Case Study: Sumburgh

A pair of houses of Bronze Age crossing into Iron Age date were discovered during the installation of a new runway at Sumburgh, Shetland and excavated firstly by the local society (SANHS), and then by Raymond Lamb, being written up for publication by Jane Downes (Downes and Lamb 2000). Although lacking a sequence of radiocarbon dates, the site at Sumburgh provides evidence of architectural change from the early Bronze through to the early Iron Age, and enabled a re-evaluation of the Shetland houses such as the Benie, Yoxie and Gruting houses placing them in the Bronze Age rather than the Neolithic.

The stone-built pair of houses at Sumburgh sealed the remains of a probably sub-oval house built from timber associated with Beaker pottery and dated to the early Bronze Age. The occurrence of this timber-built house was also mirrored by similar findings at underneath later buildings at Kebister, Shetland (Lowe and Owen 1999), and serves to highlight issues of preservation of these slight buildings and their vulnerability to ploughing and other processes of erosion where they are not sealed by later activity, both on Shetland and further afield.

A hiatus occurred before a small round-sub oval stone house was built, probably in the middle Bronze Age, with its entrance orientated to the south and a courtyard or work area outside to the south. In the later Bronze Age, a larger oval stone built house was added onto the south of the northern house. This large house became the focus of domestic life with a large central hearth around which crafts were undertaken whereas the northern house was during this phase an ancillary space accessed through the southern house. Both the north and south house were laid out with a large central space surrounded by recesses built into the walls.

At the beginning of the Iron Age the walls of the buildings were rebuilt and the interior of the buildings were repaved, including the paving over of the hearth in the south house. The recesses were replaced by bays formed by the insertion of radial piers, and hearths were situated in these bays rather than being the central feature. The new walling enclosed the southern end of the buildings, and entrance was gained from paved passageways to either side at the point where the buildings joined. A distinct change in the material culture, as seen in the pottery and coarse stone tools accompanied the rebuilding of the houses.

Sumburgh is an example of the Bronze Age paired or conjoined houses which can be seen increasingly elsewhere, with several examples in Orkney such as Skaill, Deerness (where the remodelling in the early Iron Age is very similar to that at Sumburgh) (Buteux 1997), and at the Links of Noltland (Moore and Wilson 2011).

Return to Section 2.3 The Late Bronze Age to Iron Age