medieval

2.3.1 Picto-Norse Interface

One of the major issues relating to Norse Scotland has been the date and nature of the arrival of the first Scandinavians on Scottish shores. Iain Crawford’s major excavations at the Udal in N Uist unfortunately remain largely unpublished to date (although this is in hand). However his initial interpretation of the cross- over period between Pict and Norse was that this had been a violent interaction (Crawford 1981) contra such sites as Buckquoy (Ritchie 1977; Brundle et al. 2003) or Skaill (Buteux 1997) in Orkney. Excavations at Buckquoy by Anna Ritchie suggested a more peaceful integration and the point is well made that it is highly likely that different situations may well have pertained to different areas and at different stages in Norse intrusion.  A major contribution to this debate has been published recently, where the presence of ongoing estates is discussed for Shetland and Orkney (Bond and Dockrill 2016).

Selected at random from the Udal worked bone assemblage are, from the left- four bone pins from Iain Crawford's Early Medieval (Pictish) phase, the next three are Viking, with the four on the right being from the Norse or late Norse period. Although there are differences, the similarities in styles across these phases are more striking © Beverly Ballin Smith)

Selected at random from the Udal worked bone assemblage are, from the left- four bone pins from Iain Crawford's Early Medieval (Pictish) phase, the next three are Viking, with the four on the right being from the Norse or late Norse period. Although there are differences, the similarities in styles across these phases are more striking © Beverly Ballin Smith)

In the Northern Isles, the publication of the excavations on the Brough of Birsay which began in the 1930s (Curle 1982) but were completed in more recent times by John Hunter and Chris Morris (Hunter 1986; Morris 1996 and forthcoming). Nearby sites on Mainland Orkney in the Birsay Bay area (Morris 1989; 1996) have provided considerably more data on the interface and together with other discoveries on Sanday at Pool (Hunter 2007)  have provided a much more detailed picture of  the changes which took place in this period. Major new work in Shetland at the site of Old Scatness has provided strong Pictish cultural evidence in the form of distinctive cellular structures and fine stone carving. This is one of the few sites to produce new evidence for the interface between Norse and Pict and significantly indicates the reuse of  an Iron Age structure (Structure 11) by incoming Vikings (Dockrill, Bond and Turner et al 2010). In the Western Isles the excavations at Bornais in South Uist, (Sharples 2005), have identified deposits covering the 8th to 10th century interface which is significantly different to that exposed on the Udal (Sharples 2005 and further forthcoming volumes).

Portmahomack has been interpreted as  a major Pictish monastery  with evidence for the violent arrival of the Vikings demonstrated by destruction of stone crosses (eg Carver et al 2016). This would be a unique discovery in Scotland, where although there are several references to the sacking of monasteries such as Iona, there is little identifiable archaeological evidence to support this. Ongoing reassessment at Iona could redress this situation (pers comm E Campbell and A Maldonado). 

An important re-asessment of the site of St Ninian's Isle, including the immediate context for the famous Pictish hoard has shown that several burials dating the Viking period had been placed with the Pictish and earlier cemetery (Barrowman 2011). Scientific consideration of dietary components in relation to the Picts at Portmahomack  and the succeeding population groups is a major step forward (eg Curtis-Summers et al 2014). 

Figure 10: Excavator revealing the carving on a broken slab of Pictish sculpture re-eused as a drain cover in the 9th century revived settlement at Portmahomack following a Viking raid © Martin Carver.

Excavator revealing the carving on a broken slab of Pictish sculpture reused as a drain cover in the 9th century revived settlement at Portmahomack following a Viking raid © Martin Carver.

More recent excavations by Martin Carver at Portmahomack (Carver 2008) encompassed evidence of the cross over period, and publication of that work sought to bring together the massive destruction of fine carved stone sculpture with the coincident arrival of the Norse.

Excavations at Old Scatness in Shetland by Steve Dockrill and Julie Bond et al.have shown that the first Norse settlers used pre-existing structures as their homes (Dockrill et al. 2010). The number of sites which have been excavated (and published) and which provide data on this crucial interface period is however relatively limited in number in comparison to the Late Norse sites in the country.

The main research questions revolve around the location of relevant sites, issues of political and social interaction, the introduction of new crops, the transformation of the fishing industries and the assimilation or otherwise of artefactual forms.

