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Skaill, Castle Of Snusgar

Castle (Medieval)(Possible)

Site Name Skaill, Castle Of Snusgar

Classification Castle (Medieval)(Possible)

Canmore ID 1674

Site Number HY21NW 21

NGR HY 2361 1960

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/site/1674

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish Sandwick
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

Archaeology Notes

HY21NW 21 2361 1960.

Although 'remains of a large building' were visible in 1795, nothing can now be seen.

Visited by RCAHMS 31 July 1928.

Statistical Account (OSA) 1795; RCAHMS 1946.

The site is on a grassy knoll. Mr Sinclair, Upper Quoy, Quoyloo, stated that he dug into the NW side of the knoll about 1934 and discovered traces of walling, but his excavation was of a minor nature and he filled it in. Nothing can now be seen, although the name was verified locally.

Visited by OS 20 May 1967.

Photography from the air in March 1978 appeared to indicate the presence of a ditch around the base of the mound, and raised the possibility that the mound was artificial. However, subsequent inspection on the ground has apparently failed to support this suggestion (information from P J Ashmore).

C D Morris et al. 1985.

Topographical and geophysical survey; excavation HY 236 196 Research project on building landscape context for

coastal erosive areas in zones affected by significant windblown sand. Previous survey in 2003 and further survey and excavations in 2004 (DES 2004, 95) at the Bay of Skaill was concentrated on North Bay environs, focusing on the mound on the N side of the bay known as the Castle of Snusgar (HY21NW 21; the probable site of the 1858 Skaill Viking silver hoard). Gradiometry showed a dense concentration of magnetic anomalies in the Snusgar mound and neighbouring mounds. The concentration of multi-period 'mound' sites around the N of the bay can now be expanded from one to at

least five foci (excluding Broch of Verron, HY21NW 22).

Two trenches were investigated in July and August 2005, one 5 x 30m radially situated in the SE flank of Snusgar, and one 10 x 5m (later extended by a further 5 x 4m) in a mound 60m to the E which had been the subject of geophysical survey in 2004. An auger transect was carried out at 10m intervals between the two mounds.

The intention was to ground-truth the 2003 and 2004 geophysics results, with the intention of further investigating the 2003 geophysics and establishing a structural/depositional sequence for the mounds, accompanied by a soil micromorphological profile.

The Snusgar trench revealed a complex midden/windblown sand stratigraphic sequence, which was interpreted provisionally on the basis of finds and midden character as ranging in date from Viking period to modern/post-medieval. These were comparable to layers encountered during excavation in 2004, and a deeper and narrower intervention this time allowed a greater measurement and recording opportunity for vertical stratigraphy (the emphasis in 2004 having

been on a more open-area horizontal sample).

The trench on the mound 60m to the E revealed Viking or Norse-period middens stratified over a substantially well-preserved stone building with in situ orthostatic internal divisions or 'furniture'. This had filled with windblown sand (which contributed to a diffuse gradiometer response in 2004) and was only partly cleared in the time available. Bone preservation was good and a range of animal and fish bone was retrieved from both trenches.

Reports to be lodged with Orkney SMR and NMRS.

Sponsors: HS, Orkney Islands Council, University of Oxford.

D Griffiths 2005

Activities

Excavation (28 July 2007 - 18 August 2007)

HY 2365 1962 A research project on building landscape context for coastal erosive areas in zones affected by significant wind-blown sand was undertaken from 28 July–18 August 2007. Previous survey in 2003 and further survey and excavations in 2004–6 at the Bay of Skaill was concentrated on N bay environs, focused on the mound on the N side of the bay known as the ‘Castle of Snusgar’ (the probable site of the 1858 Skaill Viking

silver hoard). Gradiometry showed a dense concentration of magnetic anomalies in the Snusgar mound and neighbouring mounds. The concentration of multi-period ‘mound’ sites around the N of the Bay can now be expanded from one to at least five foci (excluding Broch of Verron, HY21NW22). The excavation area opened as a test-trench in 2005 on mound to the E of ‘Castle of Snusgar’ revealed Viking or Norse period middens stratified over a substantially well preserved stone building with in situ orthostatic internal divisions or ‘furniture’. This had filled with windblown sand (which contributed to a diffuse gradiometer response in 2004). This was further excavated in 2006 and extended in 2007. A coherent spread of stone walls has now been revealed standing up to 0.5m high with clearly defined internal and external areas, stone flagged floors and

entrances. Finds suggest a Viking/Late Norse date, including an extremely well preserved decorated antler comb from a sealed context under a flagged floor. A series of OSL samples are currently being processed at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology, Oxford University, and a radiocarbon application for a series of dates is pending.

