Excavations at Old Scatness, Shetland Volume 1: The Pictish Village and Viking Settlement, Stephen J Dockrill, Julie M Bond, Val E Turner, Louise D Brown, Daniel J Bashford, Julia E Cussans and Rebecca A Nicholson, Shetland Heritage Publications.
If we ever needed to be reminded, the new glossy publication on the excavations at Old Scatness is ample proof of the great asset Shetland enjoys in its Amenity Trust. When in 1995 the trust acquired the potentially exciting, undisturbed broch site at Old Scatness, Val Turner and James Moncrieff had the visionary idea of not only having the site excavated, in the hope of discovering new information about these enigmatic structures, but of facilitating public access and maximising local public involvement in Shetland’s past. They found a receptive partner in the Archaeological Science Department of the University of Bradford and invited Steve Dockrill and Julie Bond to work with the trust on the excavation. The excavations took place between 1995 and 2006 and, miraculously, the first volume of three covering the dig has newly been published. Miraculous is not hyperbole given that many archaeologists can be notoriously remiss when it comes to publishing reports of their digs. There are digs that never get published and it can be a nightmare trying to discover what was found!
Old Scatness is an extraordinary site. It is a multi-period settlement providing an archaeological sequence from the Early Iron Age until the 20th century, a period of over 2,500 years. This volume deals specifically with the slightly shorter span of about 1,000 years from 400AD to 1400AD. It focuses on evidence from the Late Iron Age village, which huddled around impressive remains of the broch and was inhabited by the Picts, through to the Late Norse settlement, when the site was inhabited by Scandinavians. Therefore, it covers a period when one of the great mysteries of Shetland pre-history occurred – what was the fate of the Picts when the Viking settlers arrived?
Unlike most archaeological reports, this volume is a riveting read, all 400 pages of it, because, along with the excellent chapters on the excavation itself and discussions of the impressive finds, there are chapters which will help laymen and experts alike contextualise Old Scatness. Val Turner’s discussion of Pictish Shetland, which is included in the introduction, is particularly interesting. She makes a strong case that Shetland was not peripheral to the Pictish world, and I like her idea that they may have built wooden houses.
Old Scatness has proved very rich in finds. There is a huge amount of biological material, such as human skeletal remains, mammal and fish bones, and many artefacts manufactured by the inhabitants – for example, pottery, painted pebbles, carved stones, amber and steatite. The volume deals, magisterially but readably, with all this evidence. For example, although a chapter entitled Macrobotanical Remains might seem dry, it is thorough and intriguing. This is the written report of the assemblage of multifarious seeds left over from agricultural practices which were found in the different archaeological layers at Old Scatness. This assemblage is the first from Shetland to cover the transition from a Pictish to a Viking settlement. It tells us that the Picts and the Vikings both grew barley but that the Vikings grew a lot more oats: either they enjoyed oat cakes more than the Picts or they fed more horses. They seem to have had access to wheat, which they might have imported. They also grew flax, which means they could weave linen for cloth, sails, nets and fishing line. They probably had far less itchy underwear than the Picts!
The chapter on animal bones is a fascinating insight into the animal husbandry practised by both Pict and Viking. It seems that both societies farmed the same domestic animals and made use of the same wild animals. However, there appear to have been subtle differences in their relative abundance. There may have been a possible decrease in the exploitation of seals and a greater emphasis on cattle rearing in the Viking period. However, both Picts and Vikings enjoyed munching on pork. They also enjoyed a fish supper. Rebecca A Nicholson has written an excellent chapter on the fish bone assemblage. The quantity of fish bones uncovered is truly astonishing. There are 13,000 bones dating to the period 400AD to 1400AD, out of a total of 62,000 for Old Scatness as a whole! These tell a tale. Both the Picts and the Viking settlers predominantly fished from the shore for young saithe, with nets or rod and line. However, from about 1000AD, as the larger fish bones indicate, they were fishing from boats and daring the dangerous Sumburgh roost around the south of Shetland.
In addition to the mind-boggling number of bones uncovered in Old Scatness, 50,000 sherds of pottery have also been found. This is by the far the largest assemblage of broken bits of pot as yet discovered in Shetland. Included among this immense quantity were four sherds from imported vessels. One of these, from the Pictish level, was a fragment of an Ipswich-ware lugged pitcher. Although from its photograph it appears an extremely undistinguished fragment, its presence is exciting. Together with an unusual bone object, which seems to have been from a ship’s rigging and was found when the broch at Scalloway was excavated, it suggests Pictish Shetland was attached to the trade networks which traversed the North Sea in the pre-Viking age, when traders were plying their wares between emporia like Ipswich and Dorestad, where an object parallel to the one found at Scalloway was found.
The photograph of the Ipswich-ware fragment is one of many in the volume. The publishers have to be congratulated on the physical look of the book, as well as the high quality contents. It’s glossy with a huge number of illustrations, including reconstructions of the buildings, which always aids the imagination. Of course, the image of the Scatness bear adorns the cover. This was surely the most wonderful find of the excavation. It is identified in the book as a European brown bear, which might have roamed the forests of Pictland or Scandinavia. However, I cannot avoid the sneaking suspicion that, with its small head and long front legs, it looks like a polar bear.
This is the first of three volumes and it bodes well for the sequels. The next one will deal with the Middle Iron Age and address that other great mystery of prehistoric Shetland – the brochs. What were they for and who built them?
I would thoroughly recommend this book. It is not expensive considering it is such a high-quality publication and it should join other notable volumes on the well-read Shetlander’s bookshelf. The Shetland Amenity Trust have done Shetland proud.
Returning to the central mystery of the period covered by this volume: what happened to the Picts of Old Scatness when the Vikings arrived and settled? What does the book reveal? Well, other than to quote Steve Dockrill, who says there is “some insight into the impact of of cultural change caused by Scandinavian settlement” and to let you know that there are intriguing indications that the Vikings made use of the Late Pictish buildings, in the best tradition of suspense I would suggest you acquire your own copy and find out for yourself!
Dr Andrew Jennings, Centre for Nordic Studies