Birsay-Skaill landscape archaeology project: 2015 update

2015 update

In 2014-15, a tremendous amount of progress was achieved, facilitated by the award of a Senior Research Fellowship to David Griffiths by the British Academy in conjunction with the Leverhulme Trust. Working together with Jane Harrison, Mike Athanson and a team of specialist contributors, the project is being prepared for publication. We spent two periods of research based in Orkney in October/November 2014 and July/August 2015, together with visits to archives and sponsors in Edinburgh in November/December 2014 and September 2015. The two attached photos show David, Jane and Mike on a rib trip to the small islands of Eynhallow (uninhabited, but has a medieval monastery on it) and Gairsay (inhabited by one household at the historic house of Langskaill; Gairsay was the site of a Viking hall established by Sweyn Asleifson (c1134-71) mentioned in Orkneyinga Saga ch.105. The site of the hall could be under Langskaill, or it could be at the other end of the island).

As a result, primary data records have now been checked, systematised and integrated in excel and GIS, resulting in the construction of a complete account of phasing and structural sequences in the excavations. Imaging of extensive survey and a programme of illustration of coloured structural plans has been completed. Results of finds and soil samples have been compared and plotted spatially, combined with a thorough audit and correction of xyz locational data. Key reference elements of the latter were re-verified and rectified using differential GPS on site in Orkney in July 2015.

Soil chemistry mapping and geoarchaeological reporting have been undertaken (lab work and reporting) and reports completed on bioarchaeological elements (faunal, fish and plant remains) together with archaeometallurgical analyses and reports on vitrified metalworking residues. The emerging picture is of a very well-defined series of phased activity zones in the excavated areas, which allow elements of use of space and external deposition to be reconstructed with considerable detail. Animal, fish and botanical remains have given a complex insight into a transition between a consumption-based feasting economy in the earlier period of occupation in the 10th- early 11th century, and a production-based farming economy in the mid-late 11th century. An integrated radiocarbon and OSL chronology has been worked up as a Bayesian statistical study by Dr Derek Hamilton (SUERC). This shows a marked clustering in the early/mid 11th century AD for the central longhouse site – an outcome which has been tested and re-tested by applying statistical analysis and by (for specific contexts) two further radiocarbon dates taken (from articulated animal bone), to supplement those already taken previously.

All finds groups have now been reported upon to final draft stage, and have been subject to a completed programme of drawing and photography. A key thematic element has been building a picture of trade and international network connections within the economy of the settlement/landscape. Antler combs have been subjected to ZooMS analysis confirming they are red deer, contributing to indications of a strong insular element in the ‘Viking’ material culture. Iron, copper alloy and ceramics indicate widespread links with Scandinavia, Ireland, southern Britain and Normandy. This is in interesting contrast to a slightly later site such as Quoygrew (Westray), where Norwegian links are more pronounced. It has contributed to an overall interpretation with significant broader implications for perceptions of the Viking Age, whereby early Viking contacts (9th-11th centuries) in the Northern Isles are interpreted as part of a diffuse mixture of insular networks, whereas predominant Scandinavian cultural influence comes with the assertion of political sovereignty in the 11th-12th centuries onwards.

The year also saw two successful bids resulting in instalments of additional funding for the project to Historic Scotland and the Strathmartine Trust.

The final text of the monograph is now being assembled and edited, pending the next stage (peer review). This includes chapters on historical and antiquarian aspects, landscape survey, prospection, excavation, test-pitting, geoarchaeology, artefact reports, metalworking deposits, folklore, environmental history, together with tables, matrices, plans and appendices detailing the archaeological data produced by the project. The title is ‘Beside the Ocean: Coastal Landscapes at the Bay of Skaill, Marwick and Birsay Bay, Orkney. Archaeological Research 2003-16.’ This is eligible for publication support from Historic Environment Scotland and will be published by Oxbow, Oxford.