British Archaeology banner

Cover of British Archaeology 69

Issue 69

March 2003



Tale of the Bronze Age barge sunk in Trent

Roman baths at trading settlement by Thames

Earliest evidence of medieval open fields near Cambridge

Mesolithic houses in both Scotland and the North East

Planned Bronze Age village found in Co Londonderry

In Brief


Rethinking Cursuses
David McOmish rethinks some old ideas to explain cursuses

Burial with the Romans
Alison Taylor on all the horrible aspects of Roman burial

Great sites
Anna Ritchie recalls the great Viking excavation at Jarlshof


Saxon zoos, copperas, and how long Britain stayed Roman


George Lambrick on broader history education after age 14

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Garrison Life at Vindolanda by Anthony Birley

Grahame Clark by Brian Fagan

The Archaeology of Mills and Milling by Martin Watts

The Roman Shore Forts by Andrew Pearson

Heads and Tales by Iain MacLeod & Brian Hill

CBA update

favourite finds

David Longley on his first undisturbed archaeological site


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Great sites: Jarlshof

Excavations on a farmstead in Shetland were the first to reveal the Vikings as not just raiders, but also farmers and fishermen. Anna Ritchie reports

Jarlshof, Britain's best-known Viking farmstead, owes its romantic name to Sir Walter Scott, who visited the Sumburgh promontory on Shetland in 1814 and later set there the opening scene of his novel, The Pirate.

All that was visible then were the ruins of the 17th century laird's house, and it was this that Sir Walter named Jarlshof, or 'Earl's Mansion', suggesting that 'an ancient Earl of the Orkneys had selected this neck of land for establishing a mansion house'. He would have been gratified to know that excavations more than a century later proved that there had indeed been Viking Age settlement here, long before the laird's house was built.

The archaeological remains at Jarlshof were first discovered in the late 19th century after storm damage to the shore revealed a number of massive stone walls. The landowner, John Bruce, carried out some promising initial excavations, and eventually gave the site to the State in 1925.

What had been exposed were not, in fact, the now-famous Viking farm buildings, but the walls of a much earlier, Iron Age broch. Indeed, Jarlshof is almost as celebrated for its prehistoric as for its later remains. The prehistoric sequence began probably in the late 3rd millennium BC with a few Neolithic houses, continuing through a well-preserved cluster of multi-celled Bronze Age buildings, an Iron Age domestic settlement with souterrains, and finally a large defended broch and courtyard, which doubtless survived into the Viking age.

However it is the Viking archaeology that strikes the visitor to Jarlshof most forcibly today. Laid out here at the southern tip of mainland Shetland are the most extensive remains of a Viking site visible anywhere in Britain. No substantial rural Viking sites were known when Jarlshof was excavated in the 1930s and late 1940s - first by Alexander Curle, then by Gordon Childe, James Richardson and finally John Hamilton. So this remote farmstead played a major role in creating the image we have of Viking occupation and lifestyle in northern Britain.

Subsequent excavations at important Viking sites, such as at Broch of Birsay and at Buckquoy in Orkney, or at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey have, of course, added much to our knowledge - but they have not substantially revised the picture first painted at Jarlshof.

The location of the site had been carefully chosen by its prehistoric founders, lying on good fertile land on the well-drained lower slopes of the sandstone promontory of Sumburgh Head, close to the sheltered waters of the West Voe. There are freshwater springs nearby and an endless supply of building stone on the beach.

'Fort of the Pigs'

The name Sumburgh comes from the Old Norse, Svinaborg, meaning either 'Svein's Fort' or 'Fort of the Pigs' - a reference both to the surviving Iron Age broch and to either the first Norse colonist or the despised native population.

The mass of walls belonging to the Viking settlement can give the misleading impression that Jarlshof was a small hamlet, but what the visitor sees are the superimposed walls of buildings erected, modified and levelled over several centuries. Jarlshof was never more than a farm, although it grew more substantial as the years went by and the family increased in size.

The process of rebuilding on one spot over such a long period made it very difficult for Jarlshof's excavators to date individual structures. Layers of soil had been cut into and moved from one place to another, and datable objects became mixed up. However, the first farm is likely to have been established some time in the 9th century, because a gilt bronze harness mount made in Ireland in the 8th or 9th century was found in the earliest building levels.

The early Norse settlers built their farmhouse close to the ruins of the old broch, which doubtless served as a handy source of good stone. The farmhouse was a simple long rectangular house with one long wall slightly bowed. This bowing was an irregularity of the building - there is no evidence here of boat-shaped houses. Two doors were placed on opposite sides, so that the occupants could use whichever door was out of the wind to avoid draughts.

The house was divided by a wooden partition on the line of the two doors, creating a large living hall and a small kitchen. In the living hall was a large central hearth and a raised wooden platform along each wall, which would have been used for seating, sleeping and as a working space. The kitchen also had a central hearth and an oven built into the end wall. The roof, centrally supported on posts, is likely to have been timber-framed with a covering of turf.

Other buildings included a rectangular barn or byre, and two smaller buildings interpreted as a smithy and a bath-house. The hearth in the smithy contained fragments of iron clinker, while the 'bath-house' had a large hearth suggesting that water may have been thrown on hot stones to create a sauna. Alternatively this heated building may have been used for drying grain.

Animals in the house

Over time, new dwellings were built north of, and at right angles to, the original house, and numerous outbuildings were erected and demolished; until this pattern of separate dwelling and outbuildings was replaced - perhaps in the 11th century - by the true longhouse in which humans and animals were housed under one roof. A byre was added to the end of the original farmhouse, and an entrance in the gable was served by a narrow paved passage, through which animals would be funnelled one by one into the byre.

