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Unst, Belmont

Farmstead (Norse), Settlement (Period Unassigned)

Site Name Unst, Belmont

Classification Farmstead (Norse), Settlement (Period Unassigned)

Alternative Name(s) Wadbister

Canmore ID 49

Site Number HP50SE 29

NGR HP 5683 0070

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

Permalink http://canmore.org.uk/site/49

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

Archaeology Notes

HP50SE 29 5683 0070

(HP 5683 0073) Viking House

Information from Shetland Museum 6" map.

A Viking House 74ft by 22ft, with walls 3ft thick reduced to lower course. On the N side is an outhouse or enclosure, 38ft by 24ft, with rounded corners. At the W end is a plantie-crub.

Information from Shetland Museum Card Index

This is a typical example of a Norse type farmsteading which may be of any date between the Viking period and 150-200 years ago. It is constructed down a slight slope measuring 20.0m by 4.5m internally with walls 0.8m to 1.5m thick. Several large slabs define parts of the inner wall face, and the SE end has rounded corners. It is overlaid in part by a ruined plantie-crub, and the footings of a small modern enclosure lie to the N.

Surveyed at 1/2500.

Visited by OS (AA) 7 May 1969.

Norse Farmstead [NR]

OS 1:10,000 map, 1973.

HP 5683 0070 During July and August investigations on a Norse farmstead were initiated on a slope near Belmont (Wadbister) at the S tip of Unst. A Norse longhouse c 22 x 5m (internally) was uncovered. The house, which is suspected to be of 9 to 10th-century date, had curved walls of c 1m in thickness and was aligned downslope. A smaller Late Norse house with a length of c 12m was later built on top of the Viking structure. There are traces of other buildings in the vicinity and a stone dyke surrounding the farmyard is still preserved. Approximately 100m S another house structure of presumed pre-Norse date was discovered. A number of cup marks assumed to be Bronze Age were recognised in the surface of a rocky outcrop near the Norse site.

Most finds are of stone, especially steatite and schist. They include a number of sherds of steatite vessels, sinkers, spindle whorls, a hanging lamp and a miniature millstone.

Sponsors: Shetland Amenity Trust, Copenhagen University.

A C Larsen 1996.

HU 56 99; HU 57 99; HP 56 00; HP 57 00. The southernmost area of Unst was surveyed in order to provide a context for last year's excavation at Belmont (Larsen 1996). Field systems associated with the site were mapped, together with four other potentially Norse buildings and their fields. Two of the Norse sites lay amongst the crofting settlements of Mulla, Easter and Wester Heogland, for which good documentary evidence survives. Two groups of boat-shaped stone settings were located and may represent Viking boat-graves, but they may be of earlier date. The more obvious sites had been previously recorded but the sheer density of the sites and their inter-relationships had not previously been recognised - over 600 elements being recorded.

In addition, a small area around the excavated site at Soterberg was also mapped in order to identify features potentially related to the site.

Sponsors: Historic Scotland, Shetland Amenity Trust, Shetland Enterprise Company.

V E Turner and M Macleod 1997

One unroofed building is depicted on the 1st edition of the OS 6-inch map (Orkney and Shetland (Shetland) 1881, sheet viii) and on the current edition of the OS 1:10000 map (1973).

Information from RCAHMS (SAH) 6 February 2001

HP 568 007 Belmont

The settlement of which the Norse site is part is located on a W-facing slope consisting of marginal hill grazing at around 60m OD. A small stream runs through the site. The Norse settlement is aligned downslope and is part of a multi-period complex. Excavation of the site began in 1996 (Larsen 1997a, b) as part of an extensive investigation of Viking Age (early Norse) and Late Norse settlement in Unst, initiated in 1994 by the University of Copenhagen (Stummannhansen 1995a, b). Systematic field walking, survey and trial excavations at a number of sites led to a research and training excavation at Belmont. The 1996 investigation led to the removal of a planticrub covering a structure which was partly excavated and preliminarily interpreted as a two-phase Norse longhouse. In the initial excavation report, the site is referred to as Setters (Larsen 1997a, b) after the nearest place-name.

