Excavation at Belmont begins
The Viking Unst project has come earlier to the islands this year, with the arrival of the Danish team who have been excavating at the Viking longhouse in Belmont this week. Once again the team is led by Anne-Christine Larsen. This will be the last season of excavation within this phase of Shetland Amenity Trust’s project to investigate Viking longhouses in Unst, which is being part funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The excavation to date has shown that there are at least three Viking buildings built over a period of time, one on top of another. This year is crucial to understanding exactly what happened when and there is a lot of recording to be done as the month progresses. The excavation will last throughout June and visitors are welcome when the archaeologists are on site. There will be special open days on Sunday afternoons beginning this weekend, when the team will have some of the finds on display and Danish students will explain the site to visitors. Meanwhile, local volunteers who are interested in archaeology and have a few days to spare will be very welcome to join the team. Anne-Christine’s team will teach people how the Danish system of excavation works.
… And the past at Puddle
At the weekend, pupils at Uyeasound School discovered that archaeology does not have to be prehistoric or about excavation. Uyeasound took the revolutionary approach of making Saturday a school day so that all the pupils could take part in a mapping project organised by a team from the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. The school spent the day with commission archaeologist Brian Wilkinson.
The project focused on the Framgord area and base camp where there was a ruined crofthouse called “Puddle”. The area was cleared for sheep farming and as a result there are a number of deserted croft houses and their yards, rigs and outhouses clearly visible in the hill. This was to become the focus for two survey projects, one for the school and another open to adults from across Shetland.
Uyeasound teacher Barbara Priest said: “We had a great day, setting off armed with clipboards, maps, tape measures, rucksacks with water proofs and snack and a tent for a base camp.”
The junior archaeologists explored all the derelict houses at Framgord and decided to record the upper house, Soerhouse, because it was the most interesting structurally. Their drawings and maps will be an important record of the site which had not been recorded before archaeologically and we hope that copies will be made available for the Shetland Sites and Monuments Record as well as the National Monuments Record for Shetland. Afterwards the pupils all said that measuring at the old house was the best part of the day.
Simultaneously, a group of about 15 adults were working on another part of the hill, learning techniques to sketch plan, record and use a plain table led by Tertia Barnett, also of the Royal Commission. At the beginning of the day, Unst Archaeology Group member Harry Edwards expressed great scepticism about using “19th century technology”. However, he did have a go and by the end of the day he admitted that he had really enjoyed the experience.
Mapping the ancient past
Archaeology involves far more than just excavation. During the spring Ollaberry School carried out a project about early people. The amenity trust’s archaeology session spent time with them both in and out of the classroom. One of their sessions was led by Brae teacher Stephen Raikes. During a strenuous walk, pupils discovered lengths of wall and hints that people had lived there in the past. The end point of their journey was Punds Water, where they drew and measured the neolithic chambered cairn as well as drawing a map of what the prehistoric house site looked like to a bird flying above it.
More surveys to come
Chris Dyer and I are planning to carry out more field surveys in Unst during the summer, particularly related to the Viking longhouses, and we hope to be able to build further on the course. This will develop previous survey work which we have been doing as part of the Viking Unst project and will the field walking and identification of new sites by members of the Unst Archaeology Group, including Davie Leask and Les Smith.
A Viking summer
Looking ahead, this promises to be a summer of Vikings. Vikings are the theme of the Johnsmas Foy to begin on Thursday next week. As part of this, there will a troupe of Polish Vikings visiting Old Scatness and taking “living history demonstrations” into a new realm. Among their performances you can expect to see the wild berserker fights, displays with flaming weapons and a whole host of warlike activities. There will be a chance for visitors to get involved as well. Meanwhile, there will be the opportunity to eat very tasty Viking style food on Friday night at Dunrossness Hall, hosted by the Walhalla Vikings, with Viking music and storytelling thrown into the mix as well.
A month later, from 16-19 July, there will be a conference of international speakers being held at the Shetland Museum and Archives as well as in Unst. The theme will be “Shetland in the Viking World” and will be a marvellous opportunity to hear leading scholars in the Viking World, including Ole Crumlin Pedersen, the leading authority on Viking ships, as well as speakers well known to Shetland for their work on Shetland sites, including Barbara Crawford and Steve Dockrill. Tickets for this event are selling fast, and are available through the Amenity Trust and through the Shetland Museum and Archives. There will be a Viking market running concurrently in Unst as just one of the associated events. Local crafts producers who make Viking style products and who would like to get involved should contact Rick Barton at Shetland Amenity Trust.