Later still, in the 12th or 13th centuries, the design was modified again, with extra rooms added to the long walls of the original house - a pattern of architectural development seen throughout the Viking Atlantic colonies. Even after the first farmhouse was finally demolished, one end of it was converted into an outhouse. This practice, of turning former dwelling houses into barns after a new house has been built, has continued in the north and west of Scotland until the present day, where a new bungalow can often be seen standing beside the old blackhouse, now used as a barn.

The years of excavation at Jarlshof produced a wide variety of artefacts, in both everyday and more exotic items. Objects carved from the soft local stone, steatite, include bowls, hanging lamps in which the wick floated in a pool of oil, line-sinkers for fishing, loom weights, spindle-whorls, beads, and even a tiny bowl and a miniature quern which were probably toys.

Bone and antler were used to make dress-pins, hair combs, toggles, needle-cases, handles for iron knives, awls and other domestic equipment. An unusual item is a sliver of bone with a hole at either end, interpreted as a bit for a lamb's mouth to prevent it from sucking all of its mother's milk - leaving the remainder for the human family. Combs were normally highly decorated, and some pins and handles were skilfully carved. Four dress pins, for example, are topped with comically-sculpted animal heads.

The local sandstone provided not simply building material but a host of other objects from weights to querns. Whetstones were used for sharpening knives, sickles, even swords and spearheads; but the only weapon found at Jarlshof was a spearhead. Metal objects other than iron were rarely found, not because the family could not afford bronze and silver but because both can be melted down and reused. The loss of a piece of silver ring-money - found in a 10th century drain - must have been a severe blow to its owner.

Fine bronze dress-pins and a highly ornamented horse harness-mount are likely to have been imports from Scotland or Ireland, while a strap-end decorated in typical Scandinavian style must surely have been a gift from the homeland. The few glass beads, and one of rock crystal, are also imports.

Scratched portraits

Unique to Jarlshof is a series of graffiti scratched onto pieces of slate and sandstone, some of them remarkable for a sure and economical hand. They include two portraits in profile of a young man and an old man, two drawings of boats, and one of a four-legged animal. These drawings have been assumed to be Viking, but the style of carving is Pictish. They may be pre-Viking objects that have been redeposited in Viking levels, or they may be the work of a Pict taken to Jarlshof as a slave.

At no time at Jarlshof were there more than two dwelling houses in use, underlining the fact that this was the home of a single extended family. The longevity of the farm demonstrates its success as an economic unit. Sheep, cattle and pigs were bred for their meat, milk, skins and bone, and there were a few ponies of small size - but larger than the modern Shetland pony. The remains of a single dog were found, probably a terrier. The carcasses of whales and seals were utilized, and a wide variety of bird bones included both domestic and wild species.

Deep-sea fishing brought in very large fish, the heads alone often 12in (300mm) long. Cod, saithe and ling were eaten, probably along with smaller fish whose bones were too small to be collected without sieving the soil. Charcoal from the middens indicates that hazel, birch and willow grew in the vicinity, probably as pockets of light scrub, and that pine and oak were available either as driftwood or as imported timber.

For a while, the discovery of the horn of a North American sheep seemed to promise exciting proof of connections between Jarlshof and the New World. In 1941, a German aircraft had dropped a bomb to the north of the Viking houses, and the horn was found in the sand thrown out of the crater. Alas, excavation ten years later uncovered the remains of a Victorian fisherman's bothy, making it more likely that this large horn was a souvenir of a 19th century fishing trip.

Settled Vikings

No excavations have taken place at Jarlshof since John Hamilton wound the site up in 1951. Some of the artefacts that he used to date phases of Viking occupation have themselves been redated, as a result of later discoveries at urban centres such as Dublin and York. There were also no radiocarbon dates for Jarlshof. So the site would undoubtedly benefit from a thorough re-examination of all the dating material to try and sort out its complicated phasing once and for all.

Even so, it is unlikely that any new work will detract from the great achievement of Jarlshof's excavators, whose work allowed us to see Vikings not only as raiders and pillagers, but also as settlers, farmers and fishermen whose influence survived in the landscape for centuries after the 'Viking period' came to an end.

Anna Ritchie is a consultant archaeologist based in Edinburgh. She has directed excavations on a number of prehistoric and Viking sites across Scotland

CBA web:

British Archaeology

Jan/Feb 2005
Mar/Apr 2005
May/Jun 2005
Jul/Aug 2005
Sep/Oct 2005
Nov/Dec 2005
Jan/Feb 2006
Mar/Apr 2006
May/Jun 2006
Jul/Aug 2006
Sep/Oct 2006
Nov/Dec 2006
Jan/Feb 2007
Mar/Apr 2007
May/Jun 2007
Jul/Aug 2007
Sep/Oct 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jan/Feb 2008
Mar/Apr 2008
May/Jun 2008
Jul/Aug 2008
Sep/Oct 2008
Nov/Dec 2008
Jan/Feb 2009
Mar/Apr 2009
May/Jun 2009
Jul/Aug 2009
Sep/Oct 2009
Nov/Dec 2009
Jan/Feb 2010
Mar/Apr 2010
May/Jun 2010
Jul/Aug 2010
Sep/Oct 2010
Nov/Dec 2010
Jan/Feb 2011
Mar/Apr 2011
May/Jun 2011
Jul/Aug 2011
Sep/Oct 2011
Nov/Dec 2011
Jan/Feb 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

CBA Briefing

Courses & lectures
CBA Network
Grants & awards

CBA homepage