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Before Vikings in Scotland: A Brief History of Viking-Age Archaeology in Scotland

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2023

Tom Horne
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Elizabeth Pierce
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Rachel Barrowman
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
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Summary

It was well over forty years ago that Colleen Batey and I first crossed the causeway to the beautiful Brough of Birsay (Figure 0.1). We will be forever grateful for that magic time of discovering Orkney, Vikings and archaeology – all within the same few weeks of digging on the Brough. That first encounter was in the mid-1970s, by which time excavations led by Morris and Hunter were underway (see Morris, this volume). Soon after, Morris extended his fieldwork to Birsay village and the Point of Buckquoy, where Ritchie (1977) had recently unearthed a sequence of Pictish dwellings overlain by Norse buildings, reviving the perennial controversy about what happened to the Picts when Scandinavians first arrived. In retrospect, this work heralded a new age of discovery and research about Norse Scotland, which culminated some twenty years later in Graham-Campbell and Batey’s comprehensive review of the archaeological evidence in Vikings in Scotland (1998) and has continued ever since. In the 1970s, though, our understanding was still fairly rudimentary.

The Northern Isles were invariably the focus of early research and had fared better than any other part of Scotland in terms of attention given; but it is salutary now to recall how few settlement sites were known then, even in Orkney, let alone investigated. In 1977, Ritchie lamented the ‘amazingly small body of evidence’. In his overview of Viking Orkney published in 1985, Morris concluded: ‘it is not yet possible to generalise about the settlement evolution of the area in the Viking period’.

The Brough of Birsay, in common with many monuments in the Northern Isles, had been examined by antiquarians, and was then partly excavated by the Ministry of Works before and after the Second World War to display the site (Morris, this volume). These interventions were something of a mixed blessing: on one hand, they made sites accessible and better known; on the other, they often ‘cleared’ rather than excavated sites, and sometimes inappropriately consolidated these important monuments. The results were also more likely to translate into guidebooks than full archaeological accounts, if they appeared at all.

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The Viking Age in Scotland
Studies in Scottish Scandinavian Archaeology
, pp. 1 - 10
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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