Viking settlement helps understand history of Skaill’s landscape

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

A view of this year's trench over the Norse farm. The later sections of the building are to the right of the picture.

A clearer picture of the history of the landscape around the Bay o’ Skaill is emerging following the latest season of excavations near the Castle o’ Snusgar in Sandwick.

A team of archaeologists, led by Dr David Griffiths, of Oxford University, have been back in Orkney for a three-week excavation near the massive mound. There, they returned to the site of a Norse farm to continue unravelling its development over time.

With the extension of last year’s trenches, it is now clear that from the earliest sections, dating from the Viking era, the structures were altered over the centuries, as each successive generation added to, or adapted, or simply built on top of the existing structures.

“This building has been used over a very long period of time and for different purposes” said Dr Griffiths. “And there’s clearly a lot more underneath what we can see today.”

On of the later sections, perhaps dating from the 12th century, being worked on this season appears to have been used for winnowing, with small gaps built into the wall directly opposite the entrance to provide a draught.

Other work on site has confirmed that a huge area around the two open trenches is full of archaeology.

Assuming this archaeology is representative of the mounds elsewhere, in that they contain the remains of other farms in the area, it shows how the land-use in the area has changed dramatically over the years.

According to Dr Griffiths, the deciding factor in this was climate change.

The early Norse settlers appear to have built their farms on the low ground immediately opposite the bay. This land must have been at the very least workable, and gave easy access to the sea. It continued to be worked until the 1300s, at which point the climate took a turn for the worse.

Picture Sigurd Towrie

It was then, the end of the Medieval Warm Period, said Dr Griffiths, that the sandblow that continues to plague the area today, really began to have an affect. But rather than affecting the people’s houses, the blowing sand made the soil poorer and harder to work. As a consequence, there was a drift away from the central area up to the surrounding higher ground – the areas still farmed successfully today.

As the people left, the sand crept in, cocooning their structures in much the same way it covered the nearby Skara Brae millennia before. And just like Skara Brae, this depth of sand has offered protection – as apparent by the beautifully-preserved comb uncovered on the site on Tuesday (pictured below, emerging from the ground).

This sheer depth of blown sand is clearly apparent in the Snusgar trenches, and could, suggested Dr Griffiths, cover a landscape of farmsteads and settlements around the bay.

As people left and nature took over, the landscape would have inevitably changed.

Environmental samples taken as part of the project hopes to track this change – providing a picture of how the early farmers first used the land, the crops grown and animals reared right through to the weeds and plants that took over as the land became unworkable and abandoned.

Summarising, Dr Griffiths said: “We’re really happy with this year’s season – its a great site and a wonderful place and community to be part of for a few weeks.”

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