Looking in from the Edge (LIFTE)

Investigating Orkney and Shetland’s place in 15-18th century European trade networks

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)

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.

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

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

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, in the 15th century, expanded into the North Atlantic.

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.

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)

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.

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