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Broch (Iron Age), Settlement (Period Unassigned), Wheelhouse(S) (Iron Age)

Site Name Jarlshof

Classification Broch (Iron Age), Settlement (Period Unassigned), Wheelhouse(S) (Iron Age)

Canmore ID 513

Site Number HU30NE 1

NGR HU 39819 09551

NGR Description Centred HU 39819 09551

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


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Administrative Areas

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

Summary Record (24 January 2012)

The multi-period site of Jarlshof is one of the best known prehistoric and Norse settlements in Shetland. Excavation has revealed many phases of occupation; the site comprises late Neolithic houses, a Bronze Age village, an Iron Age broch and wheelhouse, a large Norse house, a medieval farm, and a 16th century laird’s house.

The site appears to have been in almost constant use for almost four thousand years; with later developments being built upon and around the older structures. Today, the most visible elements of the site are the Norse buildings and the laird’s house.

Information from RCAHMS (HDS) 24 January 2012

Graham-Campbell, J and Batey, C E 1998

Archaeology Notes

HU30NE 1.00 centred 39819 09551

HU30NE 1.01 HU 398 095 Stone Discs

HU30NE 1.02 HU 39820 09531 Old House of Sumburgh

HU 398 095 Jarlshof (NR)

(In Ruins) Burial Ground (Bruce family) (NAT)

OS 6" map, Shetland, 2nd ed., (1903).

Fully described in Official Guide.

Jarlshof, Shetland Official Guide 1953.

Jarlshof as described in the Official Guide.

Surveyed at 1/2500.

Visited by OS(AA) 18 May 1968.

Crutch-headed pin of type attributed to the Viking period.

L R Laing 1973.

Donations to RMS.

Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1971; 1979; 1981.

Donations to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS).

NMAS 1977.

HU 397 095 In connection with the extension of the sea wall at Jarlshof to the W of the site, archaeologists from AOC (Scotland) Ltd cleaned and recorded the eroded parts of the cliff-section. To the S of Jarlshof, W of the present sea wall, the eroded section consisted of beach shingle overlain by a 2m-thick layer of spoil heap deposits from earlier excavations. One area contained a concentration of coarse pottery and fragments of steatite vessels, probably dumped by the excavator. To the W of the site, the eroded section consisted of windblown sands, in places overlain by spoil heap deposits. One stone structure was discovered in this area, embedded in windblown sand and covered by spoil heap deposits. The structure is badly eroded and consequently difficult to interpret; it may represent the remains of a building with a flagged floor.

M Dalland 1993.

(Clay mould for socketed axe of Meldreth type). Settlement find from the third and last occupation layer of house III. Mould of clay, broken, one half only, for a Meldreth axe without collar, much of lower part missing; overall length of fragment 87mm, possible length of axe 105mm. From the same layer have come a rib-tanged knife, fragments of clay moulds for at least eight socketed axes, seven swords, a socketed axe and a sunflower pin.

P K Schmidt and C B Burgess 1981.

HU 3980 0950 A watching brief was carried out by A Fox for Shetland Amenity Trust between November 1993 and February 1994 during construction work on new sea defences. The two features in the section were fully protected and work was stopped whenever the Guardianship site was threatened by cement dust. Oil, thought to be from the Braer incident, was located just above bedrock.

A full photographic record has been deposited at the NMRS.

V Turner 1994.

HU 398 095 Archaeological supervision was provided during a small excavation to lay founds for a storm porch which was to be added to the visitor centre. Nothing of archaeological significance was recorded.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Murray 1998.

An 8 week excavation took place in the summer of 1998. It intended to investigate the broch and surrounding settlement. The main North-South section of the broch was excavated. During the dig, over 2000 small artefacts were found. The largest group was pottery (including both prehistoric and post-medieval) to which 1684 small finds were allocated. See the detailed analysis and interpretation, see in MS 1941.

The archive from the Jarlshof 1993 archaeological assessment in advance of coastal protection works has been catalogued. The archive consists of geophysical survey and site reports, finds cards, photographic archive and section drawings of each segment investigated.