2.3.2 The Viking age

This is defined as the period of initial settlement following on from a period of Viking (raiding) activities and initial contact. The reasons and precise dating of the start of the Viking period are hotly debated, but see Barrett et al 2000 for a useful contribution to the debate.

The number of excavated/identified sites which can be identified as primary settlements, apart from those which have an interface with the Pictish data, is very limited. Rescue excavations at Norwick in Shetland have revealed material which has been complemented by C14 dates indicating an origin pre 950AD (Ballin Smith 2007). Although this is slightly contentious, the primary location of the structures on a broad sandy bay without an apparent preceding Pictish or Iron Age settlement phase, does set it apart from previously examined sites. Other Viking-age settlements have been noted at Whithorn in the SW of Scotland (Hill 1997), although the specifically Scandinavian nature of that settlement is still under discussion.

An area where there has been a marked expansion of data is that of pagan Viking graves. The picture will be further expanded with the publication of the corpus being prepared by Graham-Campbell and Paterson (noted above). Excavations at Westness, Orkney revealed a cemetery which included two boat graves (Kaland 1993; Sellevold 1999), at Kneep in Lewis a scattered assemblage of graves from the period (Dunwell et al. 1995; Cowie et al.1993; Welander et al.1987) and more recently at Mid Ross, Loch Lomondside a new Viking cemetery has been identified (Batey forthcoming). A child’s grave at Balnakeil in Sutherland (Batey and Peterson 2013) yielded unexpected riches which have provided significant further detail through conservation. The exemplary publication and excavation of the Scar boat burial (Owen and Dalland 1999) provides a milestone in our understanding of this rich body of material.

A number of more recently identified Viking graves have been published: Ardnamurchan is a rich boat burial (Harris et al 2017), another from Fetlar in Shetland less rich but one of only a handful of Viking graves in Shetland (Batey 2016; Graham-Campbell 2016). On Colonsay, a single grave was discovered at Cnoc nan Gall in the vicinity of a much larger collection of essentially antiquarian grave finds (Becket and Batey 2014; Machrins - Ritchie 1981). A major burial find at Auldhame in East Lothian provides a significant broadening of the Viking extent in Lowland Scotland (Woolf in Crone and Hindmarch 2016)

Items from the boat burial at Ardnamurchan ©Ardnamurchan Transitions Project

Examination of the potential location of a number of pagan Viking burials has been undertaken by McLeod, although there are sometimes indeterminate conclusions to be addressed from this approach (McLeod 2015a; 2015b).

However the cutting edge work by Montgomery on isotopic analysis of teeth from the Kneep graves (Montgomery and Evans 2006), enables the identification of the childhood home-region of individuals, thus enabling a much deeper consideration, allowing identification of native women in Viking dress and highlighting the links with ongoing similar research in Iceland. New consideration of identity as displayed by migrating communities to Scandinavian Scotland is ongoing (see for example McGuire 2016).

Important research areas include: whether the date of arrival of the Norse in Scotland can be more accurately defined; whether one should expect to find non-indigenous building forms; and how the Viking age economic base developed and differed from the Pictish and Late Norse. It is important to note here the new discoveries from Old Scatness in Shetland where an upstanding earlier building is reused by the Vikings (see above section); also at Hamar on Unst, where a pit house forms the primary Viking construction beneath a simple longhouse (Bond 2013, 129). Also on Unst, at Belmont a Viking building has been examined underlying a Late Norse structure (Larsen 2013, 185ff).

Exciting new discoveries include the Galloway hoard found in 2014 which is amongst the largest in the British Isles and combines elements of Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian material with Irish Sea elements (Owen 2015; Graham-Campbell forthcoming).

A programme of isotopic analysis needs to be undertaken on the pagan burial assemblage to identify the origins of those buried in this way. In Iceland it has been possible to identify elements within the population of the Viking age which were brought up in the British Isles rather than in Norway (e.g. Helgason et al.2000). This needs to be tied in more with the artefactual considerations in Scotland rather than simply through diet etc. There should also be an increased focus on scientific examination of the sources of steatite. This work has commenced, but needs broadening and resources to support its development (Clelland et al.2009). Similarly detailed analysis of imported whetstones would also be valuable, as these were an integral part of the "primary tool kit" of the early settlers.