Belmont work ends
THE VIKING Unst Excavations ended yesterday with the last of the staff leaving Belmont and returning to Denmark today. Anne-Christine Larsen, archaeological curator at the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum, is pleased with her season’s work at Belmont this summer.
“I am very happy with the way things have gone this year,” she said. “We have made good progress.” She is already looking forward to returning to Shetland later this year in order to examine the finds in more detail.
The longhouse at Belmont looks very different now to how it appeared six weeks ago. The shape of the earlier longhouse and the later, shorter house which was built over the top of it are now both very clearly visible. The buildings have undergone a number of alterations and there is a total of five hearths in them.
Several of the hearths are typical Viking long hearths which were in the middle of the room. The residents then sat and slept on benches which were placed along the long walls. One hearth is different in style, being situated in a corner of the room. This is likely to be the latest hearth in the house.
One reason that hearths are useful discoveries is that they have the potential to provide good dating evidence. These hearths contain charcoal which we expect to be suitable for obtaining radiocarbon dates. We hope that it will also be possible to obtain archaeomagnetic dates from them. Archaeomagnetic dating works because when materials are heated it retains a record of the earth’s magnetic field. Since the earth’s magnetic field changes direction over time, provided that the material is not moved, it will therefore provide a date for the last use of each hearth.
The team have also begun to investigate a small building beside the Belmont longhouse. Whether it was an outhouse or a building from an earlier period remains a mystery. The shape of the building is not typical of any earlier period and, so far, there have been absolutely no finds from the building which would give us a clue.
A few weeks ago the team at Belmont discovered an area of the site which was covered in chips of soapstone. Excavations along Catpund Burn, Cunningsburgh, in 1988 demonstrated that the bowls and bake plates which were cut from the soft rock were partially completed there on the hillside. If the bowl broke at that stage the craft workers would try and turn it into something else if possible. If they failed, the bowl was discarded in the hill without the effort of having to carry it far. The bowls were very heavy and moving the bigger ones would have been a significant effort. Until now we had no evidence of where the final work on the bowls, and also the manufacture of smaller objects such as lamps and spindle whorls, took place.
The evidence from Belmont, together with the discovery of a half-finished lamp last week at Underhoull, demonstrates that at least some of this work was done on some of the farms. Site director Anne-Christine believes that the manufacture of soapstone objects at Belmont was a valuable part of the economy of the longhouse.
What’s in a name?
The next question to resolve was the one of where the soapstone which was being worked at Belmont comes from. Shetland’s place names project officer, Eileen Brooke-Freeman, has been investigating such questions recently from an unusual angle. She has been looking at the occurrence of words such as “klebber” (the Norse and also the Shetland name for soapstone) in place names such as “Clibberswick” (soapstone bay) and “Clemmel Geo”. Eileen has followed some of these up on the ground and discovered some hitherto unrecorded places where soapstone was worked in the Viking period.
Although there were no klebber names recorded around Belmont, there were several small outcrops marked in the hills above Belmont on the geological map. Eileen led a small expedition to find these outcrops and, sure enough, some of these showed traces of having been worked in Viking or Norse times. It is very probable that the people who worked these outcrops were indeed the residents of the longhouse farm in the hill at Belmont.
Eileen’s findings will form part of a new book about soapstone in Shetland to be published later this year. Klebber: Shetland’s Oldest Industry, edited by Amanda Forster and I, will draw together all the work which has been done to date by archaeologists who have studied soapstone in Shetland over the last 30 years.
Historic Scotland visits
Visiting Shetland last week were six members of Historic Scotland’s scheduling team led by Dr Sally Foster. They included inspector for maritime archaeology Phillip Robertson, a member of the listed buildings team, Elly McCrone, and chief inspector Malcolm Cooper. They were joined by Jack Stevenson, head of archaeology (survey and recording) of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
The primary purpose of the visit was to familiarise the scheduling team with the archaeology of Shetland before Historic Scotland embarks on a review of the scheduled monuments in Shetland next year. Scheduling is the legal protection which can be given to monuments which Historic Scotland believes are the best examples of particular sites in Scotland. The quality of the archaeology in Shetland is so high that it is reasonable to assume that the numbers of scheduled sites will increase when this exercise is carried out.
The team visited the West Side, Unst and the South Mainland during their visit and looked at remains dating from the Neolithic period, over 5,000 years ago, right through to structures from the Cold War.
The inclusion of Jack Stevenson in the group was exciting for Shetland’s resident archaeological section at Shetland Amenity Trust. The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland’s survey teams use photography, measured drawings and on-the-ground analysis to record the built environment of Scotland. They generally focus on three keys areas of work: field survey of archaeological sites and landscapes; aerial survey of all types of sites and buildings; and topographical areas. RCAHMS has set the standard for archaeological survey over the years, producing plans and maps which look like works of art.
For many years the RCAHMS survey work has concentrated on areas which were about to be taken in to forestry and so has passed Shetland by. While there have been occasional RCAHMS aerial and building surveys in Shetland over the past 20 years, the last topographical survey took place in 1928, and was published after the war, in 1946. Now there is a realistic possibility that the survey teams will soon turn their attention to some of Shetland’s outstanding prehistoric landscapes as well as some of our later remains too.
Vikings still in Unst
Meanwhile, it is not too late to enjoy life in the Viking camp beside the Skidbladner in Unst. Keith Prosser and Tony Sherratt, the “Vikings” who are well known throughout Shetland for their work at the Old Scatness site as well as Viking Unst, are on site everyday except Friday for the next two weeks. They are joined by four Unst residents who are busy learning the skills in order to help develop the Viking Unst project further. There is also an opportunity to join in and get involved, trying your hand at some of the many Viking crafts which they are demonstrating.
If you prefer your Viking crafts under cover and in a more formal setting, then you might enjoy the crafts afternoon on Wednesday at Saxa Vord. One of the many attractions is as to be as much Viking food as you can eat.
On Sunday visitors are invited to spend the day at Old Scatness, learning ancient craft skills such as horn, bone and wood work. This will be led by Stevie Wark, who is one of the team of Living History demonstrators, as well as one of Shetland’s leading crafts workers in bone and horn.