In Depth - Excavation and the Story of Four Sites

October 28, 2015

 

The decision to excavate in archaeology is not nearly as simple as burying a spade in the dirt; if but it were.  Instead there are a multitude of compelling reasons for and against that must first be considered such as resources, expectation of outcomes, necessity and current state of deterioration for just a start.  If some of the conditions are positively met and the decision is to excavate then further scrutiny must be given to what level is the dig intended to reach and what will become of the site once completed.  Moreover, as excavation is often a process of destruction, we must consider whether with current best practices and technology if we are in an ideal position to make full use of the information we’ve gathered or indeed if we can hope to altogether maximise the information gathered under the conventional state of the field in the first place.  In examining these thoughts we shall explore some sites close to home as an illustrative exercise and endeavour to address some fundamental concerns of how to handle a site after the excavation has concluded.

 

One of the richest sites in Shetland, Old Scatness provides an excellent example with which to begin as it encompasses many of the questions surrounding site excavation and preservation.  Found in 1975 during construction of a new road at Sumburgh Airport, funds were raised so that by 1995 the Shetland Amenity Trust had purchased the land for excavation and as part of a public “Access to Heritage” project.  Excavated to the highest standard by Bradford University, over the next several years a broch, wheelhouse and late Iron Age village were uncovered in remarkable condition.  In addition to artefact finds crucial as dating evidence several prestige items were also uncovered including a Pictish carving of a bear, a boar, several painted rocks and later Viking artefacts shedding some light on the interaction between the two peoples at this time.

 

Pausing here for a moment, it’s important to note that two important conditions were met – expertise and funding.  Although the site was no longer under immediate threat from airport expansion, rightful patience was shown in lining up the necessary resources to maximise the information potential and this restraint paid off immensely in deepening our understanding of Iron Age life in Shetland.  Going further, the team decided to halt at this level since to fully excavate to the Bronze and Neolithic period layers would have resulted in damage or destruction to the richness of the Iron Age layer and the knowledge gain would likely have been minimal.  Following the excavation there is one more aspect that sets this site apart – the decision to build a recreation on nearby archaeologically sterile land as perhaps the best method to allow for interaction while simultaneously protecting much of the valuable site.

 

At nearby Jarlshof the history is somewhat more ‘polluted’ but certainly no less dramatic.  The most remarkable site in Shetland, it was found eroding out of a small cliff after a massive storm in the late 19th century.  While excavation began almost immediately in 1897 and for successive years through 1905, it wasn’t until 1925 and throughout the 1930s a more formal scientific approach was adopted culminating in the final full scale excavation between 1949 and 1952.  The complex site we see today – Neolithic and Bronze Age houses, a broch, three wheelhouses, Norse Longhouse, Medieval farmstead and finally a 16th century laird’s house all with attendant structures – is the result of decades of excavation and so unique it is not replicated by any other known site.

 

However, the site is not free of some minor yet still important noise.  As a result of so many hands in the mix over such a long period contamination of the layers was bound to occur.  This is exacerbated by the fact the early attempts to uncover the site were at times rushed and done so by enthusiasts who, while working to the standards of the time and with good intentions, were not in possession of the techniques and technology to make best use of the potential knowledge base.  Moreover, some rebuilding of walls and borrowed stone to strengthen weak points during the initial excavation does fundamentally alter the site as found even though within the scope of all that has been uncovered it is of a nuisance variety.  Nonetheless, some of the richness of the data from Old Scatness would likely have been replicated here if the find had occurred a century later.

 

By contrast, Mousa Broch is an entity unto itself where no sprawling complex or multiperiod settlement has been in evidence or for the most part sought after by intrusive excavation.  This is not to imply what is seen today is completely free of interference – the fact in the late Iron Age many of these brochs, Mousa included, were retrofitted with wheelhouses is enough to show that as a structure of its age it has already been altered.  More importantly, two features stand out as a cautionary lesson.

 

The first is a simple necessity found on most sites, especially of dry stone construction, where visitors are allowed to interact directly and that is the minor modifications for safety.  Here you see such things as wooden stairs, modern masonry to shore up weak points and iron rails.  Although such additions can obscure the original masonry and composition, particularly if one is looking at a profile with an unblemished eye, they are of little concern as the benefit is far greater than the small intrusion.

 

A bit more problematic were the alterations made during the initial 19th century investigation particularly around the entrance passage.  Although now restored to approximate its original construction, the enthusiastic antiquarians of the age had broken a new passage through to what was in reality an upper cell.  Breaking off the original lintels further destroyed the passageway and the interior wall section of the cell they reached.  They did this due to the debris build-up in the interior of the broch which had obscured the real passage just below.  Now cleared to floor level, the damage has nonetheless been done.

