For four weeks in 2016, I was Artist in Residence during the Ness of Brodgar excavations, drawing and made sound recordings on site. My focus was on human activity – both the work of archeologists in the present and the traces of the Neolithic past. Since then I have been developing a film of images and sounds, exhibiting the work to date, and paid another brief visit to Orkney in January.

I have now returned for another six week residency to continue my project in more depth.


A small piece of flint with a sharp edge has been found in Trench X. It doesn’t fit known examples of flint tools; but, like yesterday’s ‘crayon’ has an indentation for a finger or thumb that facilitates a good grip. Perhaps it was used to cut or scrape incisions in stone. The size is similar to the ‘crayon’ and does suggest being a tool with a purpose. A knife for the art box?

To make use of the display cabinet in collaboration with the other artist in residence, I began to experiment with the pigment sticks made by Bristol Fine Art to match last year’s colour samples of haematite. Fun to play with but not right for my first contribution of a drawing of the sky.

And here are today’s sketchbook drawings:


My random collection of stone marks and bags of dust have relevance. A ‘crayon’ was found and, because the archaeologists know my interest, I got the chance to draw it and – most importantly to hold it. It fits my hand perfectly as an ergonomic drawing implement. What is more, there is an indent for the thumb of my right hand and a different indent beside that for my left thumb. There is clearly a working end where the stone is softer and makes a darker mark than the non-business end, which is harder and scratchier. To hold this ‘worked stone’ and know that a Neolithic hand was ‘drawing’ with it 5000 years ago is beyond exciting. The connection between present and past is highly potent.

Chris, who found the ‘crayon’ outside the entrance to Structure 8.


Later in the day, I was able to go inside Structure 8 to make a painting.

Previously, because my paintings have been done outside the trenches, they have all been views of the landscape with any figures quite small in the distance. Today, being in the trench, I could attempt to paint the archaeologists up close – not easy as they keep moving but nevertheless enjoyable.

For more news of the dig visit the daily dig diary on the Ness of Brodgar web site 

Don’t forget you can leave comments on my Facebook page Karen Wallis Artworks


Rain today provides an ideal opportunity to review material collected to date.

I’m not sure why I’m collecting small bags of crushed stone but no doubt a reason will eventually emerge.

Rain also prevents any drawing in the trenches but has led to the discovery of the gentle repetition in checking sample numbers.


As this is a long term project, it can feel overwhelming in its scale and complexity (like the dig itself). Despite the fact that archaeology is rooted in the past, my residency is about bearing witness to the human activity in the present and revealing traces of past human activity visible now. I am not trying to reconnect with a previous time which is gone and unknowable.

My job is to watch how the archaeologists work and listen to what they have to say – in both my conversations when drawing their portraits and in overheard discussions and site tours. It is about being there and being with them.


There are some pieces of stone which have been uncovered and now the parts with iron layers are rusting.

They are difficult to draw and paint because I’m not interested in just rocks and prefer people. My project is about human activity. So why do I find these stones attractive and what do they have they to do with human activity?

Neolithic people built the wall and these stones were either buried in the structure or have since split open. They have now been exposed by 21st century human activity and the new experience of moisture combined with air has created orange stripes of rust – a colour the neolithic people would have liked had they seen it.

(You could call this ironic…)

And now for some simple human activity