31 May 2000
Iron Age settlements found on Shetland
A 4,000-year-old village uncovered in a remote corner of northeastern Britain reveals a community of farmers wealthy enough to forego gloomy, smoky huts for two-story homes built by stonemasons. The evidence for this is buried under a mound 5 meters high and 80 meters in diameter, in Old Scatness, on southern tip of the Sumburgh Peninsula in the Shetland Islands. There, British archaeologists have unearthed a prosperous Iron Age settlement which flourished sometime between 2000 BCE and 1400 BCE The remains discovered so far suggest that the prehistoric settlement could be one of the best preserved in Europe.
Uncovered by workmen who discovered a maze of drystone walls when digging an access road to Sumburgh airport in 1975, the site lay undisturbed until the Shetland Amenity Trust bought the site and earlier this year brought in a team of archaeologists from Bradford University led by Stephen Dockrill. "It's a chance in a lifetime because we won't see a site quite as big as this being excavated again," said Stephen Dockrill. "This site is a unique landscape and perhaps one of the most important archaeological resources we have in Britain. But because of its remoteness it doesn't have the publicity that Stonehenge gets - even though it is just as important."
The Bradford team will begin digging at Old Scatness on the southern tip of the main Shetland island, believed to be the longest continually occupied settlement in Scotland, dating from 2,500 BCE right up to the 20th century. Preliminary work may also start at the nearby village of Toab, where a mound covering a broch, or great stone watchtower, has recently been identified. The work at Old Scatness and Toab will complement the spectacular remains of Jarlshof, a prehistorical site that was uncovered by a violent storm almost 100 years ago.
A fourth site, thought to be just as complex as Jarlshof, lies close by along the eroding shoreline at Eastshore. Between them the four sites form one of the biggest Iron Age communities to have been identified in Europe. Little is known about the people who lived in these villages, though the settlements are each characterised by a broch, which provided the centre of daily life, and wheelhouses.
It is thought that all the sites, which are located across two thin peninsulas near Sumburgh airport, were home to wealthy families, first Pictish in origin and later, from around AD 900, Viking and Norse. "They were probably some form of elite who were rich enough to employ retainers and possibly even use slave labour," said Mr Dockrill. "To build a big broch you would require a fair degree of wealth and an economic centre for metalwork. The quality of architecture in the brochs is so outstanding that they may have been able to buy in a specialist stone mason."
The broch at Old Scatness is one of the most impressive on the island, almost 18 metres in diameter. The earliest house is thought to be around 2,000 years old and was abandoned by its original occupants and used as a rubbish dump. Wall cavities, thought to be cupboards, have also been found while iron hearths and whalebone door frames have been identified. Some pottery is thought to date to the early Bronze Age. "We think the site goes back much further," said Mr Dockrill. "We have evidence of reddish soil on top of the sand which is criss-crossed with early plough lines, so we know it was cultivated." Jimmy Moncrieff, general manager at Shetland Amenity Trust, said: "The really unique thing about the site is that it has not been disturbed, which has allowed a wealth of material, including pottery, iron and even seats to survive. Once the next phase of work gets under way next month, visitors will be invited to watch the excavation.
Sources: The Independent (14 May 2000), The Sunday Times (16 May 2000), Discovery.com (17 May 2000)