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Publication Account

Date 1997

Event ID 1017081

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Publication Account


The multi-period site at Jarlshof is physically dominated by the ruined 16th-century laird's house (no. 18), but it is best known for its extensive Viking-age settlement, first discovered in 1933 and thus demonstrating Sir Waiter Scott's percipience in inventing the name 'Jarlshof'. The proper name is Sumburgh, which derives from an Old Norse name, but it is impossible to know whether it was used in Viking times for this particular farm, for the whole head land or indeed for another Norse site as yet undiscovered in the area. The earliest recorded forms of the name in 15th-century documents are Svinaborg and Soundborg. Svinaborg may mean either 'Svein's fort' or 'fort of pigs'; if the latter, perhaps it was a derogatory term derived by the Norsemen ftom the ruins of the old broch, which must still have been quite impressive in Viking times. But there was also a large prehistoric fort on Sumburgh Head (see no. 4), to which the name may have been applied. Soundborg is likely to mean 'south fort'. Although Sumburgh Head is mentioned in Orkneyinga Saga, there is no hint of an important farm nearby, which suggests that, despite its prominence in the surviving archaeological record, Jarlshof may have been a place of little consequence in its own day. The remains of the Norse buildings form such a complex tangle of superimposed walls that it can be quite difficult for the visitor to sort them out; the best place to start is with the earliest wellinghouse, House 1, the £loor-area of which can easily be distinguished by its modern covering of white gravel. This was first built in the 9th century as a typical hall-house, some 21 m long, with a long open hearth in the centre of the hall, a row of timber posts down each long side to help support the roof, and low benches lining the walls; subsequent modifications added cross-walls and elongated the building, particularly by the addition of a byre at the east end, entered by a long paved passage-way. Outhouses belonging to the early hallhouse included a possible bath-house outside the west end of the main building, which is visible as a small square structure with a central hearth. Most of the later Norse houses were built at right angles and to the north and west of House 1, each of them undergoing later modifications of design, and the entire complex is thought to date from the 9th to the 13th or 14th centuries to judge from datable objects found either in the buildings or in middens outside them.

The succeeding medieval farm built probably in the early 14th century is a rare early example of the sort of farm still being built in recent times (see chapter 4). It consisted of a dwelling-house and barn built parallel and lose to each other, with a small circular corn-drying kiln set into one corner of the barn (only the northern parts of the two buildings now survive, the rest having been removed in order to expose prehistoric structures beneath). The farm seems to have been inhabited during both the 14th and 15th centuries.

The archaeological importance of Viking-Age Jarlshof tends to overshadow the earlier remains on the site, but these too are of considerable interest, both as individual buildings and as a sequence showing the development of a settlement that appears to have been continuous over some 2,500 years prior to the arrival of the Norsemen. Among the excavated structures, there are no major buildings that can be assigned to Early Christian times or more specifically to the Picts, but it is possible that our understanding of this period of the site's history is grossly incomplete: such buildings may lie undetected in unexcavated areas (such as under the 16th-century house) or they may have been destroyed by coastal erosion. Minor structures of this period seem to have been sunk into the ground with stone pillars to help support the roof, and they may have been storehouses. There were certainly Picts on the site, because there are a few quite special Pictish artefacts, such as painted quartzite pebbles, a small stone disc incised with the double disc and Z-rod symbol, and sketches in Pictish style incised on fragments of slate. These include two male portraits in profile and two masted boats. The two wheelhouses on the north side of the broch are particularly interesting and well preserved examples of a distinctive type of dwelling that was built in the Western Isles of Scotland as well as in Shetland during the early centuries of the first millennium AD and earlier. This was a circular stone-built house in which radial piers not only divided up the internal perimeter of the house into storage and sleeping areas but also helped to support the roof, presumably a conical roof with a timber frame and turf or thatch covering. The hearth would be in the centre of the ho use. Partly overlain by the smaller wheelhouse are the remains of an earlier prototype, in which there is a gap between the pi ers and the house-wall. Less complete remains of wheelhouses survive both within and on the south-east side of the broch. The wheelhouse was a substanti al and, at Jarlshof, a most beautifully designed and constructed house, the equivalent in stone of the huge timber ho use with its internal ring of wooden posts to be found in southern Scotland and beyond in late prehistoric times.

Only half of the broch survives, the rest having been lost into the sea, but the remains of two cells can be seen built into the thickness of the massively solid broch walL

In front of the small museum are the earliest prehisroric houses, a series of circular and oval buildings spanning much of the first and second millennia BC, the later of which have attached underground storerooms or earth-houses. The best preserved of the earliest among them is Dwelling III, an oval house divided internally into small cells in the tradition seen elsewhere in Shetland, eg Pettigarth's Field, Whalsay (no. 53). It was within the ruined walls of this house that an itinerant bronzesmith from Ireland set up his workshop around 800 BC, supplying the inhabitants with bronze swords and axes and other goods; many fragments of broken clay moulds were found, as well as structural traces of the smithy.

At the easternmost corner of the site, adjacent to the medieval farm, are a few lengths of walling representing an oval house belonging ro the very earliest occupation. Abundant finds show links with late neolithic domestic sites in Orkney, especi lly with Skara Brae. As with all the early prehistoric levels on this site, it is likely that only a fraction of the original settlement has been excavated, more lying hidden beneath later structures.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Shetland’, (1997).

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