Archaeology Alive: Discover the Ancient Secrets of Shetland

by Val Turner and Chris Dyer

The archaeology of Shetland stretches back for approximately 6000 years. Throughout the islands there are clues in the landscape to the challenges and resources that shaped the lives of past inhabitants. From a national perspective, it is arguably the most exciting place in Britain for discovering and interpreting the past. Prehistoric field systems, Bronze Age burnt mounds, Iron Age brochs, Pictish wheelhouses, Viking and Norse longhouses and post-medieval fortifications all serve to offer a rich tapestry of well-preserved and visible human settlement.

The earliest date for archaeological remains in Shetland is approximately 4000BC and is a radiocarbon date from a midden exposed at West Voe, Sumburgh, where the sea is gradually eroding the coastline. At this time, the early Neolithic (New Stone Age, when people first began farming) Shetland was lightly wooded and the climate was rather warmer than it is today.  This made agriculture easier. So far, this is the earliest known settlement site.  The first houses may well have been flimsy structures which were little more than animal skin tents supported by frames of wood or even whalebones, and there is evidence for wooden buildings from the excavations at the Scord of Brouster.  This type of building would be more difficult to find than evidence of the more familiar, stone built, houses.

Shetland’s first farmers used stone tools and, in time, began to use stone for the walls of their homes.  It was a readily available and less finite building material with which to construct settlements and field systems. The low intensity of land use over the proceeding millennia means that even today the visitor can discover spectacular examples of these farms throughout Shetland.

The earliest evidence for Neolithic death and burial in Shetland comprises stone cists, boxes forms from slabs on end, as well as the more prevalent heel-shaped chambered cairns which were located in prominent locations such as hilltops or knolls which had a good view. The ancestors would have been able to keep watch on the happenings in the houses and villages below.  Shetland’s best example of a chambered cairn is to be found on the island of Vementry.  There are other good examples at Punds Water and Islesburgh.  Scotland’s highest chambered cairn is on the summit of Ronas Hill, although it has been built onto more recently.

The period between 1800 and 600 BC is traditionally known as the Bronze Age in Shetland, although there is little evidence for any bronze working in the islands until towards the end of this era. Indeed, arguably the most dramatic change to take place during this time was a deterioration of the climate.  As the ground became exhausted by agriculture, so the peat and blanket bog spread.  At the same time the sea level rose: the population was effectively being pressurised from above and below.

Shetland’s Bronze Age is represented by over 300 burnt mounds. These monuments survive as crescent-shaped mounds of fist-sized, burnt, shattered stone, with a pit, often lined with flat stone stabs, situated between the two ‘horns’ of the crescent. The stones are shattered because they have been subjected to dramatic temperature changes, the result of being heated in a fire and immediately placed in contact with cold water.

Burnt mounds may have been cooking sites although, as experiments have shown, this is not very efficient.  Alternative explanations include tanning or dyeing, or possibly fulling or felting. They are often found at a distance from the houses; perhaps the process employed was rather smelly. The largest burnt mound in Shetland is found in Fair Isle. At Cruester in Bressay a burnt mound, situated on the edge of the banks, was excavated and then moved, stone by stone, to be rebuilt at the Bressay Heritage Centre.

The Iron Age was a turning point in Shetland’s history.  People began to build fortifications. Archaeologists are not sure why this happened; perhaps there were more people living in Shetland than the land could comfortably support, increasing the need for defence, or perhaps access to iron, and therefore weapons, made life more dangerous. The majority of excavated sites from this period are either forts, or more are massive brochs, circular towers with inner and outer stone walls totalling 5m in width at ground floor level.

Most brochs were situated on the coast and have good views of both the sea and of other brochs.  Signals could have been sent between them to warn of approaching strangers and they would certainly have presented an imposing sight from the sea.  Archaeologists debate the extent to which these are the houses of prestigious chiefs, centres of warfare or something in between. Scotland’s most well known, and most complete, broch, is on the island of Mousa, and survives to a height of 13m.

The most significant example of a broch and adjacent village has been revealed at Old Scatness. Here excavations, undertaken since 1995 by the University of Bradford and Shetland Amenity Trust as part of a major heritage project, have revealed a whole Iron Age Village, centred on the broch. The earliest building on the site appears to be a broch. This was followed by the construction of massive Iron Age round houses, smaller Pictish wheelhouses, and Pictish cellular buildings, some of which were reused when the Vikings arrived.  Today, Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age village is a prime visitor attraction, where Shetland’s Iron Age is interpreted through guided tours, reconstruction buildings and living history demonstrators.

By the sixth century AD, Shetland had become integrated into the mainstream of Pictish politics and life. Artefacts such as painted pebbles and carved symbol stones demonstrate a strong Pictish presence in the islands. Good examples include the ogham script of the Lunnasting Stone, and Christian cross-slabs which include fine examples such as the cross slab and the Monk’s Stone, both from Papil.  An amazing collection of twenty-eight silver objects, the St Ninian’s Isle Treasure was discovered beneath the floor of a chapel, in a larch wood box, together with the jaw bone of a porpoise. The collection included a spectacular array of drinking bowls, a hanging bowl, sword fittings and penannular brooches.  Churches were generally viewed as places of safety during times of trouble but presumably the people who buried it came to grief, as they never retrieved their treasure.

From the late 8th century, Shetland was subject to the turbulent impact of the expanding Viking world. Shetland was ideally placed to become a stepping-stone for North Atlantic voyages, raiding and settlement from Norway. The legacy of the Vikings, not only in the archaeological record, but also the cultural and linguistic influences, is evident in the islands today. The Viking Parliament for the islands was located at Law Ting Holm, Tingwall, whilst the evidence for a Viking village can be seen at the spectacular multi-period site at Jarlshof.
Unst is the most northerly island in Britain, right in the heart of the Viking seaways. It was one of the first landfalls of the Vikings coming to Britain and it is rich in Viking and Norse remains. Over 30 rural longhouse sites have been identified so far. That means that Unst has a greater density of rural longhouse sites than anywhere else, including Scandinavia.
Shetland Amenity Trust’s “Viking Unst” project is opening up a number of these sites for public information and enjoyment. The first phase involved the excavation of three Viking Longhouses:  Belmont, Hamar and Underhoull.  In addition to year-round access to the excavated sites, a replica longhouse and longship, the Skidbladner, based on the Gokstad ship can be found at Brookpoint, Haroldswick, which legend has as the first footfall of the Vikings in Shetland.  

In more recent times, the Shetland was ruled by lairds, large landowners whose houses included castles at Scalloway and at Muness, Unst.  Fort Charlotte was erected in Lerwick in the mid-seventeenth century during the Second Dutch War. Visitors to Shetland may also explore an array of twentieth century military remains as well as the rural crofting landscapes.

Some of Shetland’s archaeology is well sign posted and interpreted by information boards in the landscape.  However, there is so much archaeology to be discovered that the more adventurous Islands explorer will find they literally stumble across it as they walk across the hills.

For more information concerning forthcoming events and fieldwork, contact Shetland Archaeologist Val Turner at Shetland Amenity Trust (email: val@shetlandamenity.org).

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