International research project looking at Northern Isles’ place in European trade networks launches next week

A major international research project investigating Orkney and Shetland’s place in the European trade networks of the 15th to 18th centuries launches next week.

Looking in from the Edge (LIFTE) is a three-year programme involving the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the University of Lincoln and the German Maritime Museum, in Bremerhaven.

During the period under investigation, a system of trade gradually brought much of the globe within its influence. In Europe, it led to peripheral places becoming closely tied into continental European trade networks, transforming their largely subsistence and low-level trading economies to commercialised, surplus-producing ones. At the forefront was the Hanseatic League — an organisation of German merchants formed around 1150 and which expanded into the North Atlantic in the 15th century.

Although the league’s influence in Shetland has been extensively documented, less is known about its interests in Orkney and this will be an early focus of the project.

The University of the Highlands and Islanders Archaeology Institute research team involved in the Looking in from the Edge project. From the left: Paul Sharman, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dr Jen Harland, Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, Julie Gibson, Professor Neil Simco, (UHI Vice-Principal [Research and Impact]) and Professor Jane Downes (Director of the UHI Archaeology Institute). Dan Lee, Dr Siobhan Cooke and Anne Mitchell are missing from the picture.

The UK team is led by Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, who will work with Dr Natascha Mehler from the German Maritime Museum, who is leading the German team.

Dr Gibbon explained: “Tapping into the rich research that has already been carried out in Shetland, we’re looking to find out what was going on in terms of trade in Orkney. We know the Hanseatic League was prominent in Shetland but its impact on Orkney is little researched. Was Orkney sharing in that wealth? Who was trading with whom? What was being traded? Where were the trading centres?

“The project will give us an opportunity to look into the mechanisms of early modern trade and how the Northern Isles adapted to a changing economic world. How did this emerging international trade change the islanders’ way of making and trading their wares and products? What were the consequences of this rapidly changing and expanding world on the social and economic ways of life for the islanders?”

The Skaill multi-period farmstead, Rousay, Orkney, one of the archaeological sites forming part of the research project. (Picture: Bobby Friel/@takethehighview)

The UK team includes Associate Professor Mark Gardiner from Lincoln University and a University of the Highlands and Islands team comprising Dr Jen Harland, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Paul Sharman, Julie Gibson, Dan Lee, Dr Siobhan Cooke and Anne Mitchell.

Funded by The Arts and Humanities Research Council and the German Research Council, a key element of the project is involving local communities and training volunteers in research methods from archaeology and history.

Research at the Orkney Library and Archive has begun, seeking historical documents for material directly or indirectly referencing trading operations. This, together with placename evidence and analysis of archaeological material from the county, will allow the researchers to identify and target potential sites for survey and excavation. The results will allow Orkney and Shetland’s connections to the wider economic realm of early modern Europe to be closely examined.

Leader of the German research team, Dr Natascha Mehler, from the German Maritime Museum, surveying the trading site at Gunnister Voe, Northmavine, Shetland, which was in use around 1600. (Picture: Mark Gardiner)

The online launch event on Tuesday, October 20, from 7pm until 8.30pm, comprises five short talks on aspects of trade in the North Atlantic — what we know and the project’s aims.

These will be followed by a question-and-answer session chaired by Dr Ingrid Mainland.

The programme for the evening is:

  • 1900–1905: Introduction (Dr Ingrid Mainland).
  • 1905–1920: The archaeology of trade in the North Atlantic (Dr Natascha Mehler, Dr Mark Gardiner).
  • 1920–1935: Historical sources for trade in the North Atlantic (Dr Bart Holterman).
  • 1935–1950: Looking ahead – the project research: archaeology (Paul Sharman).
  • 1950–2005: Looking ahead – the project research: history (Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon).
  • 2005-2030: Questions.

For details on how to access the launch event, click here.