 

This is a theme of concern as regards Clickimin.  In a way it should come as no surprise since it is the most easily accessible and frequented broch in Shetland with an enormous amount of surrounding development.  It has been poked at, prodded, vandalised, stolen and borrowed from over the course of centuries.  It is reportedly so contaminated a site some have questioned as to what archaeological worth there still exists, or perhaps ever did, after the antiquarians first took excited notice of the crumbling site.  It is even debated, quite frantically by some, whether what remains is indeed any longer a ‘true’ broch or simply the product of the fertile imaginations of its first champions.

 

Rather than step directly into the thorny debate – it is a broch after all, modifications notwithstanding – a brief history of the site is important to consider.  Like many other brochs, Clickimin had a subsequent wheelhouse inserted after the broch came to disuse.  There is compelling evidence the site was occupied beforehand, likely the late Bronze Age, and thereafter though remained abandoned from the Norse period onward.  It does have some unique features – a blockhouse added around 100BC and its location on an islet, a location presumed to have been as accurate then as in the more recent past, being two of the more interesting.  The main issue with Clickimin is what story is being told?

 

In direct opposition to Old Scatness, Clickimin is in many ways a recreation in situ.  Those involved, from determined and zealous antiquarians to simple masons, rebuilt the structure with a less critical eye on preserving it in the best possible way than what would be done today.  In some sense one could view it as in part a product of its time rather than being wholly a product of the Iron Age.  This type of renovation also damaged the layers making it extremely difficult to parse out other bits of the story whether it is the extent of Bronze Age site habitation to later outbuildings presumed to be contemporary with its final phases as a wheelhouse and/or community.  Though individual finds, such as the footprint stone believed associated with important coronations, are not diminished the chronology such artefacts might have illuminated has in some ways been lost when held in compare with other sites.

 

These are important points to consider across all four sites profiled.  While Old Scatness, Jarlshof and Mousa give us a degree of accuracy that is to varying degrees as well as we can do with current techniques, technology and the circumstances under which they’ve been identified and excavated, Clickimin may not.  The common denominator between all these sites is the issue of authenticity, the attempt at portraying a reality that could be argued was in fact lost the minute a stone was moved from its original resting place, no longer itself in situ.  In Old Scatness a part of the site was destroyed before construction for the airport road was halted thus the picture is by default incomplete.  At Jarlshof the same is true due to storms and rising sea levels as well as the efforts at restoration of some walls and reconstruction of others, particularly in the immediate years after its discovery.  In Mousa parts have simply been lost by the substantial alterations to the entrance, albeit probably rightly believed to be minor, and other keys to its original appearance may still lie buried.

 

Despite this, these sites do tell a coherent story and are among the best representations we have uncovered; this is where Clickimin could be seen as most controversial.  Due to the frequency with which it is visited, and is likely the only broch most will ever see up close, it defines the concept of a broch in many people’s minds.  They may come away with little or no understanding of how it came to become what it is now and instead have a flawed, or at best confused, picture of the broch building period, life within the complex and in many ways what a broch was when it was constructed, something hotly debated still.  Moreover, one could argue that few brochs currently are best representative of the original intention and all sites examined are contaminated not simply by some of the alterations catalogued but by virtue of the fact they all had a wheelhouse inserted at some point later which undoubtedly changed the character of the pioneering structure.  However, the opposing view would naturally point to the importance of public interaction and understanding and this is undoubtedly the right position.  These places inspire, become the settings in people’s own narratives and help foster an appreciation for and protection of heritage.  As even greater technology becomes available and new sites are found, perhaps even more grand and rich, the story these sites have to tell will change as well. 

 

These sites are all among Shetland’s best, three with almost no parallel elsewhere, and while Clickimin has many virtues it also has many flaws.  But it tells a story and one that is important to our appreciation of Iron Age Shetland if not archaeology itself.  It may not tell it as straight and true as Old Scatness, Jarlshof and Mousa but really perhaps the best question should be to what extent it must?  Should it be authentic to our best understanding of the broch builder’s intentions or should it be authentic to the long and changing life of the monument? Or does it even matter?  It now has its own authenticity and, like Mousa, stands as a symbol of the broch.  Only today it also stands as monument to generations of picnics and hide and seek and is this any less important a part of its legacy?

 

 

References

 

Bruce, John (1906) 'Excavation of a Broch at Jarlshof, Sumburgh, Shetland', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 41, Page(s): 11-33

 

Fojut, Noel (1981) 'Is Mousa a Broch?', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 111. Page(s): 220-227

 

EXARC (2012) 'Discussion on Archaeological Reconstruction In Situ', Issue 2012/2; available online at http://exarc.net/issue-2012-2/mm/discussion-archaeological-reconstruction-situ 

 

Additional information gathered from site records at RCHAMS, Canmore Mapping, in particular http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/1049/details/lerwick+south+road+clickimin/ and

http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/513/details/jarlshof/ and

http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/944/details/mousa+broch+of+mousa/ and

 

http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/556/details/sumburgh+airport/

 

And these online resources:

 

UNESCO World Heritage Convention: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5677/

Shetland Heritage: http://www.shetland-heritage.co.uk

Undiscovered Scotland: http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/index.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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