The principal objective for 2006 was to delimit as far as possible the area of Norse settlement in order to determine the construction and character of the different house units, the settlement structure, the economic resource unit and the dating of the different phases of the Norse farm. The excavation area of 10 years ago was extended significantly to the N and S and a little to the W and E in an effort to delimit the Norse farm.

Longhouse

The Norse dwelling house first recorded in 1996 was excavated in sections throughout the floor layer in order to locate any potential signs of the inner house construction and habitation phases. The longhouse was approximately 22m long x 7m wide at the broadest (centre) part of the long wall (external measurements). The walls are curved with a thickness of approximately 1m at the house-ends and 1.5m in the middle of the house. They are constructed with inner and outer shells of dry stones, with cores of turf and smaller stones. The house is orientated approximately E-W. In the E, upslope end, a presumed elongated hearth is centrally placed in the floor and along the inner side of the walls signs of possible benches are recorded. Further evidence of the internal construction is represented by a posthole for a probable roof support. The W, lower-lying end of the house presumably served as a byre. A feature suggestive of a drain from this end runs from the inner to the external wall of the house and then downslope from the gable end. The longhouse has a least one entrance situated near the middle of the northern sidewall. The southern long wall of the longhouse appears to have been straightened in a later building phase.

Extensions

Deturfing in 2006 led to the discovery of two extensions to the N of the longhouse and possibly another to the S. The northerly rectangular extensions were situated on either side of the longhouse entrance.

A later construction

At a later stage the house was rebuilt. A shorter version of similar construction was erected partly re-using the older foundations at the W end of the longhouse. This new house was approximately 13 x 6m (externally) and had a fireplace against the S wall.

Paved areas and drains

Several features connected with the longhouse were recorded and partly excavated during the excavation.

Paved areas were documented inside the house near the entrance and, in a fragmentary nature, at the W end. Outside the house, fragmentary paved areas were recorded mainly around the N part of the E gable end and along the W part of the northern long wall. Paved areas along the southern long wall were found to the S and W. What appeared to be paved steps were uncovered outside the entrance in the middle of the northern long wall leading to the N.

A stone-built drain was revealed outside and along the southern long wall. It was finely paved at its E end and situated very close to the stream which had a bend where the drain began. The drain continued downslope along the long wall and probably also partly inside the house.

Outhouse or enclosure

An oblong structure situated parallel and to the N of the longhouse might be connected with it. This appeared to be of single stone wall construction, with no evidence of turf. This structure was probably either an outhouse or an enclosure for animals.

Stone walls

Two further stone walls were recorded. One was connected to the SW gable end of the house and ran S. The other wall was better preserved and was connected to the NE part of the E extension N of the longhouse. This wall ran N and then W. A smaller circular, stone structure had been incorporated on its southern side. This might have been a grain-drying building.

Norse finds

Around 300 finds have been recorded during the excavations, including artefacts (eg steatite, serpentine or schist lamps, spindle whorls, net sinkers), fragments of household articles, and raw materials, both local and imported.

Preliminary dating

The layout of the structures as well as the finds suggest possible dates for the settlement site. The earliest phase of the longhouse, with its curved walls, its size, the byre and the centrally-placed hearth, has parallels with other sites in Shetland (eg the earliest Norse phase at Jarlshof) and the Faroe Islands, which have been dated to the 9th to 10th centuries AD.

The later phase has parallels with the Norse site at Underhoull. The hearth is placed along the wall and the size of the house is smaller, features which seem characteristic for the medieval or late Norse period. This structure is currently tentatively dated to the 11th to 12th centuries AD.

Rock carvings

A cup-marked area of bedrock to the NW of the longhouse was already known (Larsen 1997a, b). Additional cup-marks were discovered this year in the same area. Meanwhile, the excavations revealed cup-marked exposures in the paved area S of the southern long wall. Another cup-marked stone was found in the NW corner of the gable end.

