Jigsaws in Bressay
THE BRESSAY History Group’s project to excavate and relocate the burnt mound at Cruester to the Bressay Heritage Centre took another step forward this week. The first stones have now been moved to their new location. Each stone has been numbered and photographed in its position on site and then transported to the Heritage Centre where they have been laid out ready to reassemble – a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle.
As the mound is dismantled, so the excavation is continuing. As one of the site directors, Graeme Wilson, had anticipated due to the results of the previous excavations, there appear to have been two phases of use of the mound. Not only are there two different types of material in it, but two early dates among those obtained from the site. These dates were obtained by Iona Murray who carried out experimental work at the site in 1999. Her purpose was to test whether burnt stones could be dated by optically stimulated luminescence and she obtained a total of 23 dates which were compared with eight radiocarbon dates. Her results suggested that the mound was in use around 2,300BC and then later between 1600-1200BC.
This week the excavation has identified the two different periods of use of the mound and also found pieces of what appears to have been a complete pot which was sitting on the surface of the lower mound. It seems to have been broken where it stood. The pieces have been carefully gathered up and will be fitted together in due course. “It is in extremely good condition,” said Hazel Moore, the second site director. “It’s surprising considering that it was just buried among the stones.”
In addition, it appears that the tank was originally freestanding, enclosed by a wall. A “cell”, or small beehive shaped room, was added behind it and subsequently the additional cells to the south were constructed.
The team have also had an unexpected find from the more recent layers: a large bullet. Graeme Wilson believes that it must have come from a plane due to its size. There are the remains of a number of buildings from the Second World War in the vicinity, mainly surviving as concrete platforms. Whether this bullet was fired in anger at the buildings or into the sea, or whether it was either dumped or lost, is one secret that we will probably never get to the bottom of: unless of course, someone who was in Bressay during the war can tell us.
Extra space at Underhoull
The excavation at Underhoull is now in full swing, with students and volunteers learning about archaeology as it progresses. The open area is now double the size of that which was open last year. In extending the trenches the team have also discovered not one, but two, side rooms which were added to the house at some stage: one on either side of the building.
Finds from the site have included some large pieces of soapstone. They had originally been parts of pots which were carved directly out of the rock. The Vikings did not make pottery themselves, but instead used the soft soapstone or organic materials such as wood, leather and horn. There is some evidence that they brought soapstone into Shetland, but the pieces at Underhoull may well have come from the quarry at Clibberswick, on the north-west coast of Unst. It is still possible to see the shapes left, on the rocks along the shore at Clibberswick, by Vikings who prised suitable blocks from the rock. Indeed, the availability of soapstone would have been one of the attractions to the Norwegian incomers. It was a material which they both valued and understood.
The archaeologists also discovered a tuyere, the soapstone protective covering that shielded the nozzle of bellows from the heat. This suggests that there will be further evidence of metalworking to appear. It is clear that the Vikings obtained very high temperatures from their smelting and smithing processes as the nozzle of the bellows is vitrified (glassy) due the heat.
The next few days should reveal a lot more information about the site and visitors are welcome to come and see for themselves at the open day on Sunday.
The Perfect Viking House
Excavation is just resuming at Hamar for the year. This will be the third summer of excavation at the site by the team from the University of Bradford led by Dr Julie Bond. The focus of excavation this year will be on the upper room at Hamar. The team intends to excavate down to the original floor level. There are benches alongside the walls and these may have been cut into the hillside. This excavation should unlock some of the secrets of when and how the house was used as well as insights into daily life.
Before any excavation took place Hamar had been regarded as the “perfect longhouse”. Alan Small, who excavated the lower site at Underhoull in the 1960s, thought that Hamar was too good to be true and so he chose not to excavate the site, known locally as Jacob Johorasen’s house. Noel Fojut described it as “the best preserved longhouse in Scotland”. The reason for this was that it stood out so clearly in the hill and it looked as if it had all been built at one time, rather than being altered over time.
Archaeological excavation has a tendency to reveal that things are more complicated than they first appear to be and Hamar has been no exception to this rule. Last year’s work included excavating a central drain or soakaway in the lower room of the house. However, that lower area, which has all the appearance of being a byre, has a hearth in it which disappears under the wall. In addition, the drain is actually longer than the existing house. It now looks as if there was an earlier house on the site and this is one aspect to be examined this year.
As at Underhoull, there is also evidence of a later addition to the building, although only one. A scrap of walling, which is burnt on the inside, is the main piece of evidence for an annex having been added to the building. There is some evidence for the remains of a hearth. This will be excavated this year and is significant because a hearth would have the potential to provide a date for the last use of the annex.
Another Team on the Way
The advance team from Roskilde Vikingship Museum arrived on Tuesday, headed by Anne-Christine Larsen, their Curator of Archaeology. Having been unable to come to Shetland last year, the site has been uncovered for the first time in two years. Her team of students from Copenhagen University arrive tomorrow (Sunday) to start work on the longhouse, situated on the hill above Belmont House, next week.
A Week to Vote
The Viking Unst project still needs your votes – whether on line or by phone. Please help us to make Unst and the Viking project the “Best Heritage Project” to be funded by HLF this year. Votes are made at either www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/awards or by calling 0845 361416. Only with your help can we make it to the finals and get publicity for Unst and for Shetland’s extraordinary archaeology.