It’s amazing where you can find archaeology, as John Laurenson recently found out.
Mr Laurenson works for Shetland Heatwise, insulating houses. He was in the upstairs bedroom of a crofthouse in Hillswick, pulling the lining off in the course of his work, when he made an interesting discovery. Sitting on the wallhead, about a metre from the gable end, he discovered what he suspected was something interesting. What he found was a very fine example of a stone axe.
The axe was roughed out but never completed by the person who made it, 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. “When I found it I thought it was very interesting,” John told me. “I took it to show Ian Tait and Jenny Murray at the museum because obviously they’re older than me,” he chuckled. There are a lot of finished, smoothed, axe heads in the museum but there are few which are in this partially finished, roughed out, state. This may well be because the unfinished items are harder to recognise.
Stone tools from the New Stone Age, the Neolithic, are often found in walls which are being dismantled by dry-stone dykers as well as in houses. People used to believe that they had magical properties and would protect a building from being struck by lightning.
The longhouse excavation at Belmont is well under way. The earlier longhouse and the smaller building on top of it are both easy to see now. The earlier house is a traditional longhouse in shape. The upper end was the living room and the benches, along the walls on either side of the house, are now very clear. There is also a drain inside the house, running alongside one of the walls. In the middle of the room there is a typical central long hearth. Beside the hearth there is what may have been the ash-box, created of stone. This was where the glowing embers were stored overnight, in order to keep them alight until the next morning.
The Danish team, led by Anne-Christine Larsen, the principle archaeologist at Trelleborg, are working on the floor layers. This is likely to be the most exciting place on the site for finding artefacts. Within a few days the team had found 80 objects and the number is rising every day. The most spectacular of these to date is an almost complete soapstone lamp which was found by Icelandic archaeology assistant Lilja Palsdottir. The lamp looks fresh enough to have just been made. The tool marks are very clear inside. The bottom of the lamp is not completely finished on one side. This is also the side where the rim of the lamp had broken.
During the excavations at Belmont last year, it became clear that the people who lived at Belmont were working soapstone there. The lamp is additional evidence of this. The lamp was very shallow and so when the rim broke it would have become useless. Instead of trying to salvage it or making it into something else, the lamp was used as a packing stone, placed into a posthole at an angle, to help to keep the post upright. This must have happened very quickly after it was made for the lamp to retain its newly made appearance.
Less spectacular was the less well finished example found by one of the Unst volunteers, Harry Edwards. This lamp had been hollowed out but work had not gone as far as creating any handles or carrying out any more sophisticated shaping. The lamp is still in the ground. Perhaps, when it is lifted, the other side will provide a clue as to why this lamp was abandoned. A third, rather unusual find was made of metal. It looks as if it was one of perhaps three legs at the base of a very substantial cooking pot.
If you would like to see any of these finds for yourself, the next opportunity will be Sunday, when the site staff and students will be welcoming all visitors and showing them the site, as well as their most recent discoveries. The excavation is situated on the hill on the opposite side of the road to Belmont House.
The Bressay Heritage Centre has just opened its new exhibition to visitors, centred around the burnt mound which it “acquired” last summer.
The burnt mound was excavated several years ago but the remains were still falling into the sea. In a bid to prevent the Bronze Age site crumbling away, last year the Bressay History Group devised an ambitious rescue scheme. Archaeology is a destructive process and so Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson of EASE archaeological company returned to Shetland to undertake that task. Instead of throwing the stone onto a spoil heap as it was removed, each stone was marked by Rick Barton and reassembled by him and Jim Keddie, outside the Heritage Centre.
The new exhibition, designed by Robina Barton for the centre, tells the story of what the group did, as well as explaining what burnt mounds are and how they may or may not have been used. Just a casual glance at the mound at Cruester indicates that the site was more complicated than being the site of killing an animal and boiling it. The mound was used intermittently over many years, tens if not hundreds, and there are several suggestions as to how it might have been used as Helen Bradley, formerly of Archaeology Scotland, explained during her site tour. The Bressay History Group hope to try some of these out over the summer.
At the exhibition opening, members of the History Group decided to try out the site for its potential as a sauna. John Scott, Douglas Coutts and Stuart Barton stoked the fire and heated stones in a replica cell while experimenters Helen Bradley and Robina Barton took it in turns to sit inside another cell, sealed in with an animal skin, and pour cold water onto the stones. Both claimed that it was very effective.
There are a number of possible uses for a burnt mound, some of which we have not even thought of yet. While the Bressay History Group have plans to try some of these for themselves in the coming weeks and years, they are also keen to attract an academic researcher to work with the group, perhaps as the basis for a PhD in experimental archaeology. If you have a relevant first degree and might be interested in developing this, both the group and I would be pleased to hear from you.
Walhalla Vikings invade
The Walhalla Viking troupe are here. They have travelled all the way from Poland in order to spend the weekend based at Old Scatness where they will set up a Viking camp. As you might expect from Vikings, their speciality is fighting. They are skilled in a number of different methods: as swordsmen, as archers and also in the use of fire. They will be giving several performances daily and the weekend promises to be full of excitement and spectacle, sound, fire and fury. They also intend to host a Viking feast tonight in Dunrossness Hall which will also be an event with a difference. Rather than wait to read about it next week, I strongly recommend that you head to the South Mainland and join in the fun.