Vikings in Scotland: burials, bling and the fish event horizon!
Updated: Dec 19, 2018
When I spotted the Vikings in Scotland conference advertised I knew it was once again time to make the trip to the bright lights of Scotland's central belt. Vikings in Scotland: An Archaeological Survey (1998), by James Graham-Campbell and Colleen Batey was a groundbreaking work. Twenty years later, and this Viking conference was designed to celebrate Campbell and Batey's work, by sharing the latest research on this fascinating topic.
The conference opened with a field trip to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, including the rare opportunity to get behind the scenes to see Viking material not on display!
This led on to an enjoyable afternoon in the Early People galleries with archaeologists and curators who had worked on the Museum's Viking collection. There was a lot of serious bling: coins, jewellery, ring money, and weaponry discovered in hoards and burials. Including this remarkably well preserved horse which was found in a boat burial where it been sacrificed in order that its master had a mount to ride in the afterlife. This remarkably well preserved specimen is currently having its DNA sequenced, in an attempt to discover the missing link between the modern British and Icelandic horse.
Thursday brought me an unwanted gift, a really bad cold (never go south, it’s full of germs!) and two packed days of archaeological updates on recent work in Viking Scotland. My new notebook, bought specially for the occasion, started to fill up remarkably rapidly!
Archaeological sites presented and discussed ranged right across Scotland, from the borders north to Shetland and across to the Western Isles. The historical period spanned from first contact Viking raid sites to late Norse settlements. Shetland saw updates on work at Old Scatness, St Ninian’s Isle, Hamar and Underhoull. Themes arching across all the papers included native-Norse contact, settlement, power, trade and economy. The maritime basis of the culture was evident throughout the sessions with house sites chosen carefully to watch the sea (Hamar & Underhoull), a posh stone façade on the seaward side with turf round the back (Underhoull) and even evidence of a thriving settlement of pirate fishermen at the Brough of Deerness (Orkney)! The famous trade routes provided evidence of everything from walrus ivory and lava quernstones to steatite from Catpund and of course lots and lots of fish!
Commonly referred to as the fish event horizon, there is a massive increase in fishing visible on sites between the 9th and 11th centuries. Shetland and Orkney specialised in cod fishing at this time, while the Western Isles focussed on herring. Fish were preserved by drying and salting and this product was widely exported. This new fishing industry utilised advances in boat technology that allowed fishing in deeper and more treacherous waters. Fish during this era were caught using hand lines, hooks, and sinkers and this early established fishing industry has resulted in a strong tradition of fishing, particularly in the Northern Isles, and specifically Shetland.
Far too quickly the conference was over, and it was time for me to catch the 12 hour overnight Northlink ferry home. In my cabin, safely tucked up in my bunk, I imagined what it must have been like to sail through the notorious Sumburgh Roost on a stormy night in an open longship.
Written by Esther Renwick