The unfolding story of the Brough of Deerness

The Brough o' Deerness from the landward side of the original land bridge. (Sigurd Towrie)

“What we’ve got here is one of the few places in the world where you can walk through the remains of a Viking Age village ”

Those were the words of Dr James Barrett, as the second year of excavations on the Brough of Deerness drew to a close this week.

An excavation team, led by Dr Barrett, of the University of Cambridge’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, has been back on the windswept islet, trying to unravel the history of the site — which was occupied for over 700 years.

Dr Barrett’s work has confirmed that, in its latest phase at least, the Brough was the site of a high-status Norse settlement — probably the stronghold of a viking “chieftain” — and a settlement that was as much a symbol of power and prestige as it was a stronghold.

The architecture of the Norse houses is particularly intriguing. They follow a plan commonly found in Viking Age Dublin — making the Brough’s cluster of houses reminiscent of an urban housing site in a rural location.

The visitor to the Viking Age Brough would have probably accessed the site much the same way as today, by means of a cliffside path that brought them to the summit — and not, as has long been thought, via an entrance in the “rampart” facing the Orkney Mainland.

Once on the Brough, after first encountering the chapel, the layout of the settlement controlled further access, with the visitor first having to pass through a large, 20-metre-long structure before reaching the body of the village. Then a single avenue, flanked on both sides by houses, would have drawn the eye to another large structure, on the northern side of the Brough.

To the modern-day visitor, the layout of the 30 visible remains on the Brough has been made clearer, thanks to work carried out by Orkney Islands Council to cut back the covering of grass.

The excavators’ idea that the settlement was a “Beowulf-like chiefly settlement” is based on the artefacts recovered, as well as the location.

Perched on top of the Brough, the site not only provided its inhabitants with a strategically-important panoramic view to the north — any vessel heading down from the north to the east side of the Orkney Mainland would be easily spotted — but would have been an imposing sight to those at sea.

Any idea that the Brough housed a Viking Age ecclesiastic settlement can now be discounted — at least in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Finds have included loom weights, soapstone pots, pottery and a spindle-whorl. These, and the fact that the remains of children were found in earlier excavations of the Brough’s chapel, show that families — Dr Barrett estimates around 150 people — were on the Brough and living “normal” lives.

One thing that stands out, however, is the fact that although the houses follow a standard “viking” pattern, they were not being used in the same way as in other areas of Orkney. For example, environmental samples from the houses on the Brough have shown that no livestock were kept there.

This, together with high-status artefacts, such as a piece of medieval glass, hints that this was no farmstead.

Mirroring the larger building to the north is the large defensive rampart on the Brough’s landward-facing side. This defensive structure, with masonry showing on the landward face, is still clearly visible and has led to much speculation over the years.

As reported last year, geological studies have confirmed that the Brough was detached from the Orkney Mainland a long time before the Brough settlement came into being.

Based on the current evidence, Dr Barrett feels the bank and wall were a Norse construction, possibly re-using an earlier feature, which controlled access to the site — another outwardly visible show of power, prestige and wealth.

In the past, some have suggested the rampart represented Iron Age earthworks, while others declared them to be a “Vallum Monasterii” — an idea tied in with the tradition that the Brough was the site of a pre-viking monastery.

This idea, dating from the late 19th century, was first aired in 1879, and subsequently gained antiquarian popularity. The 21st-century excavations have hinted that there may be some truth in this. According to Dr Barrett, the idea that the Brough was once the site of a pre-Norse monastery can’t be ruled out yet.

This year’s excavation focused on a 12th-century viking house — which, like its contemporaries, was built into the remains of earlier structures.

The three structures excavated by Dr Barrett’s team, so far, have been dated to the Viking Age – the latest phase dating from the 12th century – but these were built into the remains of a series of earlier structures — possibly earlier Norse as well as Pictish.

Samples of bone recovered from the midden, into which the later structures were built, have been radio-carbon dated. The material from the top of the midden dated from the eighth or ninth century AD, while the remains from the bottom were dated to the sixth/seventh century.

Dr Barrett said: “We don’t know, at this stage, whether the 11th/12th-century viking settlement was built into the remains of a long-abandoned settlement, or whether the site was in continuous use from the Pictish Period through to the late Viking Age. But there’s certainly no reason, yet, why there can’t have been a Pictish monastery on the Brough.”

Working down through the layers of archaeology, Dr Barrett stressed that unravelling the story of the Brough will take time and patience. He hopes he will return next year for a third season of work.

He added: “At the moment, we’re beginning to get quite a good understanding of the way the settlement was, at the end of its life. But we’ve got a lot of unanswered questions about its earlier years and its life in the middle period. This middle period is particularly interesting, in that we might get evidence of the Pictish/Norse transition.”

Addressing a group of visitors to the site this week, his message was clear: “Slowly the story will unfold.”

The excavation was facilitated by Historic Scotland and county archaeologist, Julie Gibson.

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