Landscapes Revealed – second volume of UHI Archaeology Institute research series out now

A substantial Neolithic settlement at the north-western end of the Ness of Brodgar is one of hundreds of new archaeological sites outlined in a new book from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

Landscapes Revealed: Remote Sensing Across the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, the second volume in the institute’s research series, documents a nine-year project that surveyed a 285-hectare area between Skara Brae and Maeshowe.

The project, which ran from 2002 until 2011, revealed a wealth of new sites, as well as helped chart the changing character of the landscape and shed new light on the known monuments and their place in the historic and more recent past.

The Neolithic site mentioned above lies to the north-west of, and is on a par with, the Ness of Brodgar excavation site. Based on the surveys and the finds collected in the field, it seems we may have something of the same magnitude as the Ness and incorporating similarly large structures. But of particular interest is the fact that this settlement is merely one facet of a landscape incredibly rich in archaeology — containing evidence of life from the Neolithic all the way through to long-gone 19th century farmsteads.

Gradiometer data interpretation of an area north of Buckan Farm, Sandwick, at the north-western end of the Ness of Brodgar. (ORCA)

Staying on the Ness, north-west of the Ring of Brodgar are Bronze Age houses that are providing important insights into this enigmatic period of Orcadian prehistory. The structures lay close to – but a respectable distance from – the stone circle, where the householders placed the remains of their dead in a manner similar to that encountered at Stonehenge.

Bronze Age dwellings were also discovered inland from Skara Brae, showing that people did not abandon the area but adapted their way of life in the face of climate change, increasing storminess and encroaching sand.

Moving into the Iron Age, the surveys revealed in startling detail the brochs that loomed over the ruins of Skara Brae and the Stones of Stenness. With the latter, the broch-dwellers continued to act out rituals at what was already an ancient stone circle. Clearly the Neolithic monuments continued to inspire.

To find out more, pick up a copy of the book.

Landscapes Revealed: Remote Sensing Across the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, by Amanda Brend, Nick Card, Jane Downes, Mark Edmonds and James Moore.  Published by Oxbow Books, the hardback is available now, priced £35.

Co-authored by Archaeology Institute professor, first volume of new Stonehenge tetralogy launched

The UHI Archaeology Institute’s Prof. Colin Richards (second from left) at the excavation around the Tor Stone.

In 2003, a team of archaeologists from five universities began the first long-term programme of fieldwork focused on Stonehenge in decades.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project was co-directed by Prof. Mike Parker Pearson (UCL), Prof. Josh Pollard (Southampton), Prof. Julian Thomas (Manchester), Prof. Chris Tilley (UCL), Prof. Kate Welham (Bournemouth), and Prof. Colin Richards of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

The project ran until 2009, its goal to consider the iconic monument within its wider archaeological context. The working hypothesis behind the venture links Stonehenge with a complex of timber monuments at the henge of Durrington Walls and neighbouring Woodhenge.

The first volume of a set of four was launched this week and presents the results of the seven-year project. Stonehenge for the Ancestors: Part One includes details of the monuments and landscape that pre-dated Stonehenge – particularly the role of the River Avon – as well as excavation work on the monument itself.

A key discovery was cremated human remains at Stonehenge, which allowed their demography, health and dating to be established. With a revised radiocarbon chronology for the five stages of Stonehenge’s construction these burials can now be considered within the context of the monument’s development.

The different types of stone used in the construction of Stonehenge – bluestones from Wales and sarsen silcretes from more local sources – are investigated both at Stonehenge and surrounding monuments, including the Cuckoo Stone and the Tor Stone, as well as the newly discovered Bluestonehenge circle at West Amesbury beside the River Avon.

Stonehenge for the Ancestors Part One – Landscape and Monuments is published by Sidetone Press and available to purchase now.

The book can also be read, for free, here.

UHI academics contribute to international Viking DNA research project

DNA from a female skeleton, found at a Viking burial site in Varnhem, Sweden, was sequenced as part of the study. (Picture: Västergötlands Museum)

Two academics from the University of the Highlands and Islands were part of an international team of researchers involved in a project hailed as “the world’s largest DNA sequencing of Viking skeletons”.

Dr Ingrid Mainland, Senior Lecturer at the UHI Archaeology Institute, and Julie Gibson, Orkney Islands Council County Archaeologist and UHI researcher, contributed to the paper, Population genomics of the Viking world, which was published in Nature on September 16.

