Viking boat burials in the spotlight at Friday’s free online seminar

The Oseberg boat burial, Norway, under excavation in 1904.

From the massive and rich ship burials found in Scandinavia, to the small rowing boats used in boat burials on Scottish isles, the distinctive Viking burial rite making use of a boat to carry the dead into the next life has always fascinated.

On Friday afternoon, as part of the ongoing University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research seminar series, Dr Colleen Batey will explore the variety of Viking boat burials, with examples from Orkney, Lochaber, the Western Isles and beyond.

The vessels themselves, the grave goods accompanying the dead and the excitement of recovery are all elements combining to make this an exciting aspect of the Viking Age.

The whalebone plaque recovered from the Scar boat burial in Sanday, Orkney, in 1991. (Sigurd Towrie)

The most evoked images come from the writings of Ibn Fadlan and his travels on the River Volga where he encountered the burial rites from death to final release and wrote down his experience in candid detail. His viewpoint was as a “superior” traveller and this is reflected in his report, but it does provide a useful starting point for helping us understand something of the rites behind the physical remains we have in the archaeological record.

From the massive and very rich ship burials found in Scandinavia – Oseberg in particular – to the small rowing boats used in the insular context, there is much variety to be explored. The discoveries from Westness, Rousay; Scar, Sanday and more recently at Mayback in Orkney will be considered, in addition to the burial from Swordle Bay, Ardnamurchan, and Kiloran Bay, Colonsay, as examples of the distinctive burial form.

The free online seminar is at 4pm GMT on Friday, December 11. For details on how to view, click here.

New Masters project researching archaeological benefits of roadworks

MRes archaeology student Asta Pavilionyte.

The archaeological benefits of roadwork developments in Scotland is the subject of a new Masters by Research (MRes) project funded by Transport Scotland.

The dualling of the A9 trunk road between Perth to Inverness has been hailed as one of the largest transport investments in Scotland’s history. In common with all major infrastructure projects, Transport Scotland has appointed archaeologists to check for archaeology ahead of the roadworks and where necessary excavate and record it.

As part of Transport Scotland’s Academy9 research programme, Asta Pavilionyte began her MRes in Archaeology, at Inverness College campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands, in October.

She will be evaluating and reviewing archaeological mitigation works undertaken in major road infrastructure projects and identifying the public benefits associated with these projects. The research focus is the A9 dualling project.

Asta’s MRes supervisors are Professor Jane Downes, director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, Julie Gibson, Orkney’s county archaeologist and Archaeology Institute lecturer, and Dr Monika Maleszka-Ritchie, of Inverness College UHI.

“I decided to apply for this MRes Studentship because I wanted to become a part of challenging research that could help to change archaeological management approaches in current and future infrastructure projects for the better and broaden general public knowledge about archaeology and heritage,” Asta explained.

“I believe that this is a great opportunity to continue the advancement of my skills and it will help me to advance in my future career.”

Before starting the studentship, Asta was a project assistant for Headland Archaeology, one of the biggest commercial archaeology companies in the UK. She was involved in various large-scale infrastructure and commercial projects, investigating archaeological sites across the country.

‘Learning from Northern people’ seminar on Friday

Professor Leslie King

What the people of the Arctic can teach us to help respond to climate change is the subject of a University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research seminar this Friday, November 27.

Arctic explorers owed their survival to the knowledge gained from Inuit during their expeditions in harsh but fragile environments. We are now experiencing another period of climate and rapid environmental and social change.

Part our survival and future depends on lessons learnt from people on the front lines of climate change and biodiversity loss about how to adapt and thrive in conditions of uncertainty and change. Climate researchers are modern explorers attempting to learn from the knowledge – ancient and contemporary – held by Northern people.

Led by Professor Leslie King of the Canadian Centre for Environmental Education and Visiting Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, the talk will introduce some of the research results that may help us in lower latitudes prepare for, respond to, and survive dramatic changes in the social-ecological systems upon which we depend.

The free online seminar is at 4pm GMT on Friday, November 27. For details on how to view, click here.

Another Archaeology Institute PhD student celebrates viva success

Jasmijn at work in the lab at Orkney College.

Jasmijn Sybenga, a student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has passed her PhD viva, with no corrections.

Jasmijn’s thesis, Seeing the Wood for the Trees; a palaeoecological approach into the research of past natural woodland in the Scottish Highlands, focused on three areas of peatland in Caithness and Sutherland.

Jasmijn at work in the field.

Using pollen, non-pollen palynomorphs and microscopic charcoal, Jasmijn identified the types of woodland previously present against today’s woodland survey of Scotland, causes for the demise of these woodlands and evidence of past woodland disturbances, such as those caused by people and climate.

The results were modelled against predicted climate change to identify what native woodland and tree types offer the best chance for establishment through re-afforestation of these areas – information that will have implications for future conservation strategies in the Highlands and potentially across Scotland.

Jasmijn started her PhD in February 2016 after finishing both undergraduate and graduate degrees at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Her PhD supervisors were Dr Scott Timpany, Dr Roxane Andersen and Dr Melanie Smith and her research funded by a Forestry Commission Scotland Funded Studentship and the University of the Highlands and Islands.

If you are interested in postgraduate research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, please get in touch by e-mailing or see our guide page.

PhD candidate sought for Severn valley settlement research project

The Medieval Settlement Research Group (MSRG), in conjunction with the Universities of Leicester and Nottingham, is seeking a PhD candidate for its application for an M4C collaborative doctoral award: Dispersed Settlement in the West Midlands’ Severn Valley: An Interdisciplinary Approach.