Bone preservation was good (currently being assessed by Dr I Mainland, Bradford University). Environmental samples were floated and processed on site and are being assessed for archaeobotanic evidence and radiocarbon potential by Dr D Aldritt, GUARD, Glasgow. The finds are being conserved on behalf of Historic Scotland by AOC Conservation Services, Edinburgh.

Data Structure Report deposited with HS, Interim Reports to be deposited with Orkney SMR, Orkney Museum and RCAHMS. Archive presently in Room 317, OUDCE, Oxford University.

Funder: Historic Scotland, Oxford University.

Excavation (2 August 2008 - 30 August 2008)

HY 2365 1962 This project focuses on building landscape context for coastal erosive areas in zones affected by significant windblown sand. Work from 2–30 August 2008 built on the previous survey (2003) and survey and excavations (2004–7) at the Bay of Skaill, which concentrated on N bay environs and focussed on the mound on the N side of the bay known as the ‘Castle of Snusgar’, which was the probable site of the 1858 Skaill Viking silver hoard. Gradiometry showed a dense concentration of magnetic anomalies in the Snusgar

mound and neighbouring mounds. The concentration of multi-period ‘mound’ sites around the N of the Bay can now be expanded from one to at least five foci (excluding Broch of Verron, RCAHMS HY21NW 22).

The excavation area opened as a test trench in 2005 on the mound to the E of ‘Castle of Snusgar’, revealed Viking or Norse-period middens stratified over a well preserved stone building with in situ orthostatic internal divisions or ‘furniture’. This had filled with windblown sand, which contributed to a diffuse gradiometer response in 2004. This was further excavated in 2006–7 and extended in 2008.

A coherent spread of stone walls has now been revealed standing up to 0.5m high, with clearly defined internal

and external areas, stone flagged floors and entrances. Immediately to the N of the buildings exposed in 2005–7 (continued in 2008), the central section of a much larger bow-sided longhouse was exposed, with stone flagged floors, a central walkway and box benches at the sides. Strong evidence for spatial zoning in the character of deposits and a stub wall indicated the division between animal and domestic occupation. Finds and a coherent group of radiocarbon dates (SUERC, 2008) indicate a Viking/Late Norse date between

cAD 1000–1200, which has been confirmed by a series of OSL samples processed at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology, Oxford University.

Outside the buildings exposed in 2005–7 was a square ‘yard’ area which was heavily burnt and contained very large quantities of metalworking waste, ferrous and non-ferrous slag.

Bone preservation was good, and bone is currently being assessed by Dr I Mainland, Bradford University.

Environmental samples were floated and processed on site and are being assessed for archaeobotanic evidence and radiocarbon potential by Dr D Alldritt, Glasgow.

The finds are being conserved on behalf of Historic Scotland by AOC Conservation Services, Edinburgh.

A geophysical survey was begun at Marwick Bay (continuing).

Archive: Oxford University. Report: HS, Orkney SMR, Orkney Museum and RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Historic Scotland and Oxford University

David Griffiths (Oxford University), 2008

Geophysical Survey (20 June 2009 - 29 June 2009)

HY 2365 1962, HY 2283 2399 and HY 2300 2410 This project focuses on building landscape context for erosive coastal areas with significant windblown sand. Work from 20–29 June 2009 focused on the mound complex on the N side of the Bay of Skaill. Gradiometry and GPR showed a dense concentration of magnetic anomalies which were subjected to selective excavation in 2004–8. The concentration of multi-period ‘mound’ sites around the N of the Bay can now be expanded from one to at least five foci (excluding Broch of Verron, RCAHMS HY21NW 22 and RBW HY21 12, Verron 2). No excavation took place in 2009 but geophysical surveys

were continued and extended, connecting with the previous survey of the WHS buffer zone to the S (Orkney College Geophysics Unit).

