After decades — if not centuries — of speculation, an archaeological excavation on the Brough of Deerness is beginning to shed some much-needed light on the site.
Although visible traces of a tight settlement cluster have long been visible on top of the Brough — alongside the reconstructed remains of a 10th-12th century chapel — little is actually known about the rocky promontory.
Despite excavations on the Brough, in the 1970s, until now nothing was known about the site to allow it to be dated exactly, or even show what it was used for. A five-week excavation, by the University of Cambridge, is, at long last, remedying this.
From the late 19th century, the idea the Brough was an early, pre-Norse, “ecclesiastic settlement” became common. This theory was first aired in 1879, and subsequently gained antiquarian popularity. More recently, however, scholars firmly placed the rectangular buildings in the Viking era, dating from the 11th and 12th centuries.
Leading the three-year series of excavations is Dr James Barrett, well-known in Orkney for his work at Quoygrew, in Westray. From work so far, Dr Barrett feels the Brough was the site of a Viking chieftain’s settlement — a fortified stronghold that was also a visible show of power and prestige.
“At the moment I’m leaning toward this site as being a chiefly settlement, rather than a monastic enclosure,” he said.
“In the past it’s sometimes been a matter of academic fashion as to whether it was declared monastic or a defended site.
“Chris Morris, who excavated the chapel in the 1970s, first raised the idea that the Brough was a chieftain’s stronghold, and the new evidence is pointing in that direction.
“If, for the sake of argument, we say it was a chiefly site, then why here? It’s very strange. At the end of the day, I think it comes down to somebody making a point.”
“The aim this year was a trial excavation and what we wanted to determine was, firstly, whether there was a long chronological sequence and, secondly, how well-preserved it was,” said Dr Barrett. “The results so far are very promising.”
Two trenches were opened, uncovering the remains of two Norse houses. Although full examination of the artefacts found inside will be required to provide a precise date, Dr Barrett suspects the structures date from the 11th century and are, therefore, contemporary with the last phase of the nearby chapel.
“Although we’ll never be able to directly link the settlement, stratigraphically, to the chapel, there were a number of burials found during the excavation of the chapel in the 1970s.
“One of these was buried against the chapel wall, and was carbon dated to the 11th or 12th century. From this, we can see that the chapel is contemporary with the later settlement structures.”
The architecture of these Norse houses is particularly intriguing. They follow a plan commonly found in Viking-Age Dublin — making the cluster of houses reminiscent of an urban housing site in a rural location.
Although the buildings were built into earlier structures, it’s not yet clear what these are — whether Norse or earlier.
Dr Barrett commented: “We don’t yet know if there was a pre-Viking settlement, but there are some hints that this was so. We need to dig deeper.”
That the excavated later structures were domestic is without question — finds included loom weights, soapstone pots, pottery and a spindle-whorl — but there also appears to have been metalworking carried out on site. Used mould sections have been found, but these were too fragmented to allow the archaeologists to ascertain what they were used for.
The use of the Brough for Naval target practice during the First World War has presented the excavation team with an additional challenge.
All fragments of metal found on the site are being gathered for cataloguing and analysis — although much will be the remains of the artillery shells, the possibility remains that the bombardment could have disturbed, or damaged, earlier artefacts.
Although it will require more detailed investigation, the excavation looks to have solved two other long-held questions about the Brough — the presence (or not) of a natural land bridge to the Mainland and what the bank across the Brough’s “entrance” represents.
Previously, all that could be said, for certain, was that the Brough was cut off from the Mainland before the 16th century, and probably before the 14th. We know this from two historical records.
In the account of the Brough by the enigmatic character, Jo Ben, which allegedly dates from 1529, he states: “In the north part of the parish there is, in the sea, a natural rock where the people on hands and knees ascend to the top with great difficulty.”
Meanwhile, the site is referred to as the “Borch of Dernes” in a 14th century list of islands in Orkney, compiled by John de Fordun.
However, examination of the area has highlighted a geological fault – a fault, which saw the land bridge collapse a long time before the Brough settlement.
The project’s geologist, Professor Donna Surge, was clear: “There could not have been a land bridge there 1,000 years ago.”
Instead, she suggested a bridge had been constructed to provide access. And that at the Brough-side of this bridge, which would have been no mean feat of engineering, was a defensive rampart.
This defensive structure, with masonry showing on the landward face, is still clearly visible and has led to much speculation over the years. Some suggested it represented Iron Age earthworks, while others declared them to be a “Vallum Monasterii” — a symbolic barrier for the theoretical monastery.
However, Dr Barrett feels that, based on the current evidence, the bank and wall was a Norse construction – possibly reusing an existing feature – and was defensive and controlled access to the site — another outwardly visible show of power, prestige and wealth.
Supported by Historic Scotland and county archaeologist, Julie Gibson, the excavation is directed by Dr. James Barrett, of Cambridge University, with the assistance of Adam Slater of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. It is jointly-funded by the Orkney Islands Council, the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, the Royal Norwegian Embassy (London) and the Royal Norwegian Consulate General (Edinburgh).