Further investigation of a hole which appeared at Langskaill farm, in Westray, 40 years ago, appears to show that all evidence of pre-Norse culture disappears abruptly with the arrival of the Scandinavian settlers, fuelling speculation that the islands were taken by force. Archaeologists say their work has also thrown new light on Orkney’s earth-houses.
The results of a six-week archaeological dig on a Westray farm look set to resurrect the debate on how the Norse took over Orkney.
For decades, scholars have argued about the manner in which the Norsemen settled the Northern Isles — did they drive away, enslave or slaughter Orkney’s Pictish inhabitants, or settle and integrate peacefully with them. The preliminary results from an excavation at Langskaill, in Westray, seem to hint at the former.
There, the archaeology shows that the use of a centuries old settlement and cemetery coincided with the arrival of Scandinavian settlers. In effect, the pre-Norse culture appears to vanish entirely from the area.
The dig, which drew to a close in October, uncovered remains dating from the early Iron Age right through to the 14th century AD — a period of use of almost 2,000 years.
The significance of the Langskaill site was first noted in the late 1960s when a hole appeared during operations to lay a water pipe on the farm. Intrigued, the landowner investigated further, and uncovered a large stone chamber underground.
At the time, only a few locals had a look around the interior of the structure before it was filled up with rubble and soil. The hole, a danger to human and beast alike, was then covered over and the exact location of the chamber faded from memory.
Thirty years passed before the chamber was accidentally ‘rediscovered’.
In 2002, a tractor passing over the chamber broke through a “roof” stone, its payload almost vanishing into the darkness. Back then, a team of archaeologists from EASE were working on the nearby Knowe of Skea, so Hazel Moore and her colleagues were invited over to Langskaill to have a look.
Hazel explained: “We carried out a rapid assessment and found that not only was there an Iron Age earth house, but there was also a high probability that something of the associated above-ground settlement also survived
“In addition to this, there appeared to be a Viking/Norse period settlement in the immediate area.”
When Julie Gibson, county archaeologist, and Historic Scotland saw the archaeologists’ report, they agreed on the importance of the Langskaill earth house and decided that more work was needed. This resulted in two more seasons of work – in 2003, and again last year.
The placename itself, Langskaill, from the Old Norse langiskáli, meaning Long Hall, is usually associated in Orkney with high-status Norse settlements. This has been confirmed by the archaeology found on the Langskaill site, of which only a tiny fraction of a much larger Norse settlement was investigated.
Hazel explained: “The span of settlement on this one site appears to extend from about 500BC to the 14th century! The final period of occupation for which we found evidence was a Viking-Norse longhouse. This was a rectangular building, which, on the evidence of the geophysical survey, measured in the region of 20-25m in length.
“Part of the longhouse was built directly over the earth house and over part of a Pictish house — probably indicating a take-over of the house site and adjoining lands by Scandinavians in this period. We excavated only a small part of the long house and discovered that it had been in use over a long period of time. It had been modified on several occasions, possibly starting life as a byre and later being revamped and used as a living room.”
The occupants of the longhouse made a new entrance into the earth house, which they continued to use, possibly initially as a store, but certainly later as a dumping place for their refuse. From the evidence of the finds alone, it appears that this building probably went out of use in the 13th or 14th century.
“We have really only seen a very small proportion of what is undoubtedly a much more extensive site — both in terms of area and chronological depth. We didn’t find anything pre-Iron Age on site, but there are very early monuments in the surrounding area — a Bronze Age burnt mound, several Neolithic burial monuments and, of course, the Knowe of Skea, so these folks weren’t the first to occupy the area.”
Immediately predating the Norse buildings was a series of Iron Age structures dating back to approximately 500BC.
Perhaps the most anxiously awaited element to be investigated was an Iron Age earth-house, a type of structure that has seen little modern attention in Orkney.
