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2005 Fieldwork Season

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Week 3:

Our third week began with an open day on the Sunday, held so that local people and visitors to Unst could visit the site and see the excavation in progress. The day was cloudy and still, which meant that our most numerous visitors by far were millions of midges. In spite of the biting hordes, a good number of visitors came along for the open day to have a tour of the site and speak to the excavation staff and volunteers. The last visitor of the day was a fisherman from Muness, who rowed into the bay, came ashore and very kindly gave us several fish he'd just pulled out of the sea!

This was also the day that we exposed and excavated the skeleton. Once it was fully exposed, we could see that the person had been laid on his or her back in a grave, with one hand across the torso and the other at the groin. The head faced to the north, and some stones had been placed around the feet and beside the legs. To our excitement, as we cleaned away the sand beside the skull, a beautiful, perfectly circular disc of polished stone appeared. It had been tucked in just beside the mouth. The stone disc is similar to several others that have been found in northern Scotland, including at the Iron Age fort at Clickhimin on mainland Shetland. Perhaps it was a mirror, or an image of the moon; certainly it must have been important to whoever who buried this person here. We also found a small ornament beside the left arm, made of tiny rings of copper alloy and what looks like bone. This may have been a pendant or clothes fastener which slipped from its original position as the body decayed.

To view images of the skeleton, click here. To view a movie clip of the skeleton during excavation, click here. This is quite a large file (12 mb) and you'll need Apple's QuickTime Player to view the clip. The latest version is free to download at www.apple.com/uk/quicktime/home/win.html. Please be advised that the images show human remains under excavation.

At this stage in the excavation, we can say for certain that by the time the grave was dug, the building had gone out of use and was covered with a thick layer of clean sand that had blown off the beach. As we continue to expose the walls and remove the sand inside and around the building, we've come down onto a hearth, along with spreads of midden (or rubbish) deposits that lie around stones that have tumbled off the walls. This is telling us that, even after the building had partly collapsed, people continued to use its rooms, even rebuilding some of the walls to make cells of different shapes inside the old ruins.

John and midge friends The central cell (structure 2) of the building

John and midge friends

The central cell (structure 2) of the building

Hard at work

Hard at work on site

Week 4:
Margaret and her spindle whorl

Margaret with her spindle whorl

By our last few days of digging, we had made some sense of the building. It consists of three small rooms or cells. The largest (structure 1) is to the south, and here the walls stand well over a metre high. Stones collapsed from the upper part of the walls lie inside the cell, with a hearth and midden layers lying around and over the rubble - along with a strange deposit of what looks like talc (in fact, today talc is mined on Unst at Clibberswick, about 10 kilometres to the north of Sandwick). Margaret found a lovely spindle whorl among the stones of the wall.

The tiny central cell (structure 2) opens off the slightly larger northern one (structure 3). Inside both is a layer of yellow clay that lies around rubble collapse. To the east, all three cells have been partly destroyed by the sea, so there's no way of knowing their original shapes or sizes. However, from the eroding section we can tell that the walls and the deposits inside them continue down about another half-metre, so there will be plenty to dig next year -- as long as the site survives the winter storms.

After final recording of the exposed archaeology, we covered it with breathable geotextile, weighed down with sandbags, and stretched debris netting over the eroding section to proect it. Then the JCB filled in the trench again with sand. We dismantled our tea hut and put the turves back over the site, while Amanda and some of the volunteers washed and checked over the artefacts. Finally, we covered the whole area, including the upper part of the eroding section, with a huge salmon net and weighed that down with stones. We hope that will keep the site nice and snug for the winter, protected from gales

The south cell (structure 1), with the walls standing over a metre high. Scott plans the walls of the south cell.

The south cell (structure 1), with the walls standing over a metre high.

Scott plans the walls of the south cell.

Putting the turves back on. One last bit of surveying after the site's been covered with a fishing net.

Putting the turves back on.

One last bit of surveying after the site's been covered with a fishing net.

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