Touching the past

by Dr Val Turner (Regional Archaeologist, Shetland)

Photo: Kim Rendall Zoom Photo: Kim Rendall Shetland today is intimately shaped by the past: most obviously by the Vikings, but they only arrived here 1,000 years ago. Shetland’s story starts 6,000 years before the islands became known to Scandinavians.

The first settlers came north along the Scottish coast, chasing islands where they could see from one to the next. The earliest evidence comes from the South Mainland, where people would have first arrived. The earliest surviving human bones came from a cist burial containing the remains of 18 people, both adults and children, and was found where the control tower for Sumburgh Airport now stands. 

The first evidence for human activity comes from a shell midden, a wall and a series of pits and ditches at West Voe, nearby. The rubbish in the midden included cockle and oyster shells, seal bones and the tooth of a cow. The earliest date for the site was 4320-4030 BC and the people may have been hunter gatherers rather than farmers.

As people became established, they farmed the land and, somewhat surprisingly, the earliest houses we currently know about were found in recent years, when the Gas Plant was built near Brae, in the hill at Crooksetter and at Firths Voe. The earliest dates come from a stone house built around 3500-3430 BC. Over time the remains of their houses, fields and burial cairns spread through the hills of the west side. The excavated remains at the Scord of Brouster and the oversized house, the ‘temple’ at Stanydale, are excellent examples, but walkers anywhere in the area are likely to trip over the remains of stone dykes which were first built 3,000-5,000 years ago. There are good, easily accessible chambered (burial) cairns at Punds Water and Islesburgh. Photo: Agnieska Gardner Zoom Photo: Agnieska Gardner

Around 3,000 years ago, people began to use heated stones either to boil water or to create steam (depending on whether water was poured over the stones, or stones were placed into water). The mystery as to whether these were cooking places, used for textiles, or even as saunas, is still a mystery, but there are over 300 of them scattered through the islands. Meanwhile, food was stored in underground chambers – souterrains – in order to help preserve it over the winter.

There are no true stone circles in the islands, but there are plenty of enclosures outlined with low stones, which might be cremation cemeteries. At one of these, Hjaltadans in Fetlar, the legend is that a fiddler and his wife (the two central stones) and the trow (Shetland troll) dancers, were all turned to stone when caught unawares by the rising sun!

About 2,000 years ago, people began to live in groups and apparently felt the need to defend themselves. They created massive thick-walled towers which, as Mousa Broch demonstrates, sometimes stood as much as 13m high. The walls were around 5m thick at ground level, but higher up were built as two skins, linked by stones which formed galleries. The top was accessible via a staircase situated between the two walls. The brochs were usually surrounded by banks and ditches – the ditch at Old Scatness was at least 4 metres deep and 23 metres wide, with stone lining it to support the sides.

Photo: Steve Birrell. Zoom Photo: Steve Birrell. Archaeologists have long recognised that groups of brochs may have operated together: Mousa faces the Broch of Burland on the mainland and together they command a view of the Sound between them. Now it is beginning to look as if all the brochs may have been part of a continuous chain, the brochs being cunningly placed in the landscape in order to take advantage of unexpected gaps between hills. Many are coastal and so gaps in the network might be explained by coastal erosion (unlike the rest of Britain, Shetland has been sinking ever since the end of the last Ice Age). Some are located in good agricultural land, others are in barren locations.

The Old Scatness excavations demonstrated that brochs were built in Shetland between 400-200 BC; earlier than previously thought. This suggests that broch building started here, in the north, and moved southwards rather than vice versa. Villages of huge single-walled round houses grew up around brochs in more fertile locations (e.g. Old Scatness and Jarlshof). Although lower, the diameters were sometimes greater than those of the brochs and show incredible skill in drystone building.

The last years of the Iron Age were known as the Pictish period. Buildings became smaller, and less reliant on wood, without the internal timber platforms which had existed inside the brochs. Known as ‘wheelhouses’, the buildings had a central hearth surrounded by a series of ‘rooms’, each of which was covered by a stone, beehive-shaped roof. The Picts also used small buildings made from a series of cells, whether a string of rooms or arranged in a clover-shape around a hearth. Christianity came into the islands at this time as did an accomplished style of craftworking. The Scatness Bear and the Papil Monks’ Stone are highly sophisticated stone carvings and the St Ninian’s Isle treasure includes 28 intricately worked silver objects: bowls, brooches and horse equipment amongst them.

Photo: Andrew Simpson Zoom Photo: Andrew Simpson When the Vikings arrived in Shetland, they recognised aspects of home, particularly the soft soapstone which they used to make bowls, lamps and other objects. There are several quarries throughout Shetland, the biggest at Cunningsburgh in the South Mainland. How violent their arrival was is a matter of debate. However, Unst, Britain’s most northerly island and the gateway to the Viking world, has a greater density of rural longhouses than anywhere else in the world. Excavation has shown that they vary considerably in form. The Vikings have left their mark on Shetland life today: the laws, the dialect, place names and the way of life all reflect the Scandinavian impact on the islands.

You are free to roam and explore the archaeology of the islands, an adventure which may take you into the remoter hills or along beautiful beaches, but please remember that it is an offence to disturb sites in any way.


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