TAP Fieldwork in Shetland

Fig. 1. The Law Ting Holm, Tingwall, Shetland, during excavation in 2011 (photo by Ronny Weßling).

Fig. 1. The Law Ting Holm, Tingwall, Shetland, during excavation in 2011 (photo by Ronny Weßling).

June 2010:

The TAP team met in Shetland in June 2010 to perform the first joint fieldwork on thing sites. Three potential assembly sites were surveyed using geomagnetometry: a large scale analysis was conducted at Tingwall, Shetland Mainland. Two other sites were investigated at Dale, Mainland, and in Housa Voe on the island of Papa Stour. This work was carried out together with, Dr. Mathias Hensch, Schauhütte Archäologie in Regensburg. The two fieldwork reports can be downloaded here.

May 2011:

In May 2011 TAP carried out a research excavation at the Law Ting Holm in Tingwall on Shetland’s Mainland. The name Tingwall  is derived from Old Norse Þing völlr, meaning the “parliament or court field(s)”.

Fig. 2. Location of trench 1 and trench 2 overlain on the geomagnetic survey data (background map © Crown Copyright/database right 2010. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service) (image Joris Coolen).

Fig. 2. Location of trench 1 and trench 2 overlaid on the geomagnetic survey data (background map © Crown Copyright/database right 2010. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service) (image Joris Coolen).

The site is believed to be the place of the main assembly of Shetland, which was in use most likely from the Norse period to the second half of the 16th century. The lawthing at Tingwall, the representative assembly at which royal laws were introduced and enforced, is recorded in several written documents, the oldest of which dates from 1307, but it may well go back earlier. The site fell out of use when Lord Robert Stewart moved the assembly from Tingwall to Scalloway in the 1570s. The excavation followed the extensive geomagnetic survey carried out in June 2010.

Trench 1 (6 x 12 m) is located on the Holm. The excavation revealed a sequence of deposits of Iron Age settlement debris, but no architectural remains were observed. Below the settlement debris, two (possibly three) fire places or kilns were found. These could be the remains of simple hearths used for food production, as evidenced by the many burnt bones found at the site. Alternatively, they could be the remains of furnaces. The numerous slag finds from Law Ting Holm provide clear evidence of iron working at the site. The slags include furnace, tapped and smithing slags, proving both iron production in bloomery furnaces and smithing activities.

Fig. 3. Final documentation level of trench 1 (photograph Ronny Weßling).

Fig. 3. Final documentation level of trench 1 (photograph Ronny Weßling).

The settlement debris can be dated with the help from the prehistoric pottery assemblage which entirely consists of Middle and Late (Pictish) Iron Age pottery. None of the pottery fragments could be dated to the Norse period. Each of the contexts contained a mixture of Middle and Late Iron Age pottery, and no differentiation was seen in the contexts that might have suggested chronological deposition. In addition to the pottery, a great number of stone artefacts or tools was found, as well as animal bone remains, a few metal and bone objects. Surprisingly, the settlement debris also contained the disarticulated bone fragments of a child of approximately two or three years of age who suffered from meningitis at the time of death.

Fig. 4. Hearth C2012 during excavation (photograph Natascha Mehler).

Fig. 4. Hearth C2012 during excavation (photograph Natascha Mehler).

Trench 2 was situated north of trench 1 and cut through the causeway that links the Law Ting Holm with the former lakeshore. The excavation revealed a double road metal fill between the parallel stone alignments of the causeway. Fragments of plain whiteware, which were found at the base of the road metal fill, provide a terminus post quem after 1830. It has hitherto been assumed that the causeway was erected in the Viking Period or in the Middle Ages to provide access to the Holm as the site became the main meeting place of Shetland. This assumption is exclusively based on oral tradition as the causeway is not mentioned in written sources prior to the 18th century. The excavation has made clear that the causeway to the Law Ting Holm was maintained until the 19th  century. Between 1855 and 1878, the natural outlet of the Loch of Tingwall into the Loch of Asta was straightened, causing the water level in the Loch of Tingwall to drop. As a result, the area between the Law Ting Holm and the northern lake side fell dry and became a small peninsula. The historical importance of the Law Ting Holm was, however, never forgotten. Travelling accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries demonstrate that the site was occasionally visited by tourists and antiquaries. The interest shown by foreigners in the islands’ history and archaeology may in turn have revived the awareness of the endemic cultural heritage.

