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In Depth

Ostentatious or Monumental? The evolution of the wheelhouse in Shetland

by Stephen Jennings

The following is an article based on the presentation given by the author to the Orkney Archaeology Society during their Brochtoberfest celebrations in 2023, the video of which can be seen here. The transcript has been much tightened up and reprinted here, absent the 'ums' and uhs', because some of the ideas are excellent fodder both for ongoing research here and, with hope, the wider archaeological community. As it was a live presentation and a bit free flowing based on a PowerPoint, there is a list of references at the end rather than citations as the article goes along.

This presentation will address issues of ostentation and monumentality in wheelhouse design and will look at the evolution of other forms of architecture as they occur in the late Iron Age, or what is sometimes referred to as the Pictish period. The whole point of this endeavour is ongoing research toward a comprehensive understanding of life conditions through architectural development during the Iron Age. In this, the architecture is addressing not just local conditions but possibly deteriorating conditions across all regions as time goes on and the response of the people to these changes is reflected in the architecture.

To begin, it would be beneficial to look at the evolution of roundhouses to wheelhouses and other forms through this period reflected in one well understood site, Old Scatness. The site was an exceptional excavation and important for many reasons, none more so than the architectural sequence it gave us for this period which helps to inform a variety of other sites. Looking at two of the larger roundhouses, structures 12 and 14, we can see how they were modified from short-piered or aisled roundhouses, where there is passage between the pier and the wall, built in the late 2nd century BC, to long-piered roundhouses which was a modification late in the 1st century BC. All of this architecture overlies the original Iron Age village, which was contemporary with the broch, built as early as the 4th century BC.

Old Scatness, Middle Iron Age

© Shetland Amenity Trust, University of Bradford

Middle Iron Age Old Scatness

Old Scatness, late Iron Age

© Shetland Amenity Trust, University of Bradford

Late Iron Age Old Scatness

The reason for these modifications to structure 12 and 14 is they are constructing at least a partial mezzanine level. This can be evidenced by the scarcement ledge running just below the top of the wall. In essence, what they are doing is creating really large structures with an internal diameter similar to that of the broch but with much thinner walls. So, these are still quite tall structures surrounding an even more impressive broch. However, it is believed these modifications eventually led to structural collapse in the 1st century AD when they were subsequently abandoned and filled with midden. At this point the village begins to migrate south and east where we see long-piered roundhouses in their original construction rather than modified aisled roundhouses. Structure 21 is of interest as it has a medial wall that bisects it which likely, again, held another level. At this time we also see the inside of the broch modified, and likely taken down in height, with the construction of a long-piered roundhouse, structure 16, filling the interior space.


A salient point to make here is the varying size and layout of the structures. Structure 21 has the largest internal diameter of any on site. Yet, you can see variations in size with the much smaller structures 11, 20 and 25. There is also disparity in shape where these smaller structures are wedged in the available spaces left between the bank and ditch that surrounds the village and the grander architecture with the larger buildings.


From around the 5th to the 7th Century AD is when we start to see the wheelhouses appear. These differ in construction in a variety of ways. Thick v-shaped piers with full cell corbelling replaces the thinner long piers, still with a terminal orthostat. The structures are semi-subterranean with a much smaller internal diameter which necessarily creates a smaller communal space around the central hearth. This modification occurs inside the broch as well where we get structure 7, the clover leaf house, around this time. We also begin to get more ephemeral structures as this late Iron Age/Pictish period continues. Built using edge set slabs, much of the architecture of the village has evolved to these small cellular structures.


One of the main points to this quick tutorial of the architectural evolution at Old Scatness is to understand how the term ‘wheelhouse’ as it is often used is covering too broad a time span and masks the important architectural differences in these buildings. This is something the excavators of Old Scatness understood, hence the variety of terms used when describing this evolution in style.


Secondly, the broad use of the term has been misleading in other ways as well, primarily with the assumption that wheelhouses, and roundhouses for that matter, were ostentatious. To paraphrase Ian Armit where he states that wheelhouses were designed to be impressive on the inside, this may in fact not be true at all. One of the problems with this idea is that we have no real sense of exactly how these structures were decorated on the inside. We have some hints, for example the use of yellow clay to line the inside of walls at Old Scatness and other sites, and the Scatness Bear which may have initially been a terminal orthostat opposite the entrance to structure 11. Otherwise, other than knowing how highly decorative the Picts were generally, the organic materials that may have held decoration have not survived.