Historic Scotland Archive Project (SW) 2002

HU 398 095 Excavation in the NE zone of the Guardianship area of Jarlshof took place in July 2004. The extreme NE corner had been excavated by Richardson and Childe in 1937 and revealed the earliest occupational evidence and a sequence of midden and sand deposition spanning this early activity to the medieval period. The aim of the 2004 research excavation was to provide a fuller understanding for the site's development within this zone, enabling the cultural deposits and intervening sand blow events to be fully investigated. The research programme was designed to establish an economic and environmental reconstruction for the sequence observed by Childe, including the geoarchaeological investigation of the sand deposits within a detailed scientific chronology based on the integrated use of AMS radiocarbon dating and OSL. These sequences were examined in three areas.

Trench 1 was located on the first terrace, NW of the displayed remains representing the features within Childe's early sequences. The stratigraphic sequence revealed in Trench 1 can be

summarised as: topsoil, a grey sand, midden (equating to Childe's Midden II), and a white windblown calcareous sand which separated this upper midden from a more extensive lower midden (equating to Childe's Midden III). Both midden deposits contained artefacts and bone and showed clear signs of ard cultivation. Below this, a series of mineral sand deposits and buried turf lines sealed a black humic silt which covered bedrock. This silt seems to be the same as that sealed by mineral sand and Mesolithic midden at nearby West Voe (this volume, 118).

Trench 2 was located on the second terrace in order to provide a link between the prehistoric middens in Trench 1 and the Norse midden and possible Iron Age soils identified by Childe as overlying the deposits in the NE corner of the site. Trench 2 was also excavated to natural, revealing in the lower part substantially the same stratigraphic sequence as that observed in Trench 1, except that here, the humic silt above the bedrock also contained the remains of oyster shells and some charcoal. The upper stratigraphy showed clear evidence of a partly disturbed Norse midden containing steatite and other artefacts. Topsoil stripping in the 1930s prior to further excavation seems responsible for the disturbance. A total lack of mammal and fish bone within these Norse levels and a degree of bioturbation of the upper deposits is interpreted as being associated with degradation caused by this stripping and the subsequent landscaping of this zone.

A third intervention (Trench 3) on a small triangle of material that had survived this stripping revealed uncontaminated Norse midden with excellent bone survival. Excavation here allowed sampling of undisturbed Norse and Viking deposits that can be stratigraphically linked to the sequence in Trench 2.

Sponsors: HS, British Academy, Shetland Amenity Trust, University of Bradford.

S J Dockrill, J M Bond and C E Batey 2004.


Excavation (1931 - 1935)

Excavations at Jarlshof carried out on behalf of HM Office of Works by A. O. Curle, 1931-1935.

Excavation (1936 - 1939)

Between 1936 and 1939 Dr James S Richardson directed excavations of the Norse farmsteads. Work was brought to a halt by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Excavation (1949 - 1952)

Excavations by JRC Hamilton on behalf of the Ministry of Works.

Aerial Photography (October 1973)

Oblique aerial photographs by John Dewar in 1973.

Excavation (1993)

HU 397 095 In connection with the extension of the sea wall at Jarlshof to the W of the site, archaeologists from AOC (Scotland) Ltd cleaned and recorded the eroded parts of the cliff-section. To the S of Jarlshof, W of the present sea wall, the eroded section consisted of beach shingle overlain by a 2m-thick layer of spoil heap deposits from earlier excavations. One area contained a concentration of coarse pottery and fragments of steatite vessels, probably dumped by the excavator. To the W of the site, the eroded section consisted of windblown sands, in places overlain by spoil heap deposits. One stone structure was discovered in this area, embedded in windblown sand and covered by spoil heap deposits. The structure is badly eroded and consequently difficult to interpret; it may represent the remains of a building with a flagged floor.

M Dalland 1993.

Publication Account (1997)

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).

Excavation (19 August 1998)

Kirkdale Archaeology was contracted by Historic Scotland to provide archaeological supervision during a small excavation conducted by the local squad at Jarlshof, Shatland. This was necessary to lay founds for a storm porch which was to be added to the visitor centre. An area some 3.8m N-S by 2.2m E-W at the extreme S end of the W side of the visitor centre was to be taken down 300mm.

Prior to excavation a concrete gutter 200mm wide lay directly against this W wall, with to it’s W an area of cobbling set in concrete 1.05m wide. To the W of this the path, formed of similar cobbles but set in sand, covered the rest of the trench. The clean sand was not bottomed, while the concrete retaining the cobbled area overlay the construction trench for the visitor centre (constructed in the early 1970s), filled with boulders from the beach. Nothing of archaeological significance was recorded.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

D Murray 1998

Kirkdale Archaeology

Watching Brief (8 December 2008 - 14 May 2009)

HU 398 095 (centred on) Watching briefs were maintained during minor excavations between 8 December 2008 and 14 May 2009, as part of an ongoing programme to alter and enhance visitor access routes, and replace stone steps with ramps.