Field survey

Prior to excavation, detailed survey was carried out at a number of longhouse sites within Unst. Detailed contour survey was carried out in penmap at the longhouses at Hamar (two sites), the Head of Mula, Lund and Stove (Bond et al 2006). Detailed survey of house sites and associated field systems/landscape features were carried out at Belmont, Gardie, Watlie, Stove, Underhoull and Hamar. The results of these surveys have been processed in GIS. They helped inform which sites should be examined by excavation. Augering and more detailed examination of the soils in the vicinity of the sites are continuing. This will provide additional information about the economy and land-use of these, potentially marginal, sites.

Archive to be lodged with NMRS once post-excavation completed.

Sponsor: European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, Shetland Amenity Trust, Shetland Development Trust, Shetland Enterprise, The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, University of Copenhagen

JM Bond, A-C Larsen and VE Turner 2006.

Activities

Excavation (2008)

HP 568 007 - Belmont - The settlement, of which the Norse site is part, is located on a W facing slope consisting of marginal hill grazing at around 30m OD. The Norse settlement is aligned downslope and is part of a multi-period complex. Earlier excavations took place in 1996 and 2006 (Larsen 1997a, 1997b; Bond, Larsen and Turner 2006), as part of an extensive investigation of Viking Age (early Norse) and Late Norse settlement in Unst.

The principal objective for 2008 was to further investigate the phases defined in 2006 including:

• Deposits pre-dating the construction of the longhouse.

• A Viking longhouse (primary house) with curved walls and with drains constructed before the house. Soils

associated with the house.

• Second phase longhouse with the walls straightened and with the extensions added to the building. Soils

associated with this phase of the longhouse and its extensions.

• Late Norse structure built over the north-western portion of the longhouse and with a re-modelled north-western extension. Soils associated with this phase of the house and its extensions.

• Deposits post-dating abandonment of the longhouse.

• Planticrub structure and soils associated with the planticrub cultivation. The planticrub was constructed

over the abandoned Late Norse house in the postmedieval period.

• The construction and character of the different house units, the settlement structure, the economic resource

unit and the dating of the different phases of the Norse farm.

The excavation area of two years ago was extended with a new area (Area 20) to the N of the NW extension and with another area (Area 19) to the S of the longhouse. Removing the last remains of the planticrub on top of the northern longwall made it possible to get a better insight into the different building phases of the Norse settlement.

Longhouse (House 1) – The interior of the Norse dwellinghouse (measuring approximately 22 x 7m) was excavated through the removal of internal baulks and further removal of floor layers. In the SE (upper slope) part of the longhouse the centrally placed longfire (hearth) was further investigated and a paved area was found N of the hearth. This paved area leads to a tentatively identified entrance in the northern long wall.

The bench located in 2006 in the northern part of the upper end of the house was located further to the NW and was seen as a continuous structure running along the northern longwall. In the lower-lying end of the longhouse a set of postholes for roof supporting posts were identified near the NW gable end, and together with the posthole identified in 2006 the two postholes can be linked to House I. Another new discovery in House I was an entrance in the middle of the southern longwall opposite the northern entrance located in 1996. This year’s work confirmed that the original northern longwall had been straightened in a later building phase.

Extensions – The western extension situated to the N of the longhouse was further excavated and a paved passage was located running between the northern longwall and this extension. From this passage an entrance leads into the extension. The deposits in the eastern extension were only briefly investigated but it was possible to locate a concentration of hammer scale indicating that metalworking activities had taken place there.

Later construction – A better understanding of the shorter, rebuilt, later house (House II – c13 x 6m) was obtained. Apart from the fireplace constructed against the S wall (already identified in 1996) a new centrally placed hearth was found. This hearth was constructed re-using part of the internal drain of House I. A little to the N of this hearth a posthole (for a roof supporting post) cut into the bedrock was excavated. To the S of the hearth a flat stone situated opposite this posthole indicated a probable base for another roof supporting post.

An additional possible posthole was found immediately inside the SE gable end of House II. To the N of this possible posthole a bench was located inside the eastern gable end running SE/NW along the northern wall of House II. This area was extremely rich in finds (see below). Environmental samples were taken from inside the structures.

