Norse hall discovered on Rousay

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An aerial view of the Skaill Farmstead excavation.  The recently uncovered Viking-Age hall can be seen on the left.
An aerial view of the Skaill Farmstead excavation. The recently uncovered Viking-Age hall can be seen on the left. [Image credit: Bobby Friel @Takethehighview]

A large Viking-Age hall has been discovered during recent excavations at Skaill Farmstead on the island of Rousay, Orkney. Dating to the 10th-12th centuries AD, the outline of the structure was revealed by a team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Archaeology Institute, who have been digging at the site for a number of seasons.

These previous excavations had focused on the later uses of the site in the 18th and 19th centuries as a farmstead, examining middens for evidence of diet, and farming and fishing practices. Because of its Norse name, however, Skaill was believed to have had early medieval origins as a high-status hall. Indeed, the purpose of the overall project (‘Landscapes of Change – Archaeologies of the Rousay Clearances and Westness Estate’, which is being undertaken in partnership with the Orkney Islands Council Archaeology Fund; the Rousay, Egilsay, and Wyre Development Trust; and Rousay Heritage) was to explore this earlier phase too, examining the use of the site from the island’s Norse occupation through to the mid-19th century, when it was abandoned during the Rousay Clearances.

Although the team had found early medieval structures on the site before, the hall had remained elusive, and was identified only when the walls of the farmstead were found to extend below the later settlement mound. Further investigation revealed substantial, 1m-wide stone walls spaced 5.5m apart, with internal features such as stone benches along either side. Small finds, such as steatite (soapstone from Shetland), pottery, a bone spindle-whorl, and a Norse bone comb have also been found to hint at its Viking Age use.

Although the hall has only been partially uncovered so far, it is believed to measure at least 13m in length and is oriented down the slope towards the sea. It appears to have many parallels to other Norse halls found in Orkney, such as that at Snusgar (see CA 253), as well as on mainland Scotland.

Commenting on the discovery, Dr Ingrid Mainland, one of the project’s co-directors, said: ‘We have recovered a millennium of middens which will allow us an unparalleled opportunity to look at changing dietary traditions, farming, and fishing practices from the Norse period up until the 19th century.’

This news article appears in issue 355 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to CA magazine, click here.

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