The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Research series of seminars is restarting for the season on Friday 11th October with an exciting monthly programme scheduled for the next semester.
This seminar series provides a platform for researchers connected with the UHI archaeology institute and invited guests to share ongoing research within the Institute and further afield.
New for this year, the seminars have now also been opened up to the wider community, recognising the broad interest in archaeology in the Highlands and Islands. Anyone with an interest in archaeology is welcome to come and listen, either in person in Orkney or dialling in using the UHI’s video-conference system (requires Cisco Webex Teams software).
October is a busy month with two seminars. First up in the seminar series, on the 11/10, is Siobhan Cooke of UHI Archaeology Institute and Stromness Museum, who will be talking about “The Wrecks of Scapa Flow: Salvage and Collecting at Stromness Museum”.
Following on the 25th is Astrid Nyland, special guest from the University of Stavanger, with “More than meets the eyes! The use of rock and quarries in the Mesolithic and Neolithic of Norway.” This should invite an interesting comparative perspective considering what we know of rock use during Orkney’s prehistory.
And in November, the UHI Archaeology Institute is delighted to welcome Colleen Batey from the University of Glasgow, who will be presenting on “Viking Boat Burial: From Norway to Orkney and Beyond” on the 29th November.
This talk ends the autumn season, but the seminar series will carry on also in the spring, with talks from Orkney County Archaeologist Julie Gibson and specialist on Neolithic art Antonia Thomas scheduled for January and February, and more to follow throughout the spring.
A team from ORCA Archaeology discovered sections of wall that were part of the St Magnus Cathedral Close last week while undertaking a watching brief for an Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project in the heart of historic Kirkwall.
A series of walls, pottery and animal bones were unearthed only inches under the surface of the road near the entrance to Victoria Street. Archaeologists know from previous work that remains of structures dating back to the Iron Age exist in this area, but this is the first time that structures directly relating to the cathedral precinct have been identified in this particular area.
Comparing the walls to the 1882 map, the structure appears to be part of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Deans Manse, which were demolished in the 1930’s to make way for a car park and to allow vehicle access to Victoria Street. In common with many Cathedral precincts in the British Isles these imposing buildings would have been part of a large complex used to welcome pilgrims and house ecclesiastic staff associated with the Cathedral.
The gable wall of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Dean’s Manse was recorded standing to more than 0.9m in height directly beneath the present road surface. It was aligned East-West, running from near the top of Tankerness Lane towards the entrance to the Daily Scoop Cafe, directly underneath the new kerb line. The gable wall which was 1.35 metres thick was built with very large flagstone slabs bonded with clay.
Interestingly, although the walls appeared to be the actual house walls rather than foundations there was no sign of the gable door visible in the old pictures. The western end of the wall appears to have been demolished earlier and the door may have been lost there. There is a possibility therefore that the building demolished in the 1930s was built on top of these earlier walls of the Chaplain’s Chamber / Sub-dean’s Manse.
What was the Cathedral Precinct, why was it there and who lived in it? All the buildings from the site of the Kirkwall Community Centre South into the top of Victoria Street and East up to the Bishop’s palace formed the Cathedral Precinct. Although there would have been earlier buildings to house Cathedral staff most of the buildings, including the Chaplain’s chamber and Sub-dean’s Manse were built under bishop Robert Reid as part of a grand piece of town planning in the 1540s shortly after he became bishop of Orkney. At this time Orkney and the rest of Scotland were still predominantly Roman Catholic and the cathedral was a Catholic cathedral. Reid had previously studied law in Paris, worked as an ambassador and was the president of the Scottish College of Justice amongst other things.
On his arrival in Orkney he found the Bishop’s Palace partly ruined and the diocese in some disorder. To rectify this he appointed seven new top staff members – known as dignitaries in the church – to take responsibility for aspects of its running along with thirteen chaplains. It was within the cathedral precinct that these and other staff members lived and worked. The Sub-dean, who lived in the manse that the ORCA Archaeology team uncovered, for example had the responsibility of the Cathedral provost when he was unavailable. This involved the management of the canons, prebends and chaplains as well as having responsibility for the vicarage of South Ronaldsay and the maintenance of the Burwick Kirk. The Sub- dean also worked as butler to the Bishop and had the parsonage of Hoy and the vicarage of Walls.