Another point to quibble is the ‘monumental’ status so often ascribed to these buildings. To be sure, much of the architecture at Old Scatness is substantial, yet much of it is not. As we have seen, whether large or small, the architectural features throughout the different stages of evolution are shared widely. Using terms such as ‘monumental’ dismisses these smaller structures and confuses the architectural detail with the organisation of power structures. In other words, the term only works if the much more numerous smaller structures are ignored. Moreover, we may be imparting on the people of the past our views of housing today. It is not entirely clear they looked at the size of the building as representative of the different ‘classes’ of people during this period. On its head, the use of larger buildings with communal space could very well be indicative of a lower class using shared space where the elites of the community occupied smaller private spaces.


Returning to the architecture for a moment and the construction of large and at least partially multi-storied structures, one idea that has been little considered is the sense that the additional levels were a necessity due to space limitations within the village itself. We are already aware of the variety of shapes and sizes of the smaller buildings making up much of the village in all time periods as they are wedged between the bank and ditch and existing structures. On the surface this may seem a result of security precautions, hence hiding behind a bank and ditch. Yet, the wider environmental survey showed very clear clearly that at Old Scatness they had heavily improved the soils, especially from and through the early and middle Iron Age. This would have increased yields and food security which we believe would have created a more stable environment for population growth. Could, therefore, the addition of partial or full second storeys to these buildings be the result of the population growing within the confined space of a village surrounded by a bank and ditch where the land beyond is heavily cultivated? It may just be a simple solution in urban planning where there is no outward expansion available, thus your response to the need is to build upward.


Finally, looking at the decorated stone at Old Scatness and with an eye toward other sites, is there scope for a consideration of fashion of the time rather than addressing a deeper meaning with the symbols? Within this, plant representations in the home and on more portable material became highly desirable during the Renaissance. It is something we still do today. Could the representations of animals, especially with the absence of plant representations, be something of a fashion of the time period? Moreover, as we get to the later Iron Age when Christianity is meant to have been fully adopted in its early form, where are the Christian symbols on sites? Very few are found outside of an ecclesiastical setting. At Old Scatness, two fragments of what may have been a cross carved in relief, which stylistically would put it at about the 8th or 9th century, were found outside the site by about 50m. It could be that Christian symbols beyond an ecclesiastical setting were deemed sacrilegious. Nonetheless, if Christianity was permeating society to the extent believed, one might expect to find more of the associated symbols. In consideration of the Scatness Bear found face down in structure 11, possibly by this time a paving stone, and the boar graffiti found etched on a hearth kerbstone in structure 5, understanding the belief system through symbols becomes quite murky.

Beorgs of Housetter Wheelhouse

Beorgs of Housetter Wheelhouse

Lang Clodie Wick Wheelhouse

Lang Clodie Wick Wheelhouse

Going back to the main point in this presentation – ostentation and monumentality – it would be worthwhile to consider sites away from the power centres, as we believe them to be, of the broch villages handed down to the late Iron Age. With the large structures in the minority, and from where most of the information of this period and our interpretation via excavation has come, what exactly is happening at the majority smaller sites which has been most often ignored? At the Beorgs of Housetter we have a very small wheelhouse likely an architectural modification from an earlier oval house, perhaps Bronze Age. We can see this because the construction of v-shaped piers and corbelling abut the earlier wall skin rather than integration into the wall fabric. All sense of a communal space is largely gone where the central hearth would dominate the space. Does this tell us there is something important about this type of architecture at this time? The logical choice of more space simply by occupying the larger, earlier space is ignored for the purpose of retrofitting an architectural type.

