by Val Turner
THE PAST five weeks have flown by and on Monday the Bradford University team of archaeologists who were digging at the Viking longhouse sites of Hamar and Underhoull completed their work and left.
The discovery last year of peat covering part of the longhouse site at Underhoull raised our expectations for the good preservation of organic material on the site. When the site was excavated it became clear that the growth of peat was very localised. The longhouse at Underhoull lay close to an earlier dyke: indeed it is possible that the dyke may have been associated with the nearby broch.
Underhoull is a surprisingly windy corner of Unst and that, together with the dyke, created a microclimate in the area beside the dyke. The cold spot and the dampness meant that conditions were right for peat to form over a restricted area. The peat had begun to grow before the longhouse was built and continued once the house had been abandoned. Dr Graeme Swindells of Bradford University sampled the peat. He believes that it will be possible to get a date for both the layers above and below from the tephra (volcanic ash) which fell onto the peat.
The restricted area of peat growth meant that Underhoull was not as waterlogged as we had hoped. Nevertheless there have been some unusual finds made as a result of the peat, including large pieces of horn. This was an important material to the Vikings, used to make drinking cups, knife handles and other implements, but it does not usually survive. Another unusual find from Underhoull was the discovery of a silver ring. Meanwhile, the soapstone finds from the site this week have included a lamp. “The base was beautifully made,” said Steve Dockrill, who has been overseeing work on the site. However the inside has just been started. This is proof that soapstone was being worked on the site at Underhoull, he said.
The archaeological team, led by Dr Julie Bond of Bradford University, fought against the poor weather which threatened to turn the site to mud at the weekend, in order to finish the excavation at Hamar.
The pit house, which lies under the longhouse, would have been the first building used by Vikings when they arrived at the site. The pit was emptied during the last few days of the excavation. It contained a lot of charcoal and so it will be possible to obtain a radiocarbon date for the original house.
The pit house was cut into bedrock to a depth of 25-30cm, and was rectangular. There was what Dr Bond described as “post settings” on either end of the building. “Presumably these supported the roof,” she said.
Large fragments of soapstone bake plate, a line sinker and a whetstone were also discovered in the pit. “Baking plates” are particularly interesting as they are a type of object that only seems to be found on Norse sites in Shetland. They are flat soapstone plates, sometimes with a shallow lip on them, and often have very obvious chisel marks on them and, when used, have soot and burning marks on the underside.
Small scale excavations have been carried out on a house which is higher up the slope at Hamar. It was always suspected that this house was later as it was not a longhouse, being only three metres long. The two radiocarbon dates for the site, which come from samples taken last year, place the abandonment of the building in the 16th or 17th centuries. Further work this summer has shown that the floor levels were considerably lower than the layers that the samples came from and the floors themselves contained artefacts that look decidedly Norse. They include a whetstone and many fragments of steatite. This second house was sampled rather than excavated more fully and has now been backfilled.
The next challenge for the Viking Unst project is how best to consolidate and display the longhouses for the future so that visitors understand their stories. The site at Underhoull will present the greatest challenge as we consider how best to display the turf-built walls. These are quite different from the walls of the houses at Underhoull and Hamar.
Place names help
The excavation of the longhouse in the hill at Belmont is still underway and will continue until the end of the month. Excavation director Anne Christine Larsen of Roskilde Viking Ship Museum is very keen to hear from anyone who might know older place names for the area of the longhouse. “The nearest name on the map is Setters of Belmont,” she says. “Setter usually means a temporary or summer farm but we know it is not a shieling. This was a fully working farm.”
Visitors are welcome to see the site whenever the archaeologists are there. On Sunday the team will have some of their best finds on display as well.
The Living History team, who are based at the Skidbladner at Brookpoint, will be hosting a Viking feast tonight. A few tickets are still available from local shops in Unst or by phoning Shetland Amenity Trust. If last year was anything to go by, this will be an event not to be missed.