Earth-houses, or souterrains, as they are known outside Orkney, are an enigmatic type of ancient structure generally made up of a long underground entrance passage leading to a subterranean main chamber. The chamber of the Langskaill earth house was found to measure approximately eight metres long by two and a half metres wide, its low roof standing at just over one metre high.
It was curvilinear — banana shaped — and had been cut down into the bedrock before being roofed over by large stone slabs, supported on a series of stone pillars and upright stones. Then, possibly to keep it watertight, the roof stones had been covered with clay.
“We think it was built by first excavating a large hole and then adding the supports and roof — not by burrowing sideways!” said Hazel.
“The earth house lay outside what is probably an Iron Age round house, but access was gained from inside the house. Later on, in the Viking period, when the original prehistoric entrance had been obscured beneath a subsequent longhouse building, a new entrance was built into the eastern end of the chamber and access was then from outside the Viking-Norse longhouse.”
Hazel continued: “The earth house and its associated settlement are thought to date from the early Iron Age, possibly as early as 500BC. We don’t have radiocarbon dates yet, so this is based on best guess estimates of the types of finds, especially pottery.
“There are also remains of the middle-late Iron Age period located nearby. We have only seen a small part of this settlement, but it would appear to be a cellular building of possible oval shape. The artefacts recovered from this area suggest that it may have been in use into the Pictish period of 700-800AD, a time immediately predating the Viking-Norse occupation of the site.”
Prior to this year’s excavation, it had been hoped that because the structure had lain undisturbed it might shed some light on the role of the earth houses to their Iron Age builders. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the archaeologists had not been the first inside.
Hazel explained: “Not only had someone been inside in the 1960s taking pictures, but worse than that, the Vikings had made quite a mess.”
The finds inside the earth house related to the two main periods of use. The Iron Age remains comprised mainly of soil deposits, possibly containing environmental evidence, but there were also a number of pieces of worked whalebone and stone tools.
The later Viking-Norse period deposits included midden, made up of shells, fishbones, fragments of soapstone vessels and human coprolites – fossilized excrement.
Hazel added: “One factor which holds out some hope is that the roof of the earth house appears to have collapsed on several occasions during the Iron Age and therefore had to be patched up. In one case, the collapsed infill was left in place and new supports were added around it. This means that we do have some ‘in-situ’ or preserved deposits dating from the Iron Age. While this was an exciting find, the deposits didn’t have a whole lot that was visible within them,” she added.
But we remain hopeful that microscopic fragments present in the soil samples will have a tale to tell.
“Often the environmental evidence recovered from soil samples adds a new dimension of detail. For example, if the earth house was used as a store, it is likely that small fragments of grain or foodstuffs would be preserved in the soil. There were also some waterlogged deposits and analysis of these is eagerly awaited.”
These results could go some way to answering a number of questions that still surround Orkney’s earth houses, in particular what they were used for — another subject hotly debated among historians.
Their association with domestic structures led to the assumption that earth houses had a purely domestic function — usually storage. However, a lack of archaeological evidence to show what, if anything, was stored in the chambers, together with the obvious access difficulties, has led others to suggest that the chambers had a more ritualistic or religious purpose. The discovery of the remains of 18 bodies in the Rennibister earth house in Firth, really muddied the waters in this respect.
The Langskaill excavation has also confirmed the previous speculation that the entrances to the underground chambers were found inside structures above ground. This feature is reminiscent of the underground “wells” found in brochs and which may add weight to the theory that earth houses had a ritual purpose.
The EASE team confirmed that the Langskaill earth house had indeed been entered from inside an Iron Age round house above ground, via a small roofed passage then led down a flight of steps into underground chamber.
Hazel continued: “It is unlikely that any trace of the earth house would have been visible from outside of the house. This suggests a degree of secrecy, but from whom?
“Also the precarious nature of the building, witness the several collapses while it was still in use, must have made it a fairly risky place to spend any time. These factors might suggest a liminal or ritual place, but also one closely tied up with the domestic sphere.”
When it comes to the Knowe of Skea, with the funerary complex a short distance away, it seems likely that there was a time when Langskaill and the Knowe were in use together.
