New dig at site of Skaill Viking Hoard

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The Castle o' Snusgar, to the north-east of the Bay o' Skaill, in Sandwick.

The history of human settlement around the Bay o’ Skaill is the focus of a new archaeological excavation under way in Sandwick.

A team of archaeologists, led by Dr David Griffiths, of Oxford University, is working on the massive mound known as the Castle o’ Snusgar to the north-east of the Bay o’ Skaill.

The site of the discovery of the Skaill viking treasure hoard, in 1858, the Castle o’ Snusgar takes its name from the “remains of a large building” recorded in 1795 and again in 1868. Nothing of this “castle” remains visible today.

The site lies a short distance to the south-west of Stove – the site of the tradition surrounding the King Stone o’ Stove. Snusgar is derived from the Old Norse snos, meaning protruding rock, and garðr, meaning farm or enclosure.  Although it is tempting to relate the name to the remains of the “castle” that possible once stood on the mound, it is more likely that the name derives from the rocky skerries on the north side of the Bay o’ Skaill, directly opposite the mound.

After geophysics surveys of the site last year, the archaeologists moved in last Monday to begin digging and to corroborate the results of their scans of the mound.

“The main reason for working here is that the geophysics last year were so promising,” said Dr Griffiths.

“So we’re doing an exploratory investigation here which is intended to confirm and expand on the geophysics results.”

This, he hopes, will shed some light on the development of the settlement in the area, from Norse times back through history.

A brief glance at the landscape around the Bay o’ Skaill reveals a string of mounds following the line of the bay.

According to Dr Griffiths, these mounds could contain archaeological evidence of human settlement ranging from modern times all the way back to the Neolithic, 5,000 years ago.

“This area could well be one of the biggest collections of untapped archaeology in the British Isles.

“All we can do is do a little bit of investigation and sampling and from that hopefully establish a framework of what the archaeology is,” he said.

Although the excavations are still in the very early stages, the trench cut into the top of the mound has revealed a series of features, but, until the excavation progresses, it is still impossible to place these in any sort of context.

These include stone walls and other features which have yet to be fully investigated.

Among the many finds so far are large quantities of animal bone, shells and deer antler.

The artefacts uncovered include bone pins and fragments of Norse combs. These combs are of particular interest as their design allows the archaeologists to date sections of the site. One dates from the early Norse period, the other slightly later.

As well as looking at the archaeological remains, the project incorporates an investigation into the surrounding soils, with two soil experts looking at how soil levels have changed over the centuries — particularly important, given the quantities of windblown sand found around the Bay o’ Skaill. This, together with environmental sampling, will allow the experts to build up a picture of the landscape around the settlement in the mound over the centuries.

Additional geophysics scans, in collaboration with Susan Ovenden, Orkney College’s newly appointed geophysics department head, have also been carried out.

But although the mound was the site of the discovery of the Skaill viking treasure hoard, and if tradition is to be believed, a buried treasure belonging to Pirate John Gow, Dr Griffiths thinks it very unlikely his team will find something similar.

The excavation, which draws to a close next week, was supported by Historic Scotland and Orkney Islands Council.

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