2.3.2 The Viking age

This is defined as the period of initial settlement following on from a period of Viking (raiding) activities and initial contact. The reasons and precise dating of the start of the Viking period are hotly debated, but see Barrett et al 2000 for a useful contribution to the debate.

The number of excavated/identified sites which can be identified as primary settlements, apart from those which have an interface with the Pictish data, is very limited. Rescue excavations at Norwick in Shetland have revealed material which has been complemented by C14 dates indicating an origin pre 950AD (Ballin Smith 2007). Although this is slightly contentious, the primary location of the structures on a broad sandy bay without an apparent preceding Pictish or Iron Age settlement phase, does set it apart from previously examined sites. Other Viking-age settlements have been noted at Whithorn in the SW of Scotland (Hill 1997), although the specifically Scandinavian nature of that settlement is still under discussion.

An area where there has been a marked expansion of data is that of pagan Viking graves. The picture will be further expanded with the publication of the corpus being prepared by Graham-Campbell and Paterson (noted above). Excavations at Westness, Orkney revealed a cemetery which included two boat graves (Kaland 1993; Sellevold 1999), at Kneep in Lewis a scattered assemblage of graves from the period (Dunwell et al. 1995; Cowie et al.1993; Welander et al.1987) and more recently at Mid Ross, Loch Lomondside a new Viking cemetery has been identified (Batey forthcoming). A child’s grave at Balnakeil in Sutherland (Batey and Peterson 2013) yielded unexpected riches which have provided significant further detail through conservation. The exemplary publication and excavation of the Scar boat burial (Owen and Dalland 1999) provides a milestone in our understanding of this rich body of material.

A number of more recently identified Viking graves have been published: Ardnamurchan is a rich boat burial (Harris et al 2017), another from Fetlar in Shetland less rich but one of only a handful of Viking graves in Shetland (Batey 2016; Graham-Campbell 2016). On Colonsay, a single grave was discovered at Cnoc nan Gall in the vicinity of a much larger collection of essentially antiquarian grave finds (Becket and Batey 2014; Machrins – Ritchie 1981). A major burial find at Auldhame in East Lothian provides a significant broadening of the Viking extent in Lowland Scotland (Woolf in Crone and Hindmarch 2016)

A composite image of four photographs showing metal objects including a decorative sword pommel and guard, corroded axe head and intact ring headed pin

Items from the boat burial at Ardnamurchan ©Ardnamurchan Transitions Project

Examination of the potential location of a number of pagan Viking burials has been undertaken by McLeod, although there are sometimes indeterminate conclusions to be addressed from this approach (McLeod 2015a; 2015b).

However the cutting edge work by Montgomery on isotopic analysis of teeth from the Kneep graves (Montgomery and Evans 2006), enables the identification of the childhood home-region of individuals, thus enabling a much deeper consideration, allowing identification of native women in Viking dress and highlighting the links with ongoing similar research in Iceland. New consideration of identity as displayed by migrating communities to Scandinavian Scotland is ongoing (see for example McGuire 2016).

Important research areas include: whether the date of arrival of the Norse in Scotland can be more accurately defined; whether one should expect to find non-indigenous building forms; and how the Viking age economic base developed and differed from the Pictish and Late Norse. It is important to note here the new discoveries from Old Scatness in Shetland where an upstanding earlier building is reused by the Vikings (see above section); also at Hamar on Unst, where a pit house forms the primary Viking construction beneath a simple longhouse (Bond 2013, 129). Also on Unst, at Belmont a Viking building has been examined underlying a Late Norse structure (Larsen 2013, 185ff).

Exciting new discoveries include the Galloway hoard found in 2014 which is amongst the largest in the British Isles and combines elements of Anglo-Saxon, Carolingian material with Irish Sea elements (Owen 2015; Graham-Campbell forthcoming).

A programme of isotopic analysis needs to be undertaken on the pagan burial assemblage to identify the origins of those buried in this way. In Iceland it has been possible to identify elements within the population of the Viking age which were brought up in the British Isles rather than in Norway (e.g. Helgason et al.2000). This needs to be tied in more with the artefactual considerations in Scotland rather than simply through diet etc. There should also be an increased focus on scientific examination of the sources of steatite. This work has commenced, but needs broadening and resources to support its development (Clelland et al.2009). Similarly detailed analysis of imported whetstones would also be valuable, as these were an integral part of the “primary tool kit” of the early settlers.

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