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Unst, Baltasound, Hamar

Settlement (Norse)

Site Name Unst, Baltasound, Hamar

Classification Settlement (Norse)

Alternative Name(s) Balta Sound; Keen Of Hamar; Swinna Ness; Yakob Yahorasons; Yakob Yahorabsons

Canmore ID 113014

Site Number HP60NW 22

NGR HP 6460 0940

NGR Description Centred HP 6460 0940

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Shetland Islands
  • Parish Unst
  • Former Region Shetland Islands Area
  • Former District Shetland
  • Former County Shetland


External Reference (22 April 1996)

HP60NW 22 centred 6460 0940

The monument known as Hamar, Norse settlement ENE of, Baltasound comprises the remains of a Viking period settlement, probably dating from the 9th to 10th centuries AD. The remains take the form of the foundations of a bow-walled longhouse, several lesser buildings and enclosure walls.

The site has been known locally for many years as Yakob Yahorasons or Yahorabsons.

Information from Historic Scotland (scheduling notice dated 22 April 1996).

Excavation (2007)

HP 6463 0933 Excavation of the site of Hamar in Unst (part of the Viking Unst Project) continued in 2007. Previous work had defined the structural elements of a longhouse, now referred to as Hamar House 1 (Area A).

In addition to the excavation of House 1, a second structure, higher up the slope to the north west identified as potentially Norse by Bond and Turner in 2003 and known as House 2, was investigated (Bond et al 2006: 3). House 2 seems to consist of a late, small structure overlying an earlier house with an associated yard boundary, both structures lying roughly E–W across the slope on slightly different alignments.

House 1 The preliminary excavation of the structure in 2006 revealed a sub-rectangular building divided internally into an upper and lower room and aligned roughly N-S on a small terrace (Bond et al 2006). Previous excavation within the upper room had partially reopened the trial trench excavated by Stumann Hansen (2000). In 2007 this trench was completely re-excavated, giving a section through the stratigraphy of the upper room for recording and sampling The large tumbled stones which filled the northern part of the upper room were also removed, revealing a set of later features including a fragment of double-faced wall running across the upper part of the room from the W wall, a secondary wall lining or base for a platform running N–S parallel to the E wall and a large stone setting in the centre of the room, perhaps for a single large post. These features seem to form a small inner room and are stratigraphically later than the ashy floor layers seen in Stumann Hansen’s trench. Extensive rabbit damage was seen in these late contexts and also in the upper part of the fill

sealed by them, which overlies the primary deposits. Excavation next season will allow access to and sampling of the primary floor layers.

In the 2006 season, the excavation of the lower room had focussed on defining the structure and its condition. It was the aim of the 2007 excavation season to fully excavate this area but also to use a number of geoarchaeological and environmental techniques to maximise the information available from the deposits.

The removal of the deposits infilling the lower room revealed a channel that had been cut through the natural bedrock, running under the southern doorway to an area outside of the structure. The channel was filled with ash and contained a hearth, located towards the southern doorway, associated with a number of

fragments of steatite and schist bake-plates. The channel is wider than the lower doorway and the deposits appear to be sealed by the end walls, suggesting that the walls had been rebuilt and the house shortened. A second possible hearth was recorded to the north of the channel feature, represented by a reddened area

of the natural bedrock. Two small shallow features, possibly the remains of postholes, were also recorded. The complete absence of finds or even charcoal flecking outside of the channel suggests that the room was cleaned down to bedrock at some point, only the material in the channel being buried and so preserved. This

change of function is probably associated with the rebuilding of the southern wall and entrance.

Excavation of the annexe to the W of the main structure revealed a possible floor surface. The remaining inner wall face of this room was heat-reddened in one area and the remains of a hearth, was recorded butting the wall and sealed by the later surface. The hearth will be sampled for archaeomagnetic dating and environmental analysis during the 2008 excavation season.

A series of sondages was excavated around the northern external area of House 1 in order to trace the full extent of the possible drainage gully first identified in the 2006 season. It was noted that the gully extended around the northern arc of the structure, though it could not be traced far along the western wall due to intensive rabbit damage and on the eastern side of the building it appears to fade away approximately half-way down the length of the upper room. There is at least one re-cut. The gully was sampled for soil micromorphology and palaeoentomology and for general biological analysis.

House 2 A small assessment trench was excavated across the short axis of the earlier part of House 2, revealing double-faced stone walls of a structure. Internally, the upper fills of the structure included a gravelly material at the NW end which was interpreted as a spill of the wall core into the structure following collapse or

robbing. Below this were ashy layers with heavy carbon flecking; subsequent analysis has shown that these contexts are rich in charred barley and oats. Artefacts recovered included worked pumice, square-sided steatite vessel fragments and fragments of schist whetstones.

Outside the structure, between it and the steeply-rising slope, the wall was butted by layers displaying varying degrees of carbon flecking with an amended soil or midden at the base of the excavated sequence over a an angular layer of rubble. Soil micromorphology samples were taken of the lower deposit. A second trench situated over the presumed later part of House 2 revealed contexts associated with the building’s postabandonment phase including collapse from the walls. No finds suggested an abandonment date earlier than the post-medieval period for this phase of the structure.

Funders: Heritage Lottery Fund, European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund (EAGGF), Shetland Development Trust, Shetland Enterprise Company, Shetland Amenity Trust, Historic Scotland, Shetland Islands Council, University of Bradford.

Excavation (2008)

This was the third year of the Viking Unst project which incorporates the excavation of Viking longhouses at Hamar, Belmont and Underhoull. Work at Hamar and Underhoull was drawn to a conclusion, with a further season proposed for Belmont.