Along with the construction of the Cathedral precinct bishop Robert Reid also built the Moosie Tower and rebuilt St Olaf’s Kirk of which the archway in Olaf’s Wynd is a part. Several of the buidings of the precinct are still existing today: the old grammar school, part of a “large court of houses to be a colledge for instructing of the youth of this country in grammar and phylosophy”, is on the north east side of the Daily Scoop cafe. The Sub-chantry, Arch-deanery and residence of the chancellor are standing as parts of The Orkney Museum.
The old name for Tankerness Lane was School Wynd where you would have seen and heard the scholars of the Cathedral’s Kirkwall Grammar School running down to the shore of the Peedie Sea to play after school.
Chris Gee, Project Manager at ORCA Archaeology said, “Kirkwall was quite different then from the town we know today. In the area of Bridge Street and Albert Street lay the old Royal Burgh and secular trading centre. As we have seen previously the castle stood around the southern limit of the Burgh at this time backing out onto the Peedie Sea and the main harbour of Kirkwall. It was much larger and deeper then with the plots on the west of the street backing onto its shore. There were slips and piers for unloading and loading goods from lands around the North Sea. The reformation was to come though within a couple of decades and see an end to this sacred centre with many of the manses being acquired by wealthy merchants. Some of the rivalry between these two centres may still be seen played out between the Uppies and Doonies on Christmas and New Year’s day. “
Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, lecturer specialising in medieval ecclesiastic research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute added,” We know from written sources that buildings extended from the Cathedral in the direction of present day Victoria Street. To see the physical evidence of cathedral precinct structures so close to the surface of Broad Street is very exciting and reminds us of the importance of Kirkwall being at the centre of the Cult of St Magnus in the medieval period. We can imagine pilgrims journeying from all over the medieval North Atlantic area to venerate the remains of St Magnus here at St Magnus Cathedral.” The archaeology has now been recorded and the site carefully covered over to preserve for future generations. The Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project continued without delay.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce the publication of an important research paper in the Nature Ecology and Evolution journal.
The paper by Dr Jen Harland, Lecturer in Archaeology UHI Archaeology Institute, examines the wider implications of the work published by Nakajima (2019) comparing the size of ancient and modern carp. The paper concludes that the initial stages of aquaculture began around 6000BC, perhaps three thousand years earlier than was previously thought.
Utilising the three stage model of fish domestication proposed by Nakajima (2019),Dr Harland reiterates that the process of domesticating common carp commenced with the use of wild species in managed ponds and ditches within two areas in the world – an eastern population in China, Laos and Vietnam and a Western population in the Black Sea, Aral Sea and Caspian Sea areas.
Full domestication commenced in Asia when carp fish farming was combined with a rice paddy cultivation producing a symbiotic relationship in which the fish naturally ate weed plant species and insect pests while providing natural fertilizer. Examining archaeological specimens from the Chinese Neolithic site of Jiahu, and comparing these measurements to modern carp raised in a traditional Japanese rice and fish co-culture, Nakajima and co-authors were able to establish that carp were being managed at Jiahu by 6000BC – much earlier than previously thought.
Dr Harland goes on to emphasise the point that the final stage of domestication can be recognised only when breeding, diet and habitat are all controlled by people. Previous studies have shown that the start of aquaculture in Europe was signalled by the management of carp in controlled ponds during the Roman period in the Danube region. Carp then became truly domesticated in Europe in the 12-14th centuries AD. Various authors have questioned whether the domestication of carp took place in Asia or in Europe, and whether or not the domesticated animal was then moved from one region to another. Given the evidence for the early origin of fish farming reported in Nakajima’s study, Dr Harland states that is is likely that common carp was domesticated independently twice, once in Asia and separately in Europe.
Dr Harland said… “It was a real honour to be invited to write this news and views piece discussing the wider context of Nakajima’s study on the origins of carp aquaculture. As archaeologists we discuss the advent and spread of farming and domestication in the context of cattle, sheep and pigs, but the domestication of fish is often overlooked. Farmed fish are of huge importance to our diets today, but these intensive methods are very controversial. By using archaeological methods to examine the origins of aquaculture, it’s now apparent that these carp were raised in a sustainable and balanced system alongside rice cultivation for a very long time indeed.”
Dr Harland goes on to state that modern aquaculture will soon produce half of the world’s fish supply, but intensive methods are resulting in environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and non-native species invasions. This paper emphasises that adopting a long established fish-rice co-culture system would continue a long tradition of sustainable farming which largely avoids the pitfalls of modern intensive mono culture fish farming – showing that we have much to learn from traditional methods of agriculture and aquaculture.
