more. New developments in investigative/revelatory techniques in archaeology, means that archaeology is becoming a more and more expensive business, but it also means that more and more of those insights into the past, also produce images with wonderful shapes and colours.  Jo’s slices of time, are a good example of this.

They also remind me of geology, on a larger scale – when you see a cliff face, with layers laid down, long ago, and solidified.

Heading for The Gloup B Bell

Heading for the Gloup

Basically the same process, and we can read the past, from  cliff faces, as Jo reads the past, from her…..Spladongas.

And then, at The Cairns Open Day, I actually met Jo, as she laid out a big grid of string, over what looks like it could have been a hearth, or maybe a ceremonial fire-place?  Great precision and concentration were needed – it looked as though Jo was taking part in  A Dance to the Music of Time – yet she took the time to break off to say “Hello” and explain what she was up to.

What she’s up to at the Ness, was further illuminated by her talk at the St. Magnus Centre on Thursday, 25th July.  Entitled ‘Archaeology Down The Microscope: an introduction to soil micromorphology and its contribution  the Ness of Brodgar Project’ – it could sound a bit dry and brain-achy, but it wasn’t – far from it.

The first thing I learnt, was that a Spladonga, is actually called a Kuniena tin – but they will always be Spladongas, to me!

Jo explained the procedures involved in preparing a soil sample for analysis by micro-morphology – and now for The Science Bit  – I hope I get this right – it’s very much a layman/woman’s understanding of a complicated process!

A sample is placed in a fume cupboard – as acetone is introduced to replace the moisture, whilst retaining it physical structure – and no-one wants to breathe in acetone fumes.

Resin then replaces the acetone, and the resulting sample is polished and sliced thinly – thinner than a human hair, ready to be viewed under the microscope.  When viewing the resulting sliver of material, Jo tells us that light plays a significant part in interpretation – whether plain polarized or cross-polarized light, gives two very different images, and therefore different ‘pictures’ of what is going on in the sample, and therefore, what was possibly …going on, when that material was deposited.  This takes some of the conjecture out of analysis, and as Jo put it, ‘truths’ the samples.

An interesting idea, was of how, not only the actual structures at places such the Ness, were built, but the floors were ‘built’ too, and that’s where soil micromorphology comes in – to show the sequence of episodes, and forms of occupation, as evidenced by what ended up on the floor, and how much a particular section of floor was used – trodden on, walked over, sat on!  Cooking, and fires in general, leave a lot of evidence.

Jo had many strong images to show us , with strong colours and shapes within the samples.  Some samples contain traces of rocks which ‘don’t belong’ at the Ness.  The local rock is sandstone, and, though Orkney does have some volcanic rock, as at the Point of Ayre , the volcanic rocks which Jo found, are not Orcadian in origin, so they must have been brought here deliberately. Why?  Even Jo doesn’t know! But finding them there, adds another dimension to what might have been happening in that place, at that time, as well as providing some colourful images

Jo McKenzie 7

One image which particularly appealed to me, is of a tiny, tiny blob of metal, glowing red – not with present heat, but because of past heat, and Jo explained that the shape of fragments, can show whether they have been heated , or not.

To me, this red glow, could be the glaze on a piece of ceramic, such as this piece by Lotte Glob   Thinking about the processes involved, that makes sense – I think!  I did say it was a layman/woman’s understanding of these processes – I’m no ceramicist, either.

Jo presented us with a lot of information, and my pen and brain couldn’t always keep up, so I’ve covered what I can, and hope I’ve done her presentation justice.

Jo’s talk has been filmed, so will be coming soon to an OAS Facebook page near you!

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