A geophysical survey was begun at Marwick Bay in 2008 and continued in 2009. The chapel (SAM 2934) produced strong magnetometry and resistivity plots. Survey, characterisation, recording and soil sampling works also took place on the eroding settlement mound on the shore front of Marwick Bay (SAM 2884 – termed ‘Viking house’ by RCAHMS). Samples and radiocarbon dates will be processed in 2010.

Archive: OUDCE, Oxford University. Report: Historic Scotland, Orkney Museum, Orkney SMR and RCAHMS

Funder: Historic Scotland, Orkney Islands Council and Oxford University

David Griffiths – Oxford University

Excavation (24 July 2010 - 30 August 2010)

HY 2365 1962 This project focuses on building landscape

context for erosive coastal areas with significant windblown

sand. A previous survey in 2003 and further survey and

excavations in 2004–8 concentrated on the N bay environs.

Gradiometry showed a dense concentration of magnetic

anomalies in the ‘Castle of Snusgar’ and neighbouring

mounds. The concentration of multi-period ‘mound’ sites

around the N of the Bay of Skaill can now be expanded

from one to at least five foci (excluding Broch of Verron,

HY21NW 22).

Work from 24 July–30 August 2010 focused on an area

initially opened as a test trench in 2005 on the mound

100m to the East of ‘Castle of Snusgar’, which had revealed

Viking and Norse period middens stratified over a well

preserved stone building with in situ orthostatic internal

divisions or ‘furniture’. Excavation continued in 2006–8 and

was extended in 2010. A coherent complex of stone walls

has now been revealed standing up to 1m high with clearly

defined internal and external areas, stone flagged floors,

yards and entrances. External to the buildings exposed in

2005–8 (now viewed as outbuildings) was a square ‘yard’

area which was heavily burnt and contained very large

quantities of metalworking waste, ferrous and non-ferrous

slag. This was fully excavated in 2010, revealing a series of

four well preserved bowl hearths separated by laminated clay

floors, and producing large amounts of ferrous and some

non-ferrous metalworking residues. These are now being

assessed at NMS. Radiocarbon dates taken in 2008 indicate

that the upper fills of the metalworking features contain

charred material from around AD 1000. Outside and to the SE

of the frequently rebuilt ancillary buildings were rich, deep

midden deposits. Underlying these were a drain system and

an earlier phase of stone buildings of a less rectilinear, more

curvilinear plan, perhaps dating to the early- or even the pre-

Viking period.

In 2008 the central section of a much larger longhouse,

with walls standing over a metre, was exposed immediately

to the N of the buildings excavated in 2005–7. Connected to

them by a staircase and flagged yard. In 2008 the longhouse

was seen as a stone flagged entrance area, a drain and central

walkway to the E, and box benches and hearth deposits to

the W. Strong evidence for spatial zoning in the character

of deposits and a stub wall indicated the division between

animal and domestic occupation. Finds and a coherent group

of radiocarbon dates (SUERC, 2008, 2009) provided a Viking/

Late Norse date between AD c1000–1200.

The longhouse building was almost fully exposed in 2010

(with only a small section in the W end remaining unexcavated

between two trenches). Both ends of the building were

identified, confirming it at 23.6m long, with intact stone side

benches, laminated floors and hearths, sunken stone-lined

box-pits, and symmetrically sited postholes. The building was

constructed in at least three phases; beginning with a simple

bow-sided longhouse, later extended E to create the byre/

working area (when the stub wall was probably built), and

W, with a substantial rectilinear longhouse style extension to

the living area. The western extension was constructed with

wider side-benches and cooking hearths in a central kerbed

zone. The internal entrance passage between the dwelling

area and byre was well preserved with the door socket in

situ. All finds and samples were 3-D plotted and stratigraphic

analysis, phasing and further radiocarbon dating are under

way. Animal bone preservation was good and environmental

samples are being assessed. Finds are currently undergoing

conservation.

Archive: Currently with University of Oxford. Reports: HS, Orkney

Museum and RCAHMS

Funder: Historic Scotland, University of Oxford and Orkney Islands

Council

Excavation (August 2011)

HY 2365 1962 and HY 2460 2700 This project, which began in 2003, focuses on building landscape context for erosive coastal areas with significant windblown sand. Geophysical survey and targeted excavation have taken place at three bays and their hinterlands at Birsay, Marwick and Skaill.

