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2 - What Does Landnám Look Like? Excavations at Swandro and Old Scatness

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

Research at two multi-period settlement mounds, Old Scatness (Shetland; Dockrill et al. 2010) and Swandro (Rousay, Orkney; ongoing, Bond and Dockrill 2016), suggests that many first-generation Scandinavian settlements occur at pre-existing Pictish settlements and associated landscapes. Both sites have settlement biographies that provide evidence for long sequences spanning the Early Iron Age to the Norse period, including evidence for landnam, or first settlement. Settlement on existing Pictish ‘estates’ (highstatus settlements with associated agricultural land, often originating in the Iron Age or earlier) would provide access to both maritime and agricultural resources, and it is suggested that ‘estate taking’ may have been a means of procuring key locations.

The term landnam is used in several ways in archaeology; Cleasby in his Icelandic–English dictionary defined it as ‘taking possession of land as settler, settlement’ (Cleasby and Vigfusson 1874), while Danish palynologist Iversen used it in the 1940s to describe features in pollen diagrams which he thought indicated clearance of the landscape by incoming Neolithic farmers, and it is still used in this sense (Iversen 1941). In North Atlantic archaeology it is often used in the context of settlement of a presumed empty landscape by the Norse in Iceland or the Faroe Islands. Here we use it in preference to the more loaded term ‘colonisation’ to indicate initial Norse settlement.

Old Scatness, Shetland

The site of Old Scatness formed a focus of archaeological research in Shetland, with excavations taking place between 1995 and 2006 (Dockrill 2002; Dockrill et al. 2006, 2010). Old Scatness lies on the western coastline of Dunrossness, on the southern tip of Mainland Shetland. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean, and to the north-east, the natural harbour of the Pool of Virkie and the North Sea. The Old Red Sandstone sedimentary sequence is a continuation of the same geological sequence as Orkney and provides a fertile agricultural zone together with good building stone. A substantial Iron-Age village was built around an early broch, which formed the focal point of the settlement. The broch demonstrates a complex sequence of at least three main phases of use, the last of which extends into the Pictish period (Figure 2.1).

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The Viking Age in Scotland
Studies in Scottish Scandinavian Archaeology
, pp. 29 - 42
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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