A NEW archaeological project got under way this month in the secluded location of Gunnister Voe in Northmavine.
Natascha Mehler, of the University of Vienna, and Mark Gardiner, of Queen’s University, Belfast, are planning a three-year project to investigate sites associated with the Hanseatic merchants. These German merchants traded around the North Atlantic between the 1400-1600s and played a major role in Shetland where they traded for Shetland caught fish.
The Bremen Böd which has been restored and interpreted in Whalsay is one of the few böds, or booths, which survive to any great extent.
Little research has been done on the majority of such sites, some of which survive as little more than clues in place names. Indeed, that was how Hagrie’s Böd in Gunnister was first located.
Dr Mehler and Dr Gardiner have just completed a three year project working on Hanseatic sites in Iceland, identifying them from place names and documentary evidence and following this up with field survey and some excavation.
They are now seeking funding to carry out comparable work here in Shetland over the coming three years.
Dr Gardiner first came to Shetland during the Johnsmas Foy earlier this year when he gave a lecture about his work in Iceland at the Shetland Museum and Archives. With Shetland archivist Brian Smith he visited Hanseatic sites at that time, including Hagrie’s Böd which was the trading post of Simon Harriestede between about 1580-1600.
When the chance to carry out some preliminary work in Shetland arose Dr Gardiner said: “We seized the opportunity to undertake some excavation because we understand the sites so poorly. We wanted to get to grips with what they were like in Shetland.”
Drs Gardiner and Mehler have fully excavated the remains which survive on a knowe which projects into the voe. The deposits were fairly thin but two walls and a floor still survived. The two archaeologists were surprised to discover that there was 18-19th century material under the floor, which proved that the building had been reused long after it had ceased to function as a trading böd. They also discovered Iron Age material on the landward slope.
Although the results were not what Mark and Natascha expected, or hoped, to find, they are happy with the results of their preliminary project.
“It helps us to think about the problems of recording sites in Shetland,” Dr Gardiner said. “We will now be reflecting on approaches for working in Shetland.”
Since Hagrie’s Böd was in a sheltered position at the edge of the voe, Mark was surprised to discover just how much the sea had eroded it.
Assuming that the duo are successful in obtaining funding to return to Shetland next year they hope to look more generally at Hanseatic sites in the isles, discovering where they are through exploring documents and then locating and surveying what survives on the ground.
Once this is accomplished they hope to excavate in order to find out more about the böds, their associated harbours and the trade that took place from them.
I wish them every success in their funding bid and look forward to welcoming them back again next year.