Hazel confirmed that although results from carbon dating material at both sites are not yet available, it is highly probable that they overlap in date quite considerably.
“The dated burials at Knowe of Skea were in the region of the second century AD,” she said. “But we think that they probably range from the last centuries BC, right through to possibly the sixth or seventh centuries AD.”
She added: “We’re not certain yet if the first occupants of the Langskaill round house/earth house in around 500BC would be represented amongst the burials at the Knowe, but certainly their descendants may well have been.
“The evidence at Langskaill suggests that there was a thriving settlement throughout the Iron Age period, from around the second or third to sixth or seventh centuries AD. This was exactly the time we think that the majority of the burials were made on the Knowe. There is, as yet, no other known settlement lying between Langskaill and the Knowe, so it seems likely that the folk living at Langskaill may well have been buried at the Knowe.
“It is interesting also that there is a broch site in the nearby area, the Knowe of Burristae, on the coast to the north of Langskaill, and these folk must have interacted with their non-broch neighbours and may also have been buried at the Knowe of Skea.”
But what is particularly interesting is that the cut-off point for burial activity at the Knowe comes at approximately the same time that the Pictish settlement at Langskaill was replaced by the Scandinavian longhouse.
At Langskaill, and the surrounding area, the excavation results seem to show that centuries of continual use by the Picts, and their descendents, came to an abrupt and complete end.
All traces of their activities appear to just stop.
This is especially intriguing when we consider the arguments as to whether the Vikings took the islands by force, or whether they integrated peacefully with the indigenous inhabitants.
Hazel said: “At both Berstness and Langskaill, activity carried out by recognisably local people — based on evidence for Late Iron Age/Pictish artefacts and architecture — comes to an end at what we think is about the same time as the Norse construction begins. We don’t have firm radiocarbon dates yet, but this is sometime from the seventh to eighth century AD. At the Knowe of Skea, the only later activity is the use of the site for a fish-drying platform, possibly in the Norse period, or later.”
From this, she suggested, it seems likely that the clear change in use corresponds with something that caused a major cultural change. While it remains possible that the settlement and the Knowe were simply abandoned by the islanders, Hazel is not so sure. She finds it hard to believe that such a long-used, and presumably important, cemetery would be so quickly forgotten by the descendents of those buried there.
Instead, this sudden Pictish disappearance from the archaeological record, immediately before the Norse moved in, could be an indicator that the original inhabitants fled, were thrown out, or even killed – something the Norse histories themselves claim happened.
“The fact that we have evidence of a Viking/Norse settlement nearby at Langskaill, with a package of imported artefacts indicating that the inhabitants were most likely incoming Scandinavian settlers rather than Orcadians adopting new house styles, suggests that they may be the cause of this change.”
Were the Pictish Orcadians driven from their lands and forced to abandon their holy places? A peaceful integration between Viking and Pict would be expected to produce an archaeological “crossover” with both groups’ style of artefact and architecture existing side-by-side for a time.
But in the small section of the Langskaill settlement investigated so far, this is not the case.
Hazel said: “When we get more dates we will be able to chart the frequency of use of the cemetery more accurately. It may be that it was slowly going out of use before the Vikings came into the equation, but it’s hard to imagine that it would have been totally forgotten or ‘desecrated’ by being used as a fish-gutting shed, unless there had been some major cultural change.”
“After all, even Christian zealots usually left the ‘pagan’ cairns and barrows in peace,” she added.
The answer will have to wait until further specialist investigations can be carried out. The site has now been covered over, with no immediate plans for further work.
“Unfortunately, the Langskaill site lies beneath the farmer’s house, the road and his best field, so ‘keyhole’ surgery is as much as we can hope to gain for the moment,” said Hazel.
“The site is no longer at risk from collapse and remains preserved beneath the ground for future generations to discover.”
The excavation was sponsored by Historic Scotland, Orkney Islands Council and Orkney Archaeological Trust.