BY Val Turner
Danish team arrives
WITH excavations at the Viking longhouse sites of Hamar and Underhoull now in full swing, the third excavation of the Viking Unst project began this week with the arrival of the Danish team from Roskilde Viking Ship Museum and Copenhagen University.
This longhouse is situated on the slopes of the hill on the opposite side of the road from Belmont House, from where it commands a wonderful view.
This is the fourth season of excavation on the site, led by Anne-Christine Larsen. This summer the team plans to define the full extent of the whole farm, including the outbuildings.
The previous work on the site has suggested that there are as many as six possible phases of building and alteration to the longhouse alone. This indicates that the site was probably lived in for a long period of time. The team hope to obtain dating information in order to unravel the details.
The longhouse at Underhoull is gradually emerging from the peat. The higher end of the site has most of the foundation of stone surviving; lower down there are fewer of the facing stones left although the inner core of the wall is gradually appearing.
It is possible that the rest of the stone has been removed in the past, perhaps in order to build some of the later croft houses in the area. However, the two long walls seem to have been built differently to one another. The east side appears to have faces of small stone whereas the western wall may have been constructed of turf.
As the archaeologists remove the silt which has built up over the top of the site, and get nearer to the occupation surfaces, so the number of finds is gradually increasing.
Most of the finds to date have been typical of a Viking settlement. These include a complete whetstone made of sandstone, and a quantity of steatite pot. Far more unusual was the discovery of a honey-coloured piece of flint, which has been lightly retouched (flaked) along one edge.
Flint is not native to Shetland and this piece was certainly imported. While it is well known that flint was carried to Shetland in more recent times as ballast in ships, the shaping on this tiny piece shows that it is perhaps as much as 5,000 years old. The worked edge would have created a sharp cutting implement.
The bogs around archaeological sites might seem like hazards to be crossed by visitors, but for Kevin Edwards and Ed Schofield, of Aberdeen University, they are perfect storage areas for information.
This week the pair have been searching for suitable areas around the Viking sites being excavated, and the deeper the bog, the better.
Having discovered a suitable area, they are taking cores of the peat. Prof. Edwards and Dr Schofield hope that when these are examined back in the laboratory they will be able to identify pollen spores. The pollen will come from both the immediate area as well as from farther away, having been carried on the wind. It is described as the “pollen rain”. This will enable the specialists to find out what was growing in the area and is perhaps the best indicator as to whether the area was being used for arable or as grassland and whether there were trees growing locally.
Prof. Edwards took samples from the bog just below Belmont two years ago and he is optimistic of obtaining good results. This week he took further samples and he is hoping that they will include dating evidence which will enable him to interpret his results.
Meanwhile, Prof. Edwards and Dr Schofield’s search around Underhoull has proved a great success. The pair have located a bog only 500m away which is over two metres deep. The potential for finding Norse pollen there is very high.The team will also sample the peat which covers the site at Underhoull to try and establish what was happening in the environment at the time when the site fell out of use.
New Bronze Age takes shape
The archaeological work on the excavation of the burnt mound at Cruester, Bressay, is due to finish today.
In the last few days of excavation the archaeological team, which has been excavating the eroding site, has been concentrating on an early hearth which predated the main building.
Meanwhile the stone work has steadily been dismantled and transported across the fields to the Bressay Heritage Centre. With the structure disappearing, the archaeologists have had the opportunity to look underneath the mound. The site was largely excavated in 1999 and has been written up ready for publication.
However, site director Graeme Wilson believes that it has been a worthwhile exercise coming back. Although there was some pottery found in the first excavation, it had come from inside the building.
The pottery from behind the building, discovered over the last two weeks, has proved to be far better preserved. “This has really justified coming back to the site,” Mr Wilson said. “Now we understand it better and have more information about things which were just hints before.”
Before the stone work was removed, freelance archaeologist Rick Barton from Dunrossness numbered every stone.
Once the stones arrived at the heritage centre Mr Barton, aided by detailed plans and photographs, as well as members of the history group and drystone worker Jim Keddie, have begun rebuilding the structure.
The shape of the site was cut out of the rock and last weekend some of the largest stones, the “orthostats”, were put into place. The “new” burnt mound is gradually taking shape. The building work is scheduled to continue for another three weeks and the project is still open to any additional volunteers who might like to try their hand at Bronze Age construction.
And for the weekend . . .
This weekend there are numerous opportunities to enjoy the archaeology and history of Shetland.
The Shetland Museum and Archives is hosting the St Ninian’s Isle Treasure conference, marking 50 years since the discovery of the treasure by Douglas Coutts, then a schoolboy who volunteered on the excavation.
The treasure also returns to Shetland until October and will be on display.
If that inspires you to try your hand at archaeology yourself, the Viking Unst project also welcomes volunteer excavators. The Bressay Heritage Group is seeking additional volunteers to work on the reconstruction of the burnt mound; a group which Douglas currently chairs.
Meanwhile all three Viking Unst sites (Hamar, Underhoull and Belmont) are holding open days on Sunday, as is the Bressay Project. And if cruising is more your style, this Sunday there is a second cruise, this one taking a different route and focusing on natural history, although there will be some archaeology incorporated as well.