Fig. 5. Coarse road metal fill of the causeway, trench 2 (photograph Natascha Mehler).

Fig. 5. Fig. 5. Coarse road metal fill of the causeway, trench 2 (photograph Natascha Mehler).

The excavation at the Law Ting Holm has shown that the islet was settled for quite a long period in the Iron Age. The earliest traces of the settlement go back to the Middle Iron Age (c. 200 BC – AD 200). Older remains may still be hidden beneath the unexcavated remains as only the top layers of the settlement were excavated. The youngest artefacts date to the Late Iron Age (c.  AD 400 – 800) or to the Pictish Period and no evidence was found for the use of the place in the Viking period or the Middle Ages, neither in trench 1 nor in trench 2. However, this absence does not contradict the site’s reputation and history as Shetland’s main assembly site. Although one might expect the meeting place to have been marked by certain features, the meetings themselves are not likely to have produced a significant archaeological record. Indeed, the topography, location and criteria of the site bear most of the characteristics of many other assembly sites in Northern Europe, something that is also stressed by its place name. The location of the lawthing on an island is also worth stressing. Such a location is known from other assembly sites in Scotland, such as Eilean na Comhairle (Old Gaelic for “council isle”), an island in Loch Finlaggan on the Isle of Islay that was used as an assembly site in the 14th  and 15th  centuries and the place where Lords of the Isles were installed. Excavations have shown that the island was the location of a late medieval castle or hall building, built on top of the remains of a broch or dun. The island was connected to the shore of the adjacent island Eilean Mor by a causeway and an irregular alignment of stones. This causeway has not been excavated yet and is believed to be of recent date.

In 2011, the National Environmental Research Council, in collaboration with TAP, carried out Airborne Laser Scanning (ALS) of Tingwall valley, the first application of ALS in Shetland. The main aim of this survey was to search for hitherto unknown structures associated with the Viking Age or medieval assembly site at the Law Ting Holm. The more general goal was to map all archaeological surface remains in the area to better understand the historical development and cultural landscape of the area.

Fig. 6. Overview of the lidar scan, shaded relief model; lidar data collected by the NERC ARSF in 2011. Background map © Crown Copyright/database rights 2010. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service; image by Joris Coolen and Michael Doneus.

Fig. 6. Overview of the lidar scan, shaded relief model; lidar data collected by the NERC ARSF in 2011. Background map © Crown Copyright/database rights 2010. An Ordnance Survey/EDINA supplied service; image by Joris Coolen and Michael Doneus.

A total area of 5.4 km2 was surveyed in 14 parallel and one crossing flight line at altitudes between 485 and 545m. The mean point density is 18 points per square meter, excluding water surfaces. The scan provided a detailed image of the topography of the Law Ting Holm and its surroundings. There are no apparent structures on the Holm and no structures that can be associated with the Norse/medieval assembly site could be identified along the lakeside. However, a large enclosure which could be the remains of a broch was found on the northwestern slope of Burra Dale on the northeastern side of the lake. The oval enclosure measures approximately 40 m from north to south and 32 m from west to east and lies about 24 m above the present water level, offering a splendid view of Tingwall Valley and Lax Firth.

The results of the excavation and surveys are published in: Joris Coolen and Natascha Mehler, Excavations and Surveys at the Law Ting Holm, Tingwall, Shetland. An Iron Age settlement and medieval assembly site. British Archaeological Report British Series 592, Archaeopress, Oxford 2014.