Up in this same area of Northmavine we do have a very large wheelhouse at Lang Clodie Wick. Even this challenges what we think we know with the late Iron Age in that its closest safe entry point to the sea is 4km north. Therefore, how important is the sea during this period? It also competes with our notions of power centres and large structures. Two kilometres north and south are superior landscapes for crop growth, as we see them today, yet the structures on both sites are ephemeral and, in the case of the northern site, multi-cellular complexes. Hardly the large structures you might expect in land objectively superior to that of the large wheelhouse.

Grut Ness a few kilometres away on the north coast of Northmavine is an interesting hybrid example. Here we have a rather small, 10m diameter wheelhouse that is distinctly not semi-subterranean and another example of the v-shaped piers retrofitted in an earlier structure, one that appears to have its own little village around it with snaking passages to small, cellular buildings. It could be multiple phases of activity as observation alone is unable to show contemporaneity. It nonetheless shows there is importance attached to this emulating behaviour with the use of v-shaped piers. Is it a fashionable choice, just keeping up with the neighbours, or is there an underlying necessity we are not yet able to see?

Tracing a line along the principal lochs in this area of Northmavine, the Neolithic axe factory, we find four sites that are late Iron Age/Pictish period if we apply architectural typology. These are multi-cellular sites where low-lintelled passages connect the cells together. They are large sites in area ranging from perhaps a dozen to over twenty cells, always organised around one or two larger structures in the same manner as Grut Ness. Among the puzzles these sites present is that three of the four appear to have been constructed where the ready availability of stone was the overriding concern rather than the agricultural potential of the land. Is it hasty architecture, a response to factors outside the control of the people who built them? Or are they purpose built, utilised in a way we will not get at until excavation has taken place?

A compelling aspect to consider with these sites, and apropos to sites of similar construction, is the idea that we may simply be seeing a reorganisation of space. If the larger cells the sites are organised around are considered a communal space – and the do measure positively in that regard when – then the smaller cells connected by low passages are akin to the cells we witness with the roundhouses and wheelhouses. In this case, they are simply moved out a few metres to become private spaces. Rather than dwindling timber resources, which could be vastly overstated in light of newer evidence from Old Scatness and Northmavine on continuing use of local timber resources, this could be a result of changing social norms such as the need for more private spaces with the adoption of a Christian belief system. It may also be a response to the rise of a more nuclear family centred existence as the power shifts from a kinship-based system to clientship.

Burn of Roerwater

Burn of Roerwater Multicellular Site

In reality, the move to much smaller structures is likely the result of a complex set of circumstances. The middle of the 5th century is a period of multitude disasters any one of which would have upended society but, when taken together, would likely have profoundly transformed society. Starting about 541 AD, the people faced the Justinian Plague which lasted for the rest of the 6th century. Volcanic eruptions beginning in 536 AD, often called the Dust Veil Event, resulted in lost harvests and famine lasting until at least 550 AD. Even leprosy becomes problematic at this time. There is also rising tensions in the power vacuum created with the withdrawal of Rome, particularly between the Gaels and Picts, and the rise of petty kings. The rise of Christianity changes power relations and normative behaviours even further. Finally, the evidence for Shetland at least, indicates at some point between 536 AD and 700 AD, a tsunami event of seas 5-6m above sea level penetrated as far as two kilometres inland in low-lying areas which would have at least temporarily rendered the land difficult for crop growth. More importantly, the population loss from all of these disasters would have been extreme. This demographic and resource collapse may explain not just the changing architectural needs but also the reoccupation of largely Bronze Age upland sites.


An odd way to conclude and wrap this discussion up is to look at Stanydale Temple. When you revisit the original reports from Calder, it is clear that the latest layers – the initial layers he comes across – are multiple hearths in no orderly fashion bearing Iron Age pottery. He clears out a lot of stone debris, much of which may have been structural, as he is trying to make sense of the site and finally settles on, with considerable reconstruction, a temple design with multiple recesses opposite the entrance. He even finds yellow clay, something we do not really see until the Iron Age, in one of these recesses. With the benefit of hindsight and the many excavations of different sites in the years since, what we may actually have is an undoubtedly earlier site that has been heavily modified during the Iron Age to the point where the recesses may more properly belong to this later period. Yet another earlier upland site modified to fit the needs of changing circumstances in a challenging time.


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Past In Depth articles can be found in the Archive.

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