Hard at work
The excavations at the Viking longhouse site at Belmont are gathering momentum as the Danish led team prepares to begin their final week on site. This is the fifth season of work which Anne-Christine Larsen has directed at Belmont, and the third year within Shetland Amenity Trust’s Viking Unst project. This week work has concentrated on the lower lying end of the building. In the higher end there is a drain which runs along the inside edge of the wall. It is probable that this continues into the down-slope end of the house, and the team have been trying to locate it this week. There have already been some interesting finds from the area. These include a piece of a bone comb and a fragment of a late norse baking plate. It is unfortunate through that the layers are very disturbed in the lower area. This is because the final use of the site was as a planticrub. In the relatively recent past, people decided that the longhouse foundations were a good base on which to build a crub. Many of the large stones from the wall foundations were either used where the Vikings had placed them in the wall, or were close enough to be rolled into place. This rebuilding has destroyed some of the longhouse wall as well as mixing objects from several centuries together.
The other task which has been facing the team this week is to locate the entrances belonging to each of the different phases of building. Some of these were blocked up and others have been disturbed and so sorting it out presents a bit of a puzzle to the archaeologists. Then there has also been the sunken floor, in the centre of the longhouse, between the side benches, to tackle.
A mystery solved
Throughout the excavations, Anne-Christine Larsen and I have debated over the stone enclosure next to the longhouse. Anne-Christine had suspected that it was earlier than the longhouse, perhaps being contemporary with the Bronze Age cup-marked stones nearby. I was never convinced, but I had to admit that it did not look particularly Viking either. Last year’s excavation did not help to solve the mystery at all, as the small area examined produced absolutely no solutions.
This year the students from Copenhagen University used the “enclosure” as a good training ground for learning archaeological techniques and the results have begun to unravel the mystery. The area is now producing slag and evidence of iron smelting. Two pits have been discovered, each containing evidence of iron smelting and there was also a whetstone from the area. Last year the team had already found small concentrations of slag along the outer wall of the longhouse on the same side. “It looks as if we have a craft area,” enthused Anne-Christine.
The metal working adds to the evidence of soapstone working which has become very evident across the site and demonstrates the very mixed economy of this Viking farm which is situated at about 60m. This is surprisingly high for an agricultural settlement and originally Anne-Christine had wondered if the site might have been a seasonal farm. “It is now clear that it is a proper farm,” she said. “The people who lived here had a good life and were here for several hundred years.”
The final open day of the season will be held on Sunday. “The site is very complicated,” she told me. “This is a good opportunity to see norse settlement over several hundred years.” The Danish team dig in a different style to British teams and the Danish style enhances the possibility of seeing several phases of the site all at one time. Although the site will be consolidated and displayed for visitors to enjoy in the future, this Sunday will be one of the last opportunities to see the site under excavation and to be shown the story of the site from the excavator herself.
Final call for Viking Conference
There are a few places left for the Viking Conference to be held at the Shetland Museum and Archives between 16-19th July. The Thursday evening begins with Ole Crumlin Pedersen talking about Viking ships. The Friday is taken up with speakers who have worked in Shetland on Viking themes, and will update people on the most recent findings. This will include talks on the three Viking longhouse sites which have been excavated in Unst as part of the Viking Unst project by Julie Bond and Anne-Christine Larsen; Shetland’s Viking landscape given by me; the Viking period at Old Scatness presented by Steve Dockrill; and Stofas considered by Barbara Crawford. The site at Norwick will be discussed by Beverley Ballin Smith and Gerry Bigelow will revisit the Easting beach, Unst, while Eileen Brooke-Freeman will talk about Viking place names.
Saturday will provide an opportunity to go to Unst with some of the excavators and see the sites explained on the ground. We also plan to host a Viking market in Unst that weekend with opportunities to trade directly with Viking craft workers as well as some local enterprises which are producing Viking style goods for the occasion. Among the visiting traders we expect to welcome Timeslip, who proved to be very popular when they carried out school visits throughout Shetland in January last year and February this year. They will also be accompanied by Wordsmith Crafts who will be smithing their goods while you watch.
On Sunday the speakers will be highlighting their own research and showing what this suggests about Shetland. These speakers are from near and far: Jamie Barrett from distant Orkney, Niall Sharples talking about longhouses in the Western Isles, Andrew MacDonald focusing on the Isle of Man, Siri Ingvaldsen who will explore “ting” sites, Pat Wallace from the National Museum of Ireland and Amanda Forster who is looking at the trade in soapstone. The conference will also see the launch of two new publications: Kleber: Shetland’s Oldest Industry by Amanda Forster and Val Turner and the first of the Old Scatness monographs, The Pictish and Viking volume by Steve Dockrill et al. Another optional event will be the Viking feast planned for the Sunday evening.
The fee for the whole conference is £60 (which is cheap by conference standards and includes lunches) but Shetland residents can book for either the lectures or the Unst trip for £30 should they prefer as long as there are still tickets available. Booking is through Shetland Amenity Trust.