Located in Orkney, the Ness of Brodgar is one of the largest and most important Neolithic excavations in Europe.
As the eight week dig season comes to an end, the international team working at the site uncovered an incredible underground structure that sheds more light on the sophistication of the first farmers who built the stone structures 5000 years ago.
With over five thousand finds recorded this year, and over 100 archaeologists from all over the world participating in this years excavation, ranging from students from the University of the Highlands and Islands to others from the American Williamette University, one could definitely argue that the Ness has been a very busy site this season.
Archaeologists working at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research dig adjacent to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site in Orkney found a massive drain running underneath several of the stone buildings at the site.
The team of archaeologists including ex-students of the UHI Archaeology Institute and volunteers from across the globe uncovered this Neolithic structural gem two weeks ago while working at the rear of Structure 8, and under midden and rubbish deposited in this area.
The team initially found what appeared to be a void, but when the archaeologists removed one particularly large stone, a stone lined drain was unearthed. The drain can be traced directly for over 1.8m, but potentially extends for at least 30m across the site perhaps heading for the Loch of Stenness. It is 50cm wide and at least 70cm deep and there is nothing quite like it on site. Other drains found around the structures are significantly smaller which may highlight its importance as a main drain for the site.
The Ness of Brodgar Site Director Nick Card said, “This is an important discovery as it reinforces the complexity of the architecture in the Neolithic at this 5000 year old site and indicates the high degree of planning required in their construction. The only other drain of similar size known in Orkney is the one found at the World Heritage Site at Skara Brae – located just five miles north of the site here at the Ness of Brodgar.”
Nick continues, “This discovery is thought-provoking as it further adds to the grandiose and complex nature of the architecture of the buildings as they are interlinked with one another. Furthermore, it displays the level of planning involved in the construction of this site. This is without even taking into consideration the work required to build and maintain such a drain!”
Nick believes that the drain was built during the primary phase of construction of the later piered structures and taking this into account, it places the construction of the drain at a very early period of the site itself, and means that it played a very important role in the more complex phases at the Ness of Brodgar which followed.
This year also saw the continuation of work in Trench T; a trench at the very tip of the Brodgar peninsula that has uncovered one of the most complex buildings on site: Structure 27. This structure is extremely large compared to many other buildings on site, highlighting its importance and significance, and is unlike any other building at the complex or indeed elsewhere. The inner wall faces were built using large orthostats, both upright and on edge instead of the usual dry-stone construction. Even the outer wall faces were exquisitely built, with fine masonry and stepped foundations. The building was abandoned as the remaining structures continued in use and covered with domestic rubbish to form a huge midden mound which could have been seen from a considerable distance – perhaps a reflection of prehistoric conspicuous consumption, and the status and affluence of the Ness!
2019 also found the archaeologists on site unearthing a great selection of incised and beautifully decorated stones that have come to be such a feature of the Ness of Brodgar. One found by Structure 12 was particularly fine with delicately made incised motifs including chevrons and opposed fan motifs.
Another breath-taking find this year was a beautiful yet unfinished macehead found in Trench X by first time University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student Aqsa. This macehead is made of olivine basalt, a rock type which is believed to originate on Hoy. To add to the excitement excavators found a further axehead on the same day and seems to have been discarded before it was completed.
In true archaeology style, as the site was beginning to wind down, a truly amazing find was uncovered: a human bone. The bone is an ulna, which is part of the lower arm, and is most likely from a young adult.
The bone itself was found in a foundation deposit relating to the remodelling of Structure 10, which is the last major and grandiose construction built around 2900 B.C. This structure required reconstructing within a generation or two of its construction, which is the point at which the builders added a new internal south wall and corner buttresses. Intriguingly this seems to be the point when they deposited the arm bone into the structure’s foundations. It is contemporary with another human arm bone found close by in 2016, along with the leg bones of several very large cattle.
Site Director Nick Card said, “These bone deposits all seem to be part of a votive foundation deposit associated with the rebuild of Structure 10. Other unusual finds from related foundation deposits such as a carved stone ball, one of the largest and most complex decorated stone blocks from the Ness, and unusual pottery forms, all point towards the importance of this remodelling of the largest building at the Ness.”
Further in-depth analysis of the human bone including DNA may hopefully determine if the two arm bones are from the same individual or if not, were they related?
Work on site will continue next year in order to shed light on this site and the amazing discoveries that keep on coming.