The Brough of Birsay, the Point of Buckquoy, parts of Birsay Links, and areas surrounding the bay frontage at Marwick were all surveyed 2003–10. Survey and excavations in 2003–10 at the Bay of Skaill concentrated on the N bay environs. Gradiometry showed a dense concentration of magnetic anomalies on a group of five large settlement mounds on the northern margins of the Links of Skaill, immediately NE of the bay frontage. These have been tested selectively by excavation.

Excavations in 2004–10 revealed Viking and Norse period middens stratified over well preserved stone buildings on two large settlement mounds: ‘Castle of Snusgar’ and ‘East Mound’. On ‘East Mound’, a coherent complex of stone structures surrounding a longhouse 26.3m in length was revealed in 2010, with walls standing up to 1m high with clearly defined internal and external areas, stone flagged floors, yards, flights of steps, and entrances. Radiocarbon and OSL dates from samples taken in 2004–8 indicated a general chronology AD c950–1200 for occupation layers on ‘Snusgar’ and ‘East Mound’. Further refinements in 2011, from dates taken from occupation levels and metalworking hearths in 2010, and ongoing statistical analysis by Derek Hamilton of SUERC, suggest the main domestic occupation phase of the longhouse and its associated buildings on East Mound is dated to a relative narrow chronological range in the early 11th century AD.

In August 2011 a 15 x 2m trench was excavated on the sloping periphery of the settlement complex to test the mound/soil formation deposits in this area. As with other peripheral interventions on the edges of these settlement mounds, a complex build up of laminated sands and buried ground surfaces was exposed, trending towards waterlogged silts nearest to the burn edge, and showing indirect settlement influences. These layers were sampled and recorded in section and further soil, environmental and dating analyses are in process. A 2 x 2m test pit was also machine excavated on a possible smaller mound feature to the SE of ‘East Mound’ on the other side of the burn. This area had been surveyed using magnetometry in 2005, with generally negative results, and the test pit confirmed a depth of clean windblown sand to 2m, the lowest practicable excavation depth in such soft and unstable ground, eliminating the possibility that this particular ‘feature’ is archaeological in origin.

Geophysical survey was undertaken using a Bartington G601-2 gradiometer and a Geoscan RM15 twin probe resistance meter, on 20m grids taking readings at 0.25m with 1 separation, and the data was processed using Archaesurveyor™ software. In 2011, a possible mound feature 100m to the E of ‘East Mound’ at the Bay of Skaill was surveyed with both magnetometer and resistivity, having been topographically surveyed in 2010. The site was found to be badly contaminated by modern activity but some potential was highlighted at the uppermost part of the feature where a stone dyke crosses it. A surface survey and geophysics where also undertaken on the one remaining scheduled site yet to be investigated within its study area: the mound known as Saevar Howe (SAM 1373) on the southern edge of Birsay Links. This is another large sandy settlement mound, known to be of significant archaeological interest, having been excavated on two previous occasions in 1862 and 1977, producing evidence of Pictish and Norse burials and structures. Its current condition is poor, suffering weathering and deflation, and animal erosion by rabbits and cattle. A large deflation hollow occupies the centre of the mound, which partly may be due to previous excavations, and which is strewn with metallic and other debris dating from WW2 and later. The survey aimed to further characterise its remaining archaeological importance and assess its vulnerability to further degradation. A topographic model was compiled using a Leica 400 Total Station and Surfer™, which was supplemented by 0.64ha of combined magnetometer and resistivity survey. A large rectilinear feature occupies the upper area of the mound, surrounding the deflation hollow, which is of potential archaeological significance. This possibly represents a large, coherent stone feature which has probably been made visible magnetically by a build up of midden around its exterior. Elsewhere on the mound, and particularly on its northern side, are more diffuse amorphous anomalies of a type which have become familiar on several such large sandy settlement mounds already surveyed at the Bay of Skaill. These are caused by multiple layers of organic midden and windblown sand producing a combined magnetic response. Resistivity and 3D survey modelling have helped to give these some depth and topographic resolution. This summary is based only on the first stage of visualising the results: further processing and refinement is ongoing.

Archive: University of Oxford (currently). Reports: Historic Scotland, Orkney Museum and RCAHMS

Funder: Historic Scotland, Oxford University and Orkney Islands Council

University of Oxford, 2011

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