Paved areas and drains – Several paved areas connected with the longhouse were more thoroughly investigated – eg around the entrance area of the northern longwall in House I. A slab with two drilled holes found in the interior part of this entrance of the longhouse might indicate the presence of an internal dividing wall (eg made of wicker). A part of the internal drain in House I was reused as a hearth in House II.

Outhouse or enclosure – The SE part of the oblong structure situated parallel and to the N of the longhouse was uncovered in order to determine any stratigraphic relationship between this structure and the Norse settlement. The pathway running from the northern entrance of the longhouse and between the two extensions was discovered to continue further to the N. It was possible to follow the pathway passing and overlying the oblong structure which means that the latter is older that the pathway. The structure seems to have a double-walled construction, but its dating is uncertain. Parallels are known from Neolithic times in Shetland (eg West Mainland).

Stone walls – The stone walls uncovered in 2006 were further surveyed in 2008 in order to produce data for a three dimensional model of the Norse site.

Norse finds – More than 300 finds were uncovered this season, including artefacts such as steatite lamps, net

sinkers, line sinkers, hones of schist (local and imported Eidsborg types), fragments of household articles such

as pottery and steatite bowls as well as large amounts of raw materials and manufacturing waste. One of the most significant finds this season was an iron bloom found in a circular stone structure to the S of the longhouse (found on the last day of excavation). Some form of channel seems to be running downslope from this structure. Another find of potential importance is a roundish, composite metal object, presumably a weight.

Preliminary dating – The layout of the structures and the finds suggest possible dates for the settlement site. The earliest phase of the longhouse, its curved walls, size, the byre and the centrally placed hearth, has parallels with other Norse sites in Shetland and the Faroe Islands, dated to the 9th–10th centuries AD. The later House II has parallels with the Norse coastal site at Underhoull. The two hearths indicate two different phases of House II. The house is smaller, a feature which seems characteristic of the medieval or late Norse period. The structure is currently tentatively dated to the 11th–12th centuries AD.

Rock carvings – The cup-marked feature to the S of the southern longwall was further delimited but it is still

uncertain whether it is a cup-marked stone or if the cupmarks were made on bedrock.

Economy – The large quantities of worked steatite, raw material and manufacturing waste indicate that steatite

quarrying and production might have played a very important role in the economy of Norse Belmont. This summer, a survey took place in order to determine the proximity and extent of local steatite resources. Several outcrops were found in the vicinity and some showed traces of having been worked. The survey and geological maps show seven to eight outcrops of steatite near Belmont.

The discovery of an iron bloom indicates that iron smelting could also have played a part in the economy of Belmont. Excavations will continue at Belmont in 2009.

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

Excavation (June 2009)

The final season of excavation at Belmont (part of the Viking Unst Project) continued in June 2009. Previous work has defined structural elements of a multi-period Norse settlement with a longhouse and two extensions in several phases, a single stone structure and two cup-marked areas to the NW and S of the longhouse.

Belmont - HP 568 007 The Viking and late Norse site of Belmont is situated at the southern tip of the island of Unst. The settlement is aligned downslope and located on a W-facing slope consisting of marginal hill grazing at c30m OD. The Norse settlement is part of a multi-period complex. The main objectives for the excavation at Belmont include:

• Identification of the scale and nature of the entire farmstead – the economic unit – including structures and

field boundaries.

• Distinction and interpretation of any phasing information, including the identification of structural modifications, both internally and through the addition of extensions, annexes and other related structures.

• Provision of opportunities for students, the local community and volunteers to take part in archaeological

fieldwork.

• Provision of information that informs the wider aims and objectives of the Viking Unst Project, including the

development and expansion of the Norse (Viking and Late Norse) settlement and its associated landscape.

In the first phases of the excavations at Belmont the multiperiod site appeared to be less complicated than it was found to be in the last excavation season. A Norse longhouse, House I (9th- to 10th-century), with curved walls, was built aligned downslope. In a later phase of House I, an eastern and a western extension had been added. Covering the lower-lying part of House I, a smaller Late Norse house was built on top of the longhouse. The younger house was constructed in a similar manner to the earlier Viking structure. A pathway ran from the longhouse between the two extensions to a presumed enclosure situated to the NW of the longhouse. In the post-medieval period a planticrub was constructed on top of the later Norse structure before the site was completely abandoned.