The Ness of Brodgar continues to be a major tourist attraction on the island with over 18,000 visitors to the site in the eight week dig season, 200,000 hits on the website and over 1,000 people attending each Open Day. This project is being part-financed by the Scottish government and the European Community Orkney Leader 2014 – 2020 Programme.
The community archaeology excavation at the Burn of Swartigill is now nearing completion for this season.
The dig itself is organised by the Yarrows Heritage Trust in collaboration with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and ORCA Archaeology. Rick Barton, Project Officer with ORCA Archaeology, talks us through the finds of the week…..
We have begun our third and final week of excavation for this season at the Burn of Swartigill in Thrumster, Caithness, and it’s time for an update from week two.
The theme has been one of rubble removal and soil sampling! Much of the later rubble within our round house, Structure B (or squashed rectangle house, to be more accurate) has been removed to reveal more of the courses masonry on the north and south arcs of the building. It is rewarding to see the shape and form of this building emerge after being obscured by rubble for so long. Work along the entrance way into Structure B on the east side has revealed a threshold stone!
In the centre of the structure, we are starting to see more ashy deposits associated with tantalising hints of edge set stone underneath the later hearth feature. This could be an earlier, more formal hearth, perhaps associated with the original occupation of the building.
We have also been sampling deposits on the west side of Structure B, which we know to be rich in charred plant remains, charcoal and magnetic residues from preliminary analysis of samples from 2017. With a more extensive area of this deposit exposed, we intend to do a more detailed soil chemical analysis with the samples from this season. This could give us some insight into what sort of activities were undertaken on this surface in the Iron Age.
Artefacts were thin on the ground in the first week of the dig, as we focussed on removing alluvial soils and rubble deposits. This past week, the artefacts have started to appear, with a spread of pottery near the hearth in Structure B and a brace of quern stones to add to those recovered from previous years. We have also recovered two hone stones or whetstones. Unlike the previous example of this artefact discovered on the site back in 2017, which looked distinctly Viking in shape, the two found from this season appear distinctly prehistoric in form.
We have been helped out by school children from Lybster, Dunbeath, Thrumster and Watten primary schools, who have been doing sterling work on site to help uncover Structure C on the south side of the dig. This is an area we have only partially exposed in previous seasons, so we are delighted to have to have had the children lend a hand in exploring this building.
We bade farewell to the majority of our stalwart student volunteers on Thursday, they have worked extremely hard and, we hope, have learned a lot about archaeological excavation and the North of Scotland Iron Age. Thanks to Leia Tilley from the University of Durham, Kenny McElroy from the University of Glasgow, Iona Cargill from Oxford University, Sierra Renna from Willamette College in the USA and Calum Hall and Mary Renshaw from the University of the Highlands and Islands. We hope to see you all again next year!
Thanks also to all the volunteers and visitors who have contributed their time and efforts to the dig so far. If you haven’t seen the site yet or still want to come and take part, there is still plenty of time!
We will be working on site every day until Sunday the 8th of September, though Saturday the 7th will be out last full day of digging as we need to spend some time on Sunday putting the covers back over the site and making sure its secure for the winter.
Come along to see our progress any time this week, and even join in the excavation! No previous experience is required.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce the publication of an important research paper on the impact of medieval saints on the Orkney landscape.
The paper, written by UHI Archaeology lecturers Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon and Dr James Moore, is entitled ‘Storyways: Visualising Saintly Impact in a North Atlantic Maritime Landscape’ and examines the impact of the cult of St Magnus and its veneration throughout the Orcadian landscape and how this can be seen by investigating multiple forms of evidence.
The research presents a new methodological and theoretical approach with which to explore the way veneration and remembrance can be seen within the landscape. There are three churches that carry the St Magnus name, one of them being St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, and there are many altars and dedications to the saint in Scandinavia and Britain, and yet we know very little about his veneration.
A multi-source approach examined not only the structural evidence, but also a range of sources such as place names, folklore, history, archaeology and hagiographic evidence. Utilising a GIS (Geographical Information System) Sarah Jane and James were able to explore the ways in which different types, and sources of evidence reflected the spatial distribution of the cult of St Magnus in Orkney, in turn enabling them to investigate how memories and stories link with the landscape features of both past and present.
Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon brought experience gained during the ‘Mapping Magnus’ project completed last year, which included a multitude of events and activities led by the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute revolving around the story of St Magnus, recounting his funerary and shrine journeys from where he was killed on Egilsay, to his final resting place in the cathedral in Kirkwall.