If successful, the project will start in September 2021 and focus on landscapes of dispersed settlement (consisting of isolated farmsteads and hamlets) in the middle Severn valley.

The post-Conquest (1086-1500) settlement history of the West Midlands has been little-studied recently. Generally, medieval settlement studies have focused on areas of nucleated settlement (large villages, with houses clustered together), broadly stretching in a band from the south-west to the north-east of England through the East Midlands, so this proposed research fills both geographical and intellectual gaps in our current understanding of rural settlement formation.

Research questions:

  1. Which factors were more influential on patterns of dispersed settlement: physical (e.g. soils, relief) or cultural (e.g. lordship, agriculture, industry)?
  2. How do patterns of dispersal compare and contrast across the region studied?
  3. Is it possible to determine a chronology of development for dispersed settlement?
  4. To what extent did small, isolated settlements subsequently develop?
  5. To what extent did the colonisation of cleared woodland generate later foundations of dispersed settlement?
  6. Did the region have a distinctive social structure, with special regard to lordship, peasant status, holding size, community, parish, farming regime and industry that accounts for dispersed settlements?
  7. (Two local case-studies) To what extent is it possible to determine the lived experience, outlook and culture of medieval occupants of small, dispersed settlements, and how might it have differed from that experienced by people living in larger settlements?

The project will encompass methodologies from landscape archaeology, local history, historical geography, and toponomastics. The following aspects will be key:

  • Multi-disciplinary literature review focusing on landscape archaeological, historical, geographical and place-name outputs relating to English medieval settlement scholarship, alongside a comparative review of writing on European settlement.
  • Identification of dispersed settlement within the study area using historical documents (especially manorial surveys, court rolls and deeds), early maps, aerial photographs, and placenames.
  • Review of key local published histories, including the Victoria County History series and the output of county archaeological and historical societies.
  • Review of archaeological grey literature for the study area, alongside a thorough search of the data on the Historic Environment Record (HER), and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).
  • Analysis of existing placename datasets for the study area.
  • The development and population of a database for analysis of the corpus of settlement sites.
  • Use of GIS to map settlement sites, in particular the distribution of hamlets and isolated farmsteads and cottages.

The MSRG are keen to hear from applicants who have completed/are close to completing an MA/MSc in either landscape archaeology, local history, historical geography or toponomastics.

To apply, please send a covering letter and two references to Dr Susan Kilby, Hon. Secretary, MSRG, by email to by Friday, December 11, 2020.

The group intends to hold virtual interviews for potential candidates.

Orkney experience contributes to African climate-change project

The Sukur Cultural Landscape in Nigeria is one of two African World Heritage sites involved in the CVI-Africa project. The hilltop settlement, which dates back to the sixteenth century, will be the focus of Professor Jane Downes, director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is part of a new project focusing on the impact of climate change on African heritage sites.

Worldwide, climate change is threatening people, communities and their heritage. Africa is projected to warm more rapidly than most other regions on the planet, meaning this already vulnerable continent will be hard-hit by the impact of climate change.

The CVI-Africa project, led by institutions in Africa and the United Kingdom, will pilot the application of the Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) to African World Heritage properties.

The CVI assessment tool assesses the risk to heritage by climate change and the vulnerability of associated communities based on their economic, social and cultural relationships to those values and their capacity to adapt.

It was first applied to a cultural World Heritage Site in 2019, when its focus was the Heart of Neolithic Orkney.  There, the site was found to be at risk of being destroyed within 50 years due to rising sea levels, increased storminess and rainfall but that the richness of the rest of the research meant there were options for economic and cultural sustainability.

Dr Albino Jopela of the African World Heritage Fund, a co-investigator on the project, said: “Despite the intensifying threat, there remains a lack of attention to the cultural dimensions of climate change and this is especially true here in Africa. The CVI-Africa project will help fill this gap.”

Professor Jane Downes is the director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and an expert on climate change and heritage.

She explained: “Cultural heritage in Africa is being destroyed by a number of climate change impacts. There is an urgent need to respond to this and the CVI-Africa project will work closely with heritage professionals and researchers from across the continent to better understand this ongoing challenge.

“The project has great potential to effect action on climate change through detailing the impacts of climate change on these internationally important sites.”

The project will provide training in the CVI method to six African heritage professionals and culminate in workshops at two World Heritage Sites affected by climate change.

Professor Downes will be focusing on the Sukur Cultural Landscape in the Mandara Mountains along the Cameroon-Nigeria border.

According to ICOMOS Nigeria’s Dr Ishanlosen: “Sukur reflects the complexity of assessing vulnerability. Located in the Mandara Mountains along the Cameroon-Nigeria border, the impact of climate change has induced shifts in the political and local economies, with attendant risks to cultural heritage. Supporting local communities and national authorities to develop tools that build on local experience and realities, can help them manage these risks and plan for the future. We hope that the CVI can contribute to fulfilling that need.”

The second site is the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara, in Tanzania, where climate change is already affecting the coastal monuments.

Site manager Mercy Mbogelah explained: “Although we took some adaptation measures to stop the speed of wave actions going direct to the monuments, more action and learning experiences from others is needed. For this matter the CVI-Africa project will bring us together to find more actions to reduce or stop these challenges.”

The project has been funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Global Challenges Research Fund scheme with support from the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The workshops will include the six heritage professionals, local and national experts and stakeholders and international partners.

For more details, see