In December 2008 two sets of steps were removed at entrances to the Iron Age structures to the W of the 17th-century Old House, and another set was removed from the steep bank above and W of the earlier structures at the SE corner of the site. No deposits other than modern landscaping and access structures were excavated. A surface encountered below the steps at the W end of the entrance to the earthhouse may represent a previously undisturbed prehistoric horizon, containing bone and charcoal fragments. However, it seemed more likely to be the result of modern landscaping, perhaps using midden material and spoil from previous excavations.

In January 2009 an area of collapsed dry stone wall where the far W end of the Iron Age structures meet the southern limit of the site near the sea wall was examined. The reconstruction of this area of the wall was then monitored.

In February 2009 minor excavations were carried out as part of the programme to alter visitor access. This work consisted of an excavation along the W side of the visitor centre, removing landscaping deposits from a raised platform. A strip of turf just S of this, near the sea wall, was also removed. To allow access to the site from the N of the visitor centre, a wire fence was taken down and the removal of two fence posts was monitored. Prior to these works a small area of dry stone wall had collapsed, towards the N end of what are thought to be medieval structures to the NE of the Old House. A brief examination and photographic record were made of the affected area before remedial work. No finds or features of archaeological significance were recorded.

In May 2009 turf was removed from three structures around the courtyard of the 16th-century laird’s house. A small area of turf forming an ‘island’ in the gravel path just to the NE of these structures was also removed. A wooden viewing platform towards the SE limit of the site had been removed, and the removal of the bases for the platform was monitored. There were no finds or features of major archaeological significance, and the surfaces revealed in the three ‘rooms’ around the courtyard appeared to be redeposited material from excavations carried out in the late 19th and/or early 20th century.

Archive: RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Historic Scotland

Andrew Hollinrake – Kirkdale Archaeology

OASIS ID - kirkdale1-249682

Excavation (8 February 2010 - 9 February 2010)

Minor excavations were carried out at Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement, Shetland, in February 2010. A small area of drystone wall had collapsed, towards the north end of what are thought to be medieval structures to the northeast of the 'Old House'. This collapse had been recorded on a previous visit. In this latest work, the collapsed masonry was removed along with a few unstable stones still in situ and the exposed wall core recorded photographically. The wall was subsequently reconstructed using the same stone, keeping as close as possible to the original construction, with reference to archival photographs. In addition, the removal of stones and a narrow strip of turf from three small areas of the 'cobbled' path were monitored. This removal was to allow the replacement of the stone laid path with whin dust. There were no finds or features of archaeological significance revealed during these works.

Information from OASIS ID: kirkdale1-279393 (A Hollinrake) 2010

Geophysical Survey (20 April 2016 - 29 April 2016)

HU 39819 09551 A programme of geophysical survey was undertaken, 20–29 April 2016, over the western half of the site of Jarlshof. The work forms part of wider investigation of the site which aims to answer research questions and inform work to improve rabbit fencing and assess damage.

A combination of gradiometer, resistance and ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys was undertaken over c0.5ha. To aid interpretation of the data, and to topographically correct the GPR data, a limited topographic survey was also undertaken.

The gradiometer survey results revealed a much quieter level of response than one might expect at such a site, but some anomalies consistent with possible midden deposits have been noted. Although the resistance survey has identified numerous anomalies consistent with possible structural remains, interpretation is cautious. It is not clear if the anomalies detected indicate buried in situ remains or are simply due to past excavations, site consolidation and landscaping. The GPR survey has broadly mirrored the

results of the resistance survey. However, much additional information has been provided. In particular, a series of curving linear anomalies has been detected which are thought to represent a network of possible former paths.

All the data sets suggest that the site does not extend any great distance beyond the currently exposed archaeology. However, well defined anomalies have been detected in the NW of the survey area, but it is not clear if these are archaeological in origin, due to rabbit activity, past excavation and landscaping, or a combination of all of these factors.

Archive: Rose Geophysical Consultants

Funder: Historic Environment Scotland

Susan Ovenden – Rose Geophysical Consultants

(Source: DES, Volume 17)


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