BY Val Turner
SUPRISES always happen as time begins to run out for archaeological excavations. As the Viking longhouse excavations at Underhoull and Hamar draw towards their last few days, they have proved to be no exception to this rule.
Hamar pit house
This week the archaeologists working at Hamar have discovered that the earliest Viking “living room” on the site was dug a significant way into the bedrock.
This room was an unexpected discovery, and lies underneath the remains of two later buildings. How deep the excavations into the bedrock went has yet to be established. At the moment the team have traced it downwards for about 10cm, but it is still going down.
It is also full of domestic objects including a loomweight, and worked pieces of soapstone which the Vikings used to make pots, bowls, baking plates, lamps and many other objects.
“This is remarkable,” said site director Julie Bond. “We know that the Vikings built sunken floored pit houses when they first settled in Iceland and some have also been recognised recently in Iceland. These were earlier than the longhouses, but we didn’t expect to find one in Shetland.”
Before work started on the three-year heritage lottery-funded Viking Unst project, archaeologists had believed that the longhouse at Hamar was short-lived and therefore going to be a straightforward excavation.
Noel Fojut of Historic Scotland had described the site as “the best preserved rural Viking longhouse in Scotland” and while this statement still holds, the excavation has been more complicated than the team had imagined.
It first became clear that there was an earlier house, underneath the stone walls of highly visible longhouse, last year. Then the team discovered that there had been what may have been a feasting hall under the later byre.
“It is unlikely that it was a byre in its first phase because it has the remains of a hearth in it,” Dr Bond explained. “Either that or the cows were very pampered.”
The “living room” at the higher end of the site always puzzled the team, but things became clearer last week when the remains of later rebuilding were removed. The Bradford University led team have been working on the floor surfaces of the “living room” of the stone building and now, in the last few days, have found the “pit house” underneath.
That makes a total of three houses built on top of one another. At the moment we don’t yet know if the pit house was a single building or if it was part of the “feasting hall” building. With the excavation due to finish on Monday there are only three more days in which to find out.
Fealie dykes at Underhoull
As the work has progressed at Underhoull, so it has become clearer that the longwalls were built of feals (turf).
It is possible to see the actual lines of the turfs. This contrasts dramatically with the houses at Hamar and Belmont which, although they may have had turf cores, had walls which were faced with large stones.
Inside the building it appears that there may have been a wooden sprung floor, supported on either side by a row of stone slabs. There is no trace of the wooden floor left but it is likely that such a floor would be too valuable to leave behind when the house was abandoned.
“They may have lifted and taken it with them when they left,” explained Steve Dockrill who has been overseeing work on this site. “If the site was wet – and the peat in the area does suggest that it was – then a sprung floor would be a good solution for keeping the house dry.” It would also explain why there have been fewer finds than expected from the lower end of the house.
The quality of the finds which have been recovered from the house at Underhoull, however, is exceptionally good. To date the team have recovered two line sinkers which are both of higher quality workmanship than those found at Jarlshof.
“It is unlikely that these objects were discarded,” Mr Dockrill said. “It is more probable that they were stored in the roof space and fell to the ground when the roof collapsed, after the building had been abandoned.”
The third Viking longhouse excavation, being led by Anne-Christine Larsen of Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, has continued to reveal its story this week. Planticrubs are often built on top of archaeological sites as they provide a ready supply of stone.
This week the Danish team have removed the remains of such a crub with the help of Charlie Clark and his JCB which carefully lifted specific stones. These stones were too big and heavy to be lifted by hand, but “the Vikings would have had ways of moving and transporting stone which we can’t even imagine,” Ms Larsen said.
The result is that it is now far easier to see two longhouses with clear boat-shaped sides, one on top of the other, with foundation stones remaining from each.
The outbuilding beside the longhouse is still enigmatic although the team have started investigating it. A path runs between the longhouse and the outbuilding, which seems to be earlier. With no finds coming from it as yet, the role of the outhouse in the life of the farm is still unclear.
The Danish team arrived later than the Bradford team and so will continue to work at Belmont next week.
Visitors are very welcome to view the site at any time when the archaeologists are present and on Sundays some of the finds will also be on display to visitors.
Meanwhile, the “Vikings” have arrived at the replica Gokstad longship, the Skidbladner, which stands at Brookpoint, Haroldswick. In addition they have set up a Viking camp for the next month.
The team includes Keith Prosser and Tony Sherratt who have a long record of working with Shetland Amenity Trust and interpreting archaeology.
This year they are joined by four Unst trainee Vikings who will share the interpretive project with them, including Uyeasound’s current Guizer Jarl Derek Jamieson. Visitors are welcome to meet them and find out more about Viking life (closed on Fridays).
Burnt mound taking shape
The burnt mound site which is being moved to the Bressay Heritage Centre by the Bressay History Group is progressing well.
The principle orthostats, the largest upright stones in the building, are now in place and the main tank is in the process of being built. Most of the southern end is also in place thanks to the endeavours of archaeologist Rick Barton and drystone craftsman Jim Keddie.
The open day this weekend was attended by 80 people, many of whom got involved in making pottery at a workshop led by Barbara Dinnage. There will be another open day this Sunday.
Helen Bradley, who has helped to co-ordinate the project, said the she was “really pleased at the gradual increase in the level of interest”. She hopes that this will peak when the project moves into the arena of experimental archaeology in August.
Ms Bradley, who works for the Council for Scottish Archaeology’s “Adopt a Monument” scheme, will be speaking about the Bressay project in the Shetland Museum and Archives tomrrow evening. If you have an archaeology monument which you would like to be actively involved in caring for, even in a small way, this would be a good opportunity to find out more.