A cup-marked area of bedrock facing cultivable land was discovered c30m to the NW of the longhouse (Larsen 1997a). A cup-marked stone was also found in the NW corner of the gable end of House I and additional cup marks were discovered in a paved area S of the southern long wall of House I. In the area of Belmont archaeological remains like stone walls, enclosures etc are richly represented and some of them may date from the Neolithic or Bronze Age. The landscape around Belmont seems to have been inhabited over several thousands of years.

Longhouse (House I) - The whole interior of the Norse dwelling (House I) was excavated in order to record the inner house construction and habitation phases. House I, which has curved walls, was the earliest of the Norse houses and was c22m long x 7m wide (external measurements). The curved walls were constructed of two parallel rows of large stones with an inner and outer shell of dry stones and with a rubble core of earth and smaller stones. The walls were between 1m and 1.5m thick. The wall was extant around the eastern gable, southern wall and western gable. In a later phase of House I the northern long wall was truncated and the central section straightened. This was probably done to facilitate the construction of the extensions to the N of

this area. Within the longhouse a number of features were located and defined.

Entrances - An entrance to the N was defined by an area of paving. A slab near the entrance might have been connected to the construction of the northern entrance or indicated the presence of an internal dividing wall. Another entrance in the northern long wall, located in the upper part of the house, and a southern entrance opposite the northern one, were both documented.

Sunken floors, benches and posts - In the upper eastern part of the house two sunken floors were recorded at

different levels. The sunken areas were filled with occupation deposits. Benches defining the edges of the sunken floors had already been located during the first excavation season, along the inner parts of the long walls and the eastern gable end of the house. A posthole was located to the N of the hearth next to the northern bench. Two other postholes were found in the upper part of the longhouse near the gable end. In the lower-lying end a set of postholes were identified near the western gable end.

Hearths and drains - In the upper part of the longhouse an elongated hearth was placed in the centre of the sunken floor, in the eastern end of the longhouse. Another hearth, in the upper part near the gable end, had been truncated at a later stage by a drain running in the middle and along the long walls in the house. Another hearth was located in the sunken floor immediately to the W of the upper sunken floor. Samples have been taken for archaeo-magnetic dating.

The land surface was probably cleared and a number of drains constructed before the longhouse was built. For example, a drain consisting of flat slabs was located immediately outside the southern walls and ran the whole length of the southern wall and its continuation. A possible second drain parallel to the first ran along the inner part of the southern long wall and through the long wall.

Byre - The lower-lying western end of House I contained a possible byre which had been heavily truncated by the later shorter house and the planticrub. A drain ran through the centre of the byre and exited under the western gable end, where there appears to have been an outflow and a circular structure to collect the waste from the animals.

Eastern extension - The extension was added to the northern wall, and was a well built rectangular structure c7.5m long x 3.5m wide (internally). There was an entrance in the wall to the W. In the second phase of this extension the northern wall was extended to the E to create a larger building. At this stage the entrance in the north-eastern wall of the longhouse was blocked by the new eastern wall of the eastern extension. The

presence of hammerscale, charcoal and massive amounts of slag in the surface of the floor deposits indicated that this area had been used for metalworking.

Western extension - The north-western extension, which had a paved passage between it and the northern long wall and an entrance which led into the interior of this outbuilding, was in a much more ruinous state. It had two phases and was built with a double-skinned stone wall with a rubble and soil core. It measured c7 x 3m (internally) and the walls were up to c1.5m thick.

The Late Norse house (House II) House II, which has been built on top of the western part and lower-lying end of

the longhouse, measured c13 x 6m (externally). The eastern gable end was well defined and the wall was constructed with a double face of stone and a probable turf and stone core. An additional dump of rubble and soil was used during this phase of construction to infill the southern and northern entrance to House I. Many more of the details of the interior of this building were resolved this year. For example, several postholes were uncovered in the floor layers.

