Introduction: Getting Started!

gaming boardExcavations at the Viking Age and Pictish settlement on the Brough of Deerness have just begun – in cooperation with the Deerness in 100 Objects initiative. The team is led from the University of Cambridge, with the help of the Friends of St Ninian’s charity in Deerness and Orkney College. The crew are from far and wide: Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Scotland, England, The Netherlands and Poland.

The Brough of Deerness is a sea stack approximately 30 metres high, in the Mull Head Nature Reserve. It’s not an easy site to work on. Everything needs to be packed into the reserve by foot – up the cliffside path to the site – and back again. But it’s well worth it. On top of the stack are the remains of an extraordinary Viking Age village of approximately 30 houses and a chapel – all overlying what we now know was an earlier Pictish settlement.

At the end of the Viking Age the site seems to have been a chiefly citadel, perhaps like Tintagel in Cornwall. Thus far there have only been glimpses of the earlier remains. It is thus hard to say what happened on top of this beautiful but exposed pinnacle of rock in the early Viking Age and in Pictish times. This year we will try to find out, by completing (if we are lucky) the excavation of a Viking Age house and seeing what lies under its floor.

After digging out tons of earth and stone backfill in House 25 (from previous excavation in 2009) we have now spent a week of excavation. Thus far we’ve discovered a lead ingot and a crucible fragment (from metalworking) – and a stone gaming board. We’ve also collected animal bones and sediment samples to study preserved plant remains – in order to solve the mystery of how the settlement on the rock stack was supplied with provisions. Certainly its many occupants would have relied on the produce of distant farms. By expanding the excavation trench slightly we have also been able to see the relationship between House 25 and neighbouring buildings. One is probably Viking Age whereas another is much later in date. It is early days. Much more will become clear in the weeks to come …

James Barrett

1 July 2011