Digging Old Scatness

This volunteer in Scotland describes the dig of her lifetime.

IN 2001, I WAS AN UNDERGRADUATE at Stirling University in Scotland, NOT studying archaeology. My plan was to volunteer myself into a career.  I had a disaster with a volunteer position at Loch Tay Crannog centre. It was tour guiding and I invariably lose my memory when more than one person looks at me. I really wanted to research, dig, analyze, find stuff. I confessed my reluctance to speak publicly and was shown the back pages of an archaeology magazine with lists of summer excavations that took on volunteers. I was told Old Scatness was the best. So I packed a tent and a rucksack, took a coach and an overnight ferry to Shetland. I had not been able to get a hold of them on the phone. I arrived and stated my intention to volunteer. Thankfully, as I was standing in the road with a bag, they felt they couldn’t send me home. If I’d phoned, they would have said “no room”.  I was taken to a spoil heap to be shown how to trowel, with the angled blade just so. I was told I was a natural (very clever people).

Viewing Old Scatness from the horizontal perspective for the first time, I thought it looked like a scattering of stones that were vaguely wall-like. Viewing it from the air, however, is a different story. Old Scatness is a multi-period site populated from the Bronze Age to the present. One sees a large, concentric structure as a major feature. This is the “Broch”, dated to 400 – 200 B.C.  Considered a defensive tower, there are eighty visible today in Scotland from Mull in the Hebrides to Shetland (where I was digging) in the Northern Isles.  One of the research questions revolved around the purpose of brochs. Were they inhabited in times of threat, or all the time? How often was there a threat? Wikipedia will tell you it is “An iron age dry stone hollow structure” which is quite uncommitted. The research from Scatness shows there is a defensive ditch, which is very imposing (I know I was at the bottom of it for a time praying the shoring kept.) The Broch was for protection. The central area of the Broch looks like a flower. This is actually a later “Pictish” building that was incorporated into the structure when it was in ruin. Surrounding it are visible six round houses (wheel houses) which are dated earlier than the “Pictish”, but later than the Broch. The buildings are often built into and on top of each other. This really bothered me at the time. Why didn’t they use the old buildings instead of building anew, next door?  I was told this was a natural human feeling of leaving the dead and starting afresh.

According to an article entitled “Scotland before the Romans” (www.scran.ac.uk, an excellent website if you want to see aerial photos of archaeology) :

For much of Scotland’s prehistory and early history, the basic dwelling was the round house. This simple but effective domestic unit is known across the world. At its centre a hearth supplies practical facilities for cooking and warmth. As importantly, it provides a social focus for its occupants, who can sit communally around the fire. Beyond this space the structure requires one or more circles of poles or pillars, and these form divisions around the edge of the house which can be utilised for various purposes – living space for groups or individuals, or areas for specialised activity. Modern examples of round houses demonstrate complex patterns of social relationships, gender, status, and behaviour, often underpinned by concepts of ritual and spiritual belief. Similar patterns probably existed in the Iron Age.

Writing this, I am reminded of something I wanted to know: Did these people live in peace and prosperity or on the hard edge of the world fighting off the cold winds and hungry invaders?

