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4 - Echoes of Native–Norse Relationships in the Archaeology at St Ninian’s Isle, Shetland

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

The relationship between the native population and the incoming Norse has been one of the most contentious aspects of Viking-Age archaeology in Scotland over the last fifty years, with scholarship travelling back and forth between the two extremes of violent annihilation and peaceful assimilation, visiting various positions in between (see, for example, Morris 1998; Backlund 2001; Barrett 2003; Smith 2003). The archaeology at St Ninian’s Isle has an important contribution to make to the debate, not least in suggesting that the picture is far more intricate than the two extremes would suggest.

St Ninian’s Isle is a small island joined by a sandy tombolo (Figure 4.1) to the west coast of Dunrossness in south mainland Shetland (Figure 4.2). It is most well known for a hoard of Pictish silverware found in 1958 during excavations on the island led by Andrew O’Dell between 1955 and 1959, when his team excavated a myriad of Iron-Age to late medieval archaeological features from beneath up to 6m of windblown sand. Although short annual accounts and articles concerning the treasure were produced, the site was not published until 1973 by Alan Small, who had supervised there as a student (Small et al. 1973). Very little in the way of site records could be located, and the resulting volume unavoidably dealt primarily with the hoard; the account of the excavations themselves comprised only four pages, a plan and selected finds drawings, with Charles Thomas adding his own thoughts and a plan in relation to the sculptured stones (Thomas 1973). All that was known of a Viking-Age presence was the suggestion that the hoard had been buried in the floor of an early chapel on the site in the face of Viking raids around 800, and that four steatite cross-stones and a small hogback were found in the 1950s in the windblown sand that covered the site, with no record of their provenance (Thomas 1973: 13). References to St Ninian’s Isle in Viking surveys have, as a result, had to concentrate on these tantalising morsels of information (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998: 9, 14, 65, 227; also, for example, Crawford 1987: 128, 131, 159, 166; Morris 1990 (1994): 816–17).

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The Viking Age in Scotland
Studies in Scottish Scandinavian Archaeology
, pp. 57 - 72
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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