25th September 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Dellin inta da past 03.07.09

, by , in Features

Floor below ground

The excavations at the Viking Longhouse in Belmont ended this week. This has been the fifth season of excavation on the site and, at present, there are no plans for there to be any more work carried out there. The work has been carried out with grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland. One of the principal areas under investigation this week has been the sunken floor which was dug into the subsoil. It lies between the benches which line the long walls of the house. This area has been one which is full of interesting finds. In all, the team have recovered approximately 1,000 finds from the site in this year alone. These will be dried out in Lerwick and some of the more fragile finds will be conserved in order to protect them.

Where to stop?

The plan has always been to finish the excavations at a point at which the site is still clearly visible and can be consolidated for public display. Archaeology is a destructive process and so there has been a lot of discussion this year about where exactly to draw the line. The decision, which has been made by the Amenity Trust’s Viking Unst project team, which includes site director Anne-Christine Larsen, is to show both the earliest house, which is a typical longhouse, and a shorter version which was subsequently built on top of the original house. The on-site interpretation will help the visitor to make sense of what they see once the consolidation has been carried out. This means that there will be some archaeological surfaces which are not excavated. These will be protected and can always be revisited at some point in the future. The excavations have revealed a lot of information about the site. Initially we had assumed that the longhouse was short-lived, possibly even a temporary summer dwelling. The reason we thought this was the case is that the house is situated high into the hill, at about 60m. On the basis of the poor quality of the land today, we assumed that it would have been hard for a family to support themselves here.

Excavation has demonstrated that, on the contrary, the house was lived in for as much as several hundred years. Last year it became clear that part of the economy of the site involved working soapstone which is found in the hills just above the house. In the last two weeks it has become obvious that metal working also played a significant contribution to the economy. It is also probable that the land was of better quality in the Norse period and has been stripped of topsoil since.

Slags and smiths

This week work has continued in the enclosure beside the house, where the team have found slag and metal working debris. One of the students from Copenhagen University, Kirsten Elloy Møller, found a clay tuyere. A tuyere was used to cover the nozzle of the bellows during metal working in order to protect the bellows from catching fire. It is evidence of smithing or smelting activity in the area. One was discovered at Old Scatness a few years ago which was made of soapstone, however Kirsten’s example was made of clay. “At first I thought it was a ring,” she told me, “but then I turned it over. I am so proud of it.”

Sunday’s Open Day attracted a number of visitors to the site. Additional visitors to the site at the end of last week were members of the SIC’s environment forum. Their away-day to Unst included a visit to the site as well as tour of the rather later Belmont House, currently under restoration. Several Shetland volunteers have got involved in the excavation this year including Ian Leask and Les Smith, both from Lerwick. Ian has camped in Unst for most of the duration of the excavation, taking his holidays in order to help out. The volunteers have been involved throughout the project and have built up a wealth of experience and expertise between them.

Exploring bogs

Another visitor working on the site this week has been Professor Kevin Edwards from the geography department at Aberdeen University. One of the tasks which he has undertaken is the systematic augering of the area in order to try and identify where the middens (rubbish heaps) may have been. These usually hold a lot of information about the life and economy of the inhabitants of a site but at Belmont they have remained remarkably elusive.

Professor Edwards has also taken a number of cores from peaty and boggy areas in Unst. His aim is to identify pollen grains which have been trapped within the peat or mire as they developed. If he can also obtain suitable material for dating parts of the core, he hopes to isolate the Norse levels. This will allow him to build up a picture of the vegetation in the area and enhance our picture of what Unst looked like 1,000 years ago.

Val Turner