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  • Stephen Jennings and Ellie Graham

An Enhanced Clean and Record - Gletness, Nesting

This past August, with oversight from Elinor Graham, PhD student at University of Aberdeen researching coastal erosion impacts on Scottish archaeological sites, Archaeology Shetland undertook a rather enhanced clean and record of a site eroding from the coast edge at Gletness, Nesting.

Coast Edge at Gletness, Nesting

This is a known late Iron Age site with a nearby burnt mound and a large circular structure to the west detected by a University of Bradford resistivity survey conducted in the early 1990s. Historically, the multi-period site has produced several artefacts from different time periods including Bronze and Iron Age pottery, numerous trough and rotary querns, a possible Viking comb, knocking stanes and Hanseatic pipkin spouts and legs. More recently it has produced what has been identified as late Iron Age/Pictish material including numerous potsherds and two fitted broken pieces of a decorated rotary quern. Gales in October of 2022 exposed a clear ash horizon from a hearth just above the bedrock (much of this you can read here in one of our past articles). With coast edges continuing to be lost to seasonal gales, the intervention hoped to make sense of the structures eroding out as well as recover enough hearth material for a C14 date.


As this intervention had limited time, we recorded the site moving from west to east along the coast edge (reference sketch above).

The westernmost edge of the site contained clear occupational deposits. It is a large, stone-lined cut into the till 1.8m long in section, c.0.75m deep and filled with rubble which includes a large amount of animal bone.

East of here is a possible foundation wall c.0.75m high, now damaged, aligned ENE-WSW with a very large edge-set boulder in front of the section which is possibly associated. Four courses form a butt end at the west edge, a foundation course of boulders running east along the section with rubble above, with a visible length of c.2.8m. It is interpreted as the remains of an ENE-WSW aligned wall which has been partially eroded, removing the face to expose the foundation course and rubble core in section. A large quantity of cattle bone was recovered here.

East of this, for a length of c.1m, a thin layer of red-brown clay c.0.1m thick at base of section, overlain by rubble with a large patch of shell midden above. It contained occasional flecks of charcoal with frequent finds of cattle bone. It may represent occupational debris. It may also be the old ground surface as it underlies a continuation of debris/rubble but is above the natural till. The shell midden appears to have been a later deposit and just sub-surface.

The section to the east of this was disturbed in the late C20th by the insertion of a concrete septic tank. Stonework behind the concrete slab is possibly in-situ walling, aligned NNW-SSE, formed of three courses of flat slabs laid horizontally running north into the section.

To the east of this is a void c.0.5m wide running north into the section filled with loose soil and large flat stones collapsing inwards from the top of the section. It contained a fragment of a steatite bowl, possibly a rim.

The section east of here contains a WNW-ESE aligned wall with large flat slabs up to 1m in size forming a foundation course visible for length of 3.5m. The west end has a face formed of edge-set slabs for a length of c.1m, which incorporates patches of orange clay containing burnt material, peat ash and animal bone as construction/packing material. East of this a rubble deposit overlies the slab foundations, interpreted as rubble core exposed by erosion of facing stones, and contained a small v-shaped hammerstone. The slabs at the east end of this wall overlie a thin, black, compacted deposit which contained pottery, including a rim sherd. It appears to be associated with the easternmost feature, a hearth. It is c.0.9m in length, up to 0.2m deep, orange and yellow clay with ash and charcoal flecks. It appears to sit on bedrock with an edge-set slab to the west as a possible kerb stone with possible further collapsed kerb stones to the east and south.


The material recovered from the hearth will be sent for C14 dating. The potsherds recovered have been tentatively identified as Iron Age and together with the steatite rim will be more formally identified. These analyses will form an addendum to this article when available.

We found the site may be the remains of an ephemeral structure(s) built into and around earlier, more substantial structures. It could explain the large quantities of rubble with a structure(s) built into and using earlier occupation material in the construction, ash and midden deposits incorporated into paving and walling for example. This is not unusual, both the Old Scatness Broch and Upper Scalloway Broch excavations showed the same use of occupational material incorporated into later structures. It is evident there are two, possibly three walls if the wall behind the septic tank is included as at least partially original, running obliquely into the section at different angles with the facing stones partly eroded out on the east and west walls to expose the rubble cores, with a few edge set slabs still in situ forming the face of the eastern wall. The hearth at the east of the site could possibly be an earlier phase as its exposure indicates it was built on bedrock. The architecture of the visible walls, however, are indicative of a late Iron Age/Pictish site with multiple, ephemeral cells connected by passageways. It could explain the recent appearance of clearly late Iron Age artefacts on the eroding site.


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