Resources, Production, and Trade in the Norse Shetland
Abstract - In this paper, I use the research carried out by scholars in Shetland and the North Atlantic to analyze and discuss
the resources available for the Norse in Shetland, including steatite, fishing, whales, seals, birds, animal husbandry, and
cultivation of crops. I present the utilization and control of these resources in the context of trade in the North Atlantic, and
also investigate the economic changes occurring during the late 1st and early 2nd millennium AD and their effects on the
settlement in Shetland.
*Department of Archaeology, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland, UK. Current address - 50 St. Abbs Way, Chapelhall,
Aridrie, ML6 8WG Scotland, UK; email@example.com.
As more and more research on the economic development
in northern Europe has been carried out
(e.g., Gaimster 1992, Ingimundarsson 1992, Miller
1990), it has become increasingly evident that market
and non-market trade coexisted in both the Viking
Age and the Medieval period. In the non-market
economy, goods and services were mainly bartered.
The market economy consisted of organized trade of
surplus for financial gain. A distinction can be made
between inter-regional trade of low-bulk, high-value
luxury goods and low-value, high-bulk necessities
(staples). The increase in the long-range trade of
the staple goods is important to an understanding
of socioeconomic transformations and may define
the Viking Age/Medieval period transition in the
Norse North Atlantic (Fig. 1; Barrett et al. 2000:15).
One of these socioeconomic developments was the
appearance of a new artisan class. These combmakers,
shoemakers, and metalworkers produced items
which ordinary people could afford and use in their
everyday lives (Hansen 2015:28).
While this trade in staples (henceforth “the trade”)
is well referenced in the Post-Medieval period, no
references exist from the Viking Age (ca. 800–1050
AD), and only a few survive from the Late Norse
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29:1–20
Figure 1. A map of the North Atlantic.
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29
period (ca. 1050–1450 AD) (Forster 2004:117). In the
Saga of King Sverri of Norway (Sverrisaga), Shetlandic
merchants are mentioned alongside the ones
from