Bench and hearth - A small stone feature was recorded in the NE corner of the gable. It was probably a bench or storage area and consisted of a single rough course of masonry enclosing an area c1 x 2m. In the centre of the house, construction of the planticrub had left no undisturbed floor or occupation surfaces. There was a hearth, defined by a small stone setting, in the centre of House II. A secondary hearth next to the southern wall was further defined.

Paved areas - Several paved areas connected with the longhouse and its extensions were investigated around the entrance area in the northern long wall of House I. Paved areas were documented inside House I at the western end, and outside the house around the northern part of the eastern gable end. Paved areas were also recorded further along the western part of the northern long wall. Along the southern long wall paved areas were found to the E, S and W, many of them as part of the construction of the drains.

Field walls - Traces of stone walls surrounding the farmstead have been located. The stone walls were connected with the south-western gable end and the north-eastern part of the eastern extension N of the longhouse. The latter ran N, had a bend to the W, continued to the N and then ran in a western direction. Val Turner has been carrying out an assessment of the significance of these walls.

Environmental evidence - On-site sampling covered the whole excavation area at Belmont. Bulk samples from

contexts in the longhouse may supply insect and plant macrofossil data. Additional monoliths were also extracted from soil (including occupation layers) in the longhouse for palaeoenvironmental and soil micromorphological purposes. The environmental investigations are centred upon pollen and related sedimentological analyses and Kevin Edwards has investigated Belmont and other Norse sites on Unst by on- and off-site sampling. Val Turner is investigating the soils and field systems at Belmont and other Norse sites on Unst as part of her PhD research.

Norse finds - More than 1100 finds have been retrieved. They include artefacts such as a comb fragment, steatite lamps, net sinkers, loomweights, line sinkers, hones of schist, baking plates, and fragments of household articles such as pottery and steatite bowls, as well as large amounts of raw materials and

manufacturing waste, mainly of steatite. Massive amounts of slag plus hammerscale, charcoal and an iron bloom were also found. The large quantities of worked steatite, raw material and manufacturing waste indicate that steatite quarrying and production played a very important role in the economy of Norse Belmont. The majority of Shetland’s steatite outcrops are in Unst, and the close proximity of Belmont to the Belmont/

Head of Mula outcrop suggests local production. The presence of iron bloom, slag and hammerscale certainly indicate that iron smelting and iron working could also have played an important role in the economy of Belmont. These finds also raise pressing questions about local sources of ore and fuel, given that iron refining is such a resource-intensive process. It is possible that these finds also relate to the quarrying and working of steatite on the site, as good tools are essential.

Preliminary dating - The earliest phase of the longhouse House I, with its curved walls, its size, the byre and the centrally placed hearth, has parallels with other Norse sites in Shetland and the Faroe Islands dated to the 9th–10th centuries AD. The layout of the structures and the finds suggest similar dates.

The later House II has two hearths, one along the wall and one in the centre of the house, indicating at least two different occupational phases. The house was smaller, a feature which seems to be characteristic of the medieval or late Norse period. This structure is currently tentatively dated to the 11th–14th centuries AD. This is corroborated by the finds such as baking plates and imported ceramics. The result of archaeo-magnetic

dating is not yet available.

The four excavation seasons at Belmont have provided much valuable information for the Viking Unst Project. The excavation provided enough detail to inform the consolidation exercise at Belmont, as well as sufficient information about Norse house types and their construction to make it possible to build a reconstruction of a Viking longhouse. The samples taken will yield data on plant macrofossils, insects, bones, charcoal etc. Deposits were left in the sections for potential future sampling. Post-excavation work and dating of the Belmont site is continuing. The excavation was carried out as a research and training excavation with students from the University of Copenhagen, Scottish, Icelandic and Danish archaeologists, specialists and local volunteers.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, Shetland Amenity Trust, Shetland Development Trust, Shetland Enterprise, The Viking Fortress Trelleborg in Denmark and University of Copenhagen

Anne-Christine Larsen and Val Turner – The Viking Fortress Trelleborg in Denmark, University of Copenhagen and Shetland Amenity Trust

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