Hamar, Baltasound - HP 6463 0933 This was the third year of work at Hamar and the second at Upper House, Underhoull (see DES 2006, 2007). The aims of this final season were to complete the excavation of the remaining features at Hamar House 1, the upper room, western annexe and ash pit/drain, while leaving the walls intact for consolidation and display. At House 2, the aims were to extend the exploratory trench opened in 2007 in order to understand (and date) the floor deposits beneath the medieval ash infill and to understand the ‘yard’ area between the house and the hill.

House 1 – Excavations at House 1 showed that there were many more phases of the structure than previous surveys and studies had suggested (Stummann Hansen 2000, Bond et al 2006). The latest (as yet undated) occupation seems to have used only part of the upper room, with a dividing wall and post setting forming a smaller space at the northern end. A stone setting running N/S parallel to the eastern long wall suggests the possibility of a sprung floor. A stone setting and burning part way up the wall on the western side indicate a

possible corner hearth or oven.

These features sealed an earlier phase where an ashy floor lay directly over bedrock. Early indications are that this phase relates to the building of the secondary cross wall which created the upper room, and that it dates to the Late Norse period. The finds from this floor surface included fragments of a pot with a gritty texture, a schist hone stone and fragments of steatite bake plate. Surprisingly, the bedrock floor surface was not dug into the slope of the hill to form benches and a sunken floor, as earlier investigations based on a small exploratory trench had suggested (Stummann Hansen 2000), but was mostly level with base of the walls.

This occupation surface sealed the deposits encountered in the earlier excavations, which were in fact the fill and floor surfaces of a sunken-floored structure which lay under the cross wall of the extant building and on the same alignment as the long walls. This structure is c3 x 4m with settings for post pads at the centre of the N and S pit edges and possible evidence for smaller corner posts. To the S the pit is c200mm deep, while to the N it is dug into the bedrock to a depth of c300mm. The finds from the deposits included a steatite line sinker and fragments of copper alloy. The later cross wall seals this feature and the infill of the pit. No closely

comparable sunken-featured building has been found in Shetland, although there are traces of a sunken structure at The Biggins, Papa Stour, and the Hamar structure bears a close resemblance to pit houses found in Norway dating from the 9th century and later (Crawford and Ballin Smith 1999, 208–213; Mårtensen 1997).

The upper room of House 1 at Hamar (Unst, Shetland), highlighting the sunken floor structure and drainage gully. (Drawn by Daniel Bashford) Investigation of the remaining fragments of the western annexe continued and revealed a wall hearth sealed by later flagging. Samples for archaeomagnetic dating were taken from this and other burnt features.

Work also concluded on the substantial ash pit running lengthwise down the lower room and out under the end wall of the house. It is now confirmed that the pit is older than the end walls and that the house must have been substantially shortened (or the position of the house as whole shifted down slope) when the later end wall was rebuilt over the ash pit. Whether this ash pit formed part of a structure of the same or an earlier or later phase as the sunken structure is not yet apparent. A lone posthole hard by the western long wall, with a fragment of steatite bake plate at the base of its fill, suggests that rebuilding may have been more substantial than is obvious from the remaining deposits.

House 2 – Work on House 2 investigated the deposits sealed by the medieval ash midden infill of the structure, which was rich in charred grains of hulled barley and fragments of straight-sided steatite vessels. The work demonstrated that there was a drain or gully on the hillward side of the building, presumably to drain hilllwash away from the walls of the house. Excavation of the interior revealed a flagged surface and a small patch of burning, which was sampled for archaeomagnetic dating.

British and Danish sponsors, funding bodies and support: European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, Shetland Amenity Trust, Shetland Development Trust, Shetland Enterprise Company, Shetland Islands Council, The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, University of Aberdeen, University of Bradford and University of Copenhagen

J M Bond, A C Larson and V E Turner, 2008

Geophysical Survey (11 June 2009 - 24 June 2009)

HP 6463 0933 Geophysical survey work that included earth resistance, topsoil magnetic susceptibility and electrical pseudosection methods was carried out over two longhouse structures at Hamar on 11–24 June 2009. The survey aimed to define the outlines of possible yard areas adjacent to the houses and to characterise the areas between the two sites.

The survey clearly identified the outline of a yard, with possible internal divisions, next to the northernmost of the longhouses. No geophysical responses could be linked to the possible yard area for the other longhouse. Several probable field boundaries were mapped between and surrounding the sites, against a background of strong geophysical responses from geological outcrops. In the area surrounding the more southerly of the two longhouses the earth resistance survey results highlighted a large area, which appears to relate to soil scalping noted during the 2006–2008 excavations.

I would like to thank Shetland Amenity Trust for their help in planning the fieldwork.

Report: Local authority and RCAHMS. North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation website (intended)

Funder: Hunter Archaeological and Historical Trust and Division of Archaeological, Geographical and Environmental Sciences (AGES), University of Bradford

Robert M Legg – University of Bradford

Augering Survey (5 October 2010 - 17 October 2010)

HP 6463 0933

The survey and soil sampling work conducted 5–17 October 2010 aimed to further define possible multiple relict field systems identified in 2009 (DES 2009, 166–167),

and to obtain samples which may make it possible to model the distribution of past agricultural land use around the two longhouses. An auger was used to obtain c70 soil samples for geochemical analysis. A large proportion of the area surveyed in 2009 using earth resistance was re-surveyed using a fluxgate gradiometer. The survey area was then extended S by an additional 60 x 100m. The area covered by the 2009 magnetic susceptibility was also extended S by an additional c60 x 60m. The survey results appear to highlight a number of relict field edges, at a number of different orientations, which will be further investigated during data modelling.

Archive: RCAHMS and Shetland SMR

Funder: University of Bradford and Hunter Archaeological and Historical Trust

R Legg 2010


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