I slept with about twenty students in a hall in sleeping bags. We worked six days a week, all digging (with trowels) very fine layers of sandy soil and a lot of brushing of stones. We worked hard and were fed tea constantly and lived on white bread cheese sandwiches. It is a niche interest but it really shouldn’t be. We are talking about the Vikings here. Everyone loves the Vikings but most are less keen on the Norse.  Eyes glaze over as the words “more complicated” are spoken. Viking is to Norse as Eskimo is to Inuit. I was taught and just had to check the website to get the terminology right.  We were excavating the large aisled roundhouses to the west of the Broch, and a Pictish cellular structure within the Broch (the flower shape in the photo), during the 2001 season. The team from Bradford University had been on site since 1995 and were practically Vikings themselves. There was a team of re-enactment performers who dressed up and enacted Viking meets Pict scenes for tourists. I rejoiced daily that I wasn’t a tour guide. The project was photographed beautifully, scaffolding was erected and dismantled and erected on a hillside made of mud, while we hoped our surfaces were leaf-troweled to glass-like perfection. The buildings were so complex, we had designated planners who drew stones day in day out. They were at the top of the digger hierarchy. I was allowed to do this by the end of my second season. I was slow and tempers were always fizzing due to the delicacy of the site and high proportion of first year students stumbling around. Fish bones were abundant. On site we had wet sieving and several animal bone enthusiasts and professionals among them, such as Dr Julie Bond, whose name you will find on any Viking bibliography worth its salt . I hope she will forgive the inaccuracies here. I have not described the wheel houses because you can get a much better description online. (The project is well documented, just google “old scatness, shetland”). There was an emphasis on environmental archaeology, which was pioneering then. Plant seeds and plant roots were collected with care. Sometimes called ‘women’s archaeology’, meaning ‘kitchen archaeology’. It provides evidence of wealth of diet, which can answer questions about the peacefulness of lifestyle. The size of the buildings and the solidity of construction implies that there was a seat of some considerable power here. Where there is beauty there is power.

The material evidence from Scatness represents an important contribution. It chronicles the transition from Iron Age people to the culture we know as Pictish to the Viking colonization. The Picts are mysterious people to the Scots because we cannot find their grave sites, or ordinary homes. Instead, they deposited monoliths everywhere. They left stone carvings like totem poles of animals which are plausibly tribal motifs. We know they became Christian because they later incorporated crosses onto these gigantic stone pillars. There are two very fine Pictish stone carvings, a Bear and a Fish from the site. There were Christian monks from Ireland who lived in cells as hermits and converted Shetlanders, or maybe they hadn’t converted them. The hermits were in contact and must have traded for food and fuel. They could write and had ink for the work of illuminating Bibles. Some of that ink turned up as an enigmatic dot pattern on a quartz fist sized stone that was lodged in the floor surface on site. (I remember it perfectly because it was the first thing I found apart from buckets of fish bones).  Local industries were soapstone and fish. The Norse economy, after they settled and became Landed Lords of Orkney, was largely based on long line fishing, Norse ships being superior. The use of soapstone was a Pictish custom. Fish were salted, dried, smoked and sent in land. The fat was used for lamps. The land in Shetland is better suited to grazing sheep than growing crops. The hills are low and windswept, the trees small and gnarled, the sky is huge. Thankfully, we didn’t have to “small find” the fish bones. Every pot sherd was recorded into an EDM machine. This was constantly “on” like the planning. As it was my first dig, I didn’t realize that this level of meticulous recording is rare. It was the best education in archaeology anyone could hope for — especially if, like me, you find classrooms the best antidote to insomnia.

Some offsite experiences I’ll keep to myself, but I can share that there was a memorable sheep in bonfire episode (experimental archaeology). Very smelly.  There was a trip to the soapstone quarry to practice carving, drinking beer, naturally, beach bonfires in that hippy style kept alive by diggers everywhere, weekly swims at the swimming pool to try and get the finger nails clean, and much eating of unidentifiable stew. They have stopped excavating Old Scatness now.  It has become a visitor attraction, but the Northern Isles are currently quite “hot” archaeologically speaking, so I’m told.  Five years later I wrote a master’s thesis on North Atlantic Norse.  In the interim I worked on excavations in Scotland, Ireland, Cape Verde and Albania, but nothing could compare to Scatness.

Photo courtesy North Atlantic Research Unit, Bradford University

Born in 1976 near Edinburgh, Scotland, Francesca received her Honours Bachelor in Religious Studies at Stirling University in 1997. She went on to achieve her Masters degree in Archaeology at Glasgow University in 2002. Between 2001 and 2005 she worked freelance as a site assistant on commercial excavations. From 2005 -2009 she lived in Cape Verde running a cafe. She is currently working for “Barnardo’s”, a large childrens charity in retail fund raising, and continues to have a passion for things archaeological.