(The paper is available to read online here)

Led by Professor Eske Willerslev of the Universities of Cambridge and Copenhagen, the research team extracted and analysed DNA from the remains of 442 men, women and children.

The remains were recovered from archaeological sites in Scandinavia, the UK, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Ukraine, Poland and Russia, and mostly date to the Viking Age (c.AD750-1050). Eight individuals in the study came from Orkney – three from Newark, Deerness; two from Buckquoy, Birsay, and three from the Brough Road, Birsay.

The team’s analyses yielded a number of findings. One of the most noteworthy is that contrary to what has often been assumed, Viking identity was not limited to people of Scandinavian ancestry — an individual, buried in a “Scandinavian fashion” in Birsay, Orkney, was found to be of Scottish ancestry.

Two other individuals from Orkney had 50 per cent Scandinavian ancestry, and five such individuals were found in Scandinavia. This suggests that Pictish populations may have been integrated into Scandinavian culture by the Viking Age.

They also found evidence that there was significant gene flow into Scandinavia from the British Isles, Southern Europe, and Asia before and during the Viking Age, which further undermines the image of the Vikings as “pure” Scandinavians.

Another discovery that runs counter to the standard image of the Vikings is that many had brown, not blonde, hair.

A mass grave of around 50 headless Vikings from a site in Dorset, UK. Some of these remains were used for DNA analysis. (Picture: Dorset County Council/Oxford Archaeology)

The analyses’ results also shed light on the Vikings’ activities. For example, consistent with patterns documented by historians and archaeologists, the team found that Vikings who travelled to England generally had Danish ancestry, while the majority of Vikings who travelled to Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Greenland had Norwegian ancestry. In contrast, Vikings who headed east were mostly from Sweden.

Interestingly, explained Simon Fraser University archaeology professor Mark Collard, data revealed a number of close kin among the 442 individuals. Four members of a Viking raiding party interred in a boat burial in Estonia were found to be brothers, while two individuals buried 300 to 400 kilometres apart in Sweden were found to be cousins. Perhaps even more strikingly, the team identified a pair of second-degree male relatives (i.e. half-brothers, nephew-uncle, or grandson-grandfather) from two sites, one in Denmark and one in England.

“We have this image of well-connected Vikings mixing with each other, trading and going on raiding parties to fight Kings across Europe because this is what we see on television and read in books – but genetically we have shown for the first time that it wasn’t that kind of world. This study changes the perception of who a Viking actually was,” said Prof Willerslev. “No one could have predicted these significant gene flows into Scandinavia from Southern Europe and Asia happened before and during the Viking Age.”

Of all the team’s discoveries, Prof Collard is most intrigued by the identification of close kin.

“While the ‘big picture’ discoveries are great, I was blown away by the fact that the analyses revealed the presence of four brothers in the Estonian boat burial, and a possible nephew and uncle on either side of the North Sea.”

“These findings have important implications for social life in the Viking world, but we would’ve remained ignorant of them without ancient DNA. They really underscore the power of the approach for understanding history.”

New journal volume focuses on the victims of Orkney’s witchcraft trials

Dr Ragnhild Ljosland
Dr Ragnhild Ljosland

The launch event for the ninth volume of the New Orkney Antiquarian Journal took place last week and featured a presentation by Dr Ragnhild Ljosland, a lecturer at the UHI Archeology Institute.

Book Cover. New Orkney Antiquarian Journal Volume Nine.

Dr Ljosland is the editor of the new Orkney Heritage Society publication, which focuses on the society’s project to commemorate the victims of the county’s witchcraft trials.

Based on Dr Ljosland’s research into the subject, the project ran from 2013 to 2019 and culminated in the unveiling of a memorial stone at Gallowha, at the top of the Clay Loan, in Kirkwall, on March 9, 2019.

A conference to mark the unveiling of the memorial saw several papers presented and some of these, along with later commissions, form the basis of the seven articles in the new volume.

The journal focuses on witchcraft trials held in Kirkwall between 1594 and 1706. Who were the women and men accused, and of what were they accused? What were the beliefs underlying these trials and what motivated the accusers?

Dr Ljosland and Helen Woodsford-Dean were two of the project’s organisers and their opening article traces the background to the witchcraft trials and the evolution of the project to commemorate the victims.

Other contributors are Liv Helene Willumsen, Jocelyn Rendall, Ashleigh Angus, Peter Marshall, Corwen Broch and Marita Lϋck.

The final article lists the names of those being commemorated by this volume.