Archaeologists Unearth Norse-Period Hall in Scotland

A team of researchers from the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands has unearthed the remains of a large Norse building at the site of Skaill farmstead in Westness, Rousay, a small island about two miles (3 km) north of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

Skaill farmstead looking towards St Marys kirk and Midhowe Broch. Image credit: Bobby Friel, @Takethehighview / Archaeology Institute, the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Skaill farmstead looking towards St Marys kirk and Midhowe Broch. Image credit: Bobby Friel, @Takethehighview / Archaeology Institute, the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The Norse hall dates to the 10-12th centuries and was discovered below a more recent settlement.

The building appears to be in excess of 43 feet (13 m) long, and is oriented down the slope towards the sea.

Substantial 3.3-foot (1 m) wide stone walls were found 18 feet (5.5 m) apart with internal features such as stone benches along either side.

The archaeologists also found pottery, steatite (soap stone), a bone spindle whorl and a fragment of a Norse bone comb.

“We have recovered a millennia of middens which will allow us an unparalleled opportunity to look at changing dietary traditions, farming and fishing practices from the Norse period up until the 19th century,” said Dr. Ingrid Mainland, co-director of the excavations.

Skaill overhead view of the trenches, Norse Hall on the left. Image credit: Bobby Friel, @Takethehighview / Archaeology Institute, the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Skaill overhead view of the trenches, Norse Hall on the left. Image credit: Bobby Friel, @Takethehighview / Archaeology Institute, the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The present farm at Skaill dates to the 18-19th centuries and was part of the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century.

However, the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site.

Westness is mentioned in Orkneyinga saga as the home of Sigurd, a powerful chieftain, so it was always likely that a Norse settlement was located somewhere at Skaill.

“Although only partly uncovered at this stage, the Skaill hall has parallels with other Norse halls excavated in Orkney, such as Snusgar, and elsewhere in Scotland,” the scientists said.

“The finds provide tantalizing evidence for the earliest phases of habitation on this farm and settlement mound which may well have been inhabited for over 1,000 years.”

“The discovery of this and other complex buildings at Skaill, along with the rich artifact assemblages from the medieval and post-medieval periods, provides us with a tantalizing opportunity to understand life in Westness over the last few hundred years,” said Dr. Dan Lee, co-director of the excavations.

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