BY Val Turner
Busy at Unst
WORK is now proceeding apace with the excavation of the three Viking longhouses currently being excavated in Unst.
At the longhouse at Hamar, the remnants of a later room which was built over the top end of the longhouse has been removed and the team is coming down onto what is left of an earlier floor surface.
Floors are productive areas for archaeological discoveries as they often hold the clues as to how the building was used. There is an ash pit in the earlier room and there appears to be a fairly deep deposit left of the floor.
The only fly in the ointment is that generations of rabbits have also been excavating it. This week some of its secrets should be revealed.
At the longhouse in the hill above Belmont the Danish team, led by Anne-Christine Larsen of Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, are opening up new areas in order to try and understand some of the buildings around the site.
The discovery of a lot of soapstone objects, together with local outcrops around the site, has led Ms Larsen to believe that this might be the key to the long-lived success of the site.
On Monday the team discovered an area of chips of soapstone which provide good supporting evidence of soapstone working on the site. “In spite of the place name Setters of Belmont for the ridge above the site, this was a fully functional working farm,” Ms Larsen said. “It has been altered as much as six times and so it had an economy that worked for a long time. Now we are beginning to understand what that might have involved.”
Meanwhile, Graeme Swindells of the University of Bradford has been inserting tins into the peat which lies over the longhouse at Underhoull in order to collect samples of it. He is hoping that when he looks at them under the microscope he will be able to see tephra.
Tephra are small shards of glass which form part of the debris created when a volcano erupts. The ash and tephra from a volcano are pushed miles up into the air. They are so light that they can travel vast distances in the atmosphere before coming to land.
Shetland has been affected by eruptions of Hekla in Iceland and Jan Mayen, a small island off Iceland. Each eruption has a distinctive chemical makeup and this enables them to be identified as being from specific eruptions.
In the historic period, where there are written records, it is possible to tie down the eruption to the exact year. Earlier events can be dated by radiocarbon to within about 80 years.
This means that the tephra is likely to give very precise dates about when the peat formed. This is known as “tephrochronology”, dating from tephra and it is giving us an extra method for dating the site.
Dr Swindells has already looked at material collected from the site last year and knows that there is tephra within the peat. The next stage will be to determine whether it is in the same place that it originally fell or whether it has been disturbed. If it has been, then it will tell us less about the peat growth.
New light on Hamar
The archaeological team understood the longhouse sites at Hamar a little better this week as the results of radiocarbon dating on grain and charcoal discovered last year arrived.
The samples were from the lower room of the longhouse; one from the ash surface and another from the middle of the room gave a very close results: 1020-1150 AD and 1080-1160AD.
Site director Julie Bond thinks that these dates do not correspond with the earliest floor of the house, which may have been destroyed when the existing floor was built, and that there are probably earlier dates which will come from an ash pit.
Dr Bond hopes that by next week it will be clear whether or not there is an earlier floor and whether anything survives of it.
“What it shows,” she said, “is that Hamar had a much longer life than we originally thought; it was a well established site, and that changes our whole view of what these houses in Unst were about.”
Dates from upper house at Hamar
Archaeologists have always believed that this house was later and last year the team tested this by putting two trenches across the house and yard. The dates come from ash which was dumped in the house after it had become ruinous and was abandoned.
However, the area certainly was not abandoned then. The two dates are 1520-1600 AD and 1610-1650 AD. They come from barley grains which means that these are the dates when the barley was harvested.
The quality of the grain is very good, better than that discovered at Old Scatness Broch which was clearly situated in good agricultural land. We know that the grain was grown locally rather than being bought in because there are also a lot of weed seeds present.
“It gives us a new perspective on what was happening at Hamar in the 16th and 17th centuries,” Dr Bond enthused.
It also fits well with the theory which has been developing over the past two years that Hamar would have been much more fertile in the Viking period but had been stripped in the 17th century for turf, whether to deepen and improve soils elsewhere in Unst or for roofing material.
Thanks for the help
The Viking Unst project would like to thank everyone who supported us in the Heritage Lottery’s competition for the Best Heritage Project funded by them this year.
Unfortunately we did not receive enough votes to get into the finals, but we are still delighted at having been nominated at all.
From this weekend there is the opportunity to experience Living History at both ends of Shetland.
Old Scatness is open every Sunday-Thursday until the end of September, where our experienced guides will help you to understand the site and our home grown Living History team demonstrate aspects of Iron Age life in and around the reconstruction buildings.
There are a number of single craft workshops planned for people who want to learn a skill in a bit more depth.
Meanwhile, in Unst a new Living History team starts work on board the Skidbladner. Led and trained by Keith Prosser and Tony Sherratt of Timezone, the demonstrators who have been working with amenity trust projects since the early days at Old Scatness, four Unst residents will be trying out the Viking life for themselves. Visitors are encouraged to drop in and have a go.