Sarah Jane and James mapped ‘remembered’ route ways, or story ways, since much of the evidence comes from stories and traditions, which display the impact Magnus had as a saint on the communities living in Orkney and his continuing influence within the wider landscape well beyond the churches dedicated in his name.
This paper establishes a new way to research the impact and scope of belief in a community and shows the embeddedness and layering of multiple-beliefs in the landscape. The paper is now freely available online for everyone in Open Archaeology through De Gruyter in a topical issue on Unlocking Sacred Landscapes: Digital Humanities and Ritual Space.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, in partnership with the Yarrows Heritage Trust and ORCA Archaeology, have completed their first week of excavation at the community dig, near the Burn of Swartigill.
Rick Barton, Project Officer with ORCA Archaeology, talks us through the first week at this intriguing dig in Caithness, Scotland
We are at the end of the first week of excavation at the Burn of Swartigill. The covers and tyres came off to reveal that the site had survived well over the winter. The team wasted no time, extending the trench to the east and west to further explore the extent of the structural features present.
So far, we have made
some interesting discoveries about the nature of the site. Structure A, the
passage around the north side of the site, widens out on the east side, while
to the west, it terminates in a small rubble filled cell.
In the centre of the trench, we are further defining the shape and form of Structure B, which appears to be a squashed rectangle in shape. The hearth in the centre of the structure, initially encountered during last year’s excavation, appears to be a later feature. The hearth setting overlays rubble, which appears to be the post abandonment infill of the building.
The ashy deposits from the hearth mingle with peaty layers within the structure, suggesting that after the building was abandoned, it was open to the elements and people still used the shell of the building as a shelter – perhaps as a seasonal shieling, a temporary shelter used while pasturing animals. The remains of the structure continued to gradually collapse around them. This may also account for the presence of a distinctly Viking or Medieval looking whetstone, recovered in a previous year’s excavation on the site form rubble overlying this structure.
The site was then
inundated with alluvial soils, deposited by the adjacent watercourse over
several centuries, covering the structures. On the east side of the site, this
overlays a paved surface, which may represent a yard outside Structure B.
Elsewhere in the
trench we are preparing to sample more of a deposit that appears very rich in
charred organic material. Hopefully the analysis of this deposits will give us
some valuable information about the sort of activities undertaken on the site
during the Iron Age, and the lives of the people who lived there.
The Archaeologists will be on site until Thursday the 29th of August and then back on site from Tuesday the 3rd of September until Sunday the 8th.Come along to the see the site, and even have a go at excavation – no experience is required.
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MSc student Will Lowe is undertaking his work placement with us in the Marketing Department here at Orkney College.
As part of his project Will is looking at post excavation processes and the ways in which information is shared across both the academic and wider community.
Over to Will……
Hi everyone! My name is William Lowe and I’m a MSc student at the University of the Highlands and Islands and in this blog post I will be writing about the 2019 Ness of Brodgar dig and some of its discoveries. Now for those who don’t know what the Ness of Brodgar is, it is an extensive Neolithic site in the centre of an area known as the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney”, a world heritage site situated on the mainland of the Orcadian archipelago.
The aim of this blog is to show off some of the finds made this year and how by carefully examining them we can piece together the overall history of this site and the people connected to it. In order to do that I have selected 3 finds in particular.
For the first objects I will disregard the rule that I just set and discuss two objects in particular, these are a piece of bone and a piece of pot that were discovered in the new area, known as Trench T…the “mystery trench”. These may seem like mundane finds compared to some others, but sometimes it is these mundane objects that tell the best stories. They were found in Structure 27, a new structure that has no parallels on the site, let alone Scotland!
These objects were part of the “trash” from the rest of the site that was thrown in the structure after it was abandoned, but not put out of use it seems. The mound was far larger than what the diggers first envisaged, so much so that it must have been clearly visible from far away, and Cristina, the trench supervisor, believes this was done on purpose in order to show off to whomever was in the vicinity!
The second object is a macehead that was found on Friday. It is a stunning find that was never finished, which is unfortunately a mystery we don’t know the answer to. What we do know is that it’s made out of olivine basalt, which may be from another Orkney island to the south-west called Hoy. This is important because it shows that the inhabitants were being extremely selective about their rocks. Similarly other objects from previous seasons known as a “pitchstone” – a volcanic glass from the island of Arran several hundred miles to the SW of Orkney and similar to obsidian was knapped using a technique similar to that found in south Scotland, showing the links the site had and how far they spanned.
The last object is a decorated stone. A myriad of decorations have been found in the past years by Nick and his team, and although similar decorations have been found in Maeshowe, they are still a mystery. Maybe as we find more and through a little research, we will be able to discover more about their hidden histories!
If you are inspired to take the plunge and apply for an undergraduate or postgraduate course with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line on email@example.com or give us a ring on 01856 569229 and ask for Sean. If I’m not there then leave a message on my voicemail and I’ll get back to you.
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, in partnership with the Yarrows Heritage Trust, are preparing for a fourth season of excavation at the Burn of Swartigill in Thrumster, Caithness, Scotland.
Previous seasons of excavation at the site have uncovered a complex of Iron Age structures, which are providing an important window into Iron Age society away from the monumental architecture of the Brochs.
This season the team led by Rick Barton from ORCA Archaeology hope to continue to reveal the extent of some of these structures so that they can better understand just how complex the site is. We will also be aiming to recover more information about what life was like for the Iron Age people who lived there two thousand years ago. Analysis of the precious remnants of people’s day to day lives will not only help us to understand the environment and economy of the site at the Burn of Swartigill, but also potentially that of Iron Age Scotland in a much broader context.
The 2019 excavations commence on 19th of August and will continue until 8th of September. The site is located near Thrumster House, a few miles south of Wick. To get to the site, you need to take the Haster and Tannach road from Thrumster and look out for our signs just before the bridge crossing at the Burn of Swartigill. There is limited parking at the roadside, and the dig is a short hike across boggy moorland.
Tours are available and the archaeologists will be on site every day of the week between Monday 19th and Thursday 29th of August. The excavation will then continue from Tuesday 3rd of September until Sunday 8th of September 2019.
Volunteers are welcome and you don’t need any archaeological experience to take part. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or arrive on the day!
A large Norse hall has been discovered during excavations at Skaill Farmstead, on the island of Rousay, Orkney. The hall probably dates to the 10th to 12th centuries AD and was discovered below a more recent farmstead.
A team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, Rousay residents and students have been digging at the site for a number of years, investigating the later stages of the farm complex and its middens (waste heaps), with a particular focus on past diet, farming and fishing practices.
Project co-director Dr Ingrid Mainland said “We have recovered a millenia of middens which will allow us an unparalleled opportunity to look at changing dietary traditions, farming and fishing practices from the Norse period up until the 19th century.”
The exciting find this summer, was that walls extending from below the extensive settlement mound have been confirmed as a large Norse building, which is likely to be the hall. Substantial 1m wide stone walls were found 5.5m apart with internal features such as stone benches along either side. The building appears to be in excess of 13m long. The hall is oriented down the slope towards the sea. Finds have included steatite (soap stone from Shetland), pottery and a bone spindle whorl. A fragment of a Norse bone comb was also found.
Although only partly uncovered at this stage, the Skaill hall has parallels with other Norse halls excavated in Orkney, such as Snusgar, and elsewhere in Scotland. The find provides tantalising evidence for the earliest phases of habitation on this farm and settlement mound which may well have been inhabited for over 1000 years. It provides another piece to the 5000 year jigsaw along this archaeology rich stretch of coast at Westness on Rousay – the ‘Egypt of the north’.
The excavation is part of the Landscapes of Change – Archaeologies of the Rousay Clearances and Westness Estate project. The aim of the project is to explore the farmstead at Skaill from the Norse period to its abandonment in the nineteenth century. The present farm at Skaill dates to the 18-19th centuries and was part of the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site.
Westness is mentioned in Orkneyinga saga as the home of Sigurd, a powerful chieftain, so it was always likely that a Norse settlement was located somewhere at Skaill. Earlier structures have been found below the present farm during previous seasons, and this season explored more of the Norse phases of the site.
Project co-director Dan Lee said “The exciting news this season is that we have now found the hall at Skaill, as the place name suggests. You never know, but perhaps Earl Sigurd himself sat on one of the stone benches inside the hall and drank a flagon of ale!”
The project is led by Dr Ingrid Mainland, Dan Lee ,Dr Jen Harland and Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon from the UHI Archaeology Institute, based at Orkney College. Funding is from the Orkney Islands Council Archaeology Fund and the Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Development Trust. Many thanks to landowners Russell and Kathryn Marwick.