By Val Turner
The advent of summer and the university holidays is heralded once again by the advent of “dellin inta da past” and the arrival of archaeological teams, both large and small.
This week two very different archaeological projects have picked up from where they left off in previous years.
Hot stones in Bressay
The burnt mound site at Cruester in Bressay has been re-opened in advance of the exciting and ambitious new project being carried out by Bressay History Group.
The impressive burnt mound at Cruester. The foreground shows the central tank, the first clue that the burnt mound was there. Pictured is Jacob Kinz, an archaeologist from Orkney, one of the team working on the dig.
Cruester was excavated by Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson of the archaeological company EASE, which regularly carries out commercial archaeological work in Shetland.
The site was excavated because it was eroding into the sea and proved to be far more extensive than anyone had originally imagined, having a series of small rooms extending inland and south of the existing tank.
These were buried beneath a huge mound of fist-sized, heat shattered stones, which had come into contact with heat and water. The stones were heated in a fire and had either been placed in the tank in order to heat water in it, or water from the tank had been poured over the stones in order to create steam; why is a mystery yet to be solved.
Bressay History Group became concerned about the danger of coastal erosion to the remains, particularly to the tank which was still visible in the banks. They conceived the idea of saving the site by rebuilding it adjacent to the Bressay Heritage Centre. This will give them the only excavated burnt mound on display in Shetland as well as provide opportunities for experimentation, as no one yet entirely knows how burnt mounds were used.
The group have also “adopted the monument” under the Council for Scottish Archaeology’s scheme which encourages and helps people to take responsibility for looking after an archaeological site.
Archaeology is destructive and when taken to its full conclusion, there is nothing left. Every stone is removed in order to establish what clues might be hidden underneath. Cruester was never excavated to that extent and the re-excavations this week have demonstrated just how impressive the remains were.
Although visitors to the site on the open day last Sunday saw it looking spectacular, the situation has gradually changed. On Monday the project moved into its next phase as Old Scatness consolidation archaeologist Rick Barton began to number stones. These have started to be removed by excavation this week.
As the site disappears from the banks at Cruester, so it is being transported across the fields to the heritage centre. Here there is a hole of the correct shape and size which will become the home of the reconstructed monument. This Sunday visitors will be able to see both the site disappearing and the reconstruction beginning to take shape.
Meanwhile, the advance party of Bradford University-based archaeologists arrived in Shetland on Tuesday.
Over the next five weeks they will be excavating at two Viking longhouse sites in Unst, Hamar and Underhoull, as part of the Viking Unst project.
Site director Julie Bond said: “It’s great to be back in Unst working on these very exciting Viking sites.”
Underhoull under peat
This week work in Unst has focused on the house at Underhoull.
Last year the team excavated two small trenches, but now the whole house is being uncovered. Indeed, this is where the team plan to put the biggest effort in this year.
The covers are now off and the team are beginning to excavate into the house itself. If time allows, the team also hope to locate the midden, as well as the yards that went with the house. People’s rubbish tells us a great deal about how they lived in the past.
The longhouse under excavation is situated close to the modern road. It is just south of an impressive broch site. There is a second longhouse further down the hill, closer to the sea, which was excavated by Alan Small in the 1960s. There are so many scientific techniques available now which were not available then that our new excavation should provide us with additional information about this site as well.
The site is particularly exciting because preliminary work last year showed that there is a layer of peat, which appears to have grown there, rather than been dumped, covering a paved area along the side of the house.
It also appears that the interior of the house is waterlogged. This would be unusual for a site of any period, but particularly so in the case of a Viking longhouse which was lived in as recently as 1,000 years ago. At the moment, how it comes to be there is something of a mystery: one which we hope to resolve in the coming weeks.
Having a “wet site” means that the type of things which survive are likely to be different to those found on the more usual type of archaeological dig. Organic material such as wood, cloth, leather and even basketry is likely to be preserved. On the other hand, it reduces the chance of bone surviving as the site will be too acidic.
However, having evidence from both types of site will give us the opportunity to compare the two.
People are welcome to visit the site at any time when the archaeologists are present, and our first open day will be on Sunday week. Meanwhile if you have always wanted to try your hand at archaeology but never quite got round to it, volunteers are welcome.
For people who like to hear about archaeology in the dry, and with a cup of tea to follow, there will be lectures in the Unst Heritage Centre on Tuesday evenings for the coming month.
The programme starts this week with Dr Bond speaking about the work so far.
. . . and out
Meanwhile, if you prefer to stretch your legs, there are walks planned for Monday and Friday, both starting at 2pm and lasting two to three hours.
The first goes to Hamar and the Keen of Hamar, combining archaeology and wildlife, and the second goes to Sandwick from Hannigarth.
To really understand how the Vikings first saw Shetland and for glimpses of why they chose some of their sites, the best way to view the land is from the sea.
The Earl Viking Cruise, scheduled for 29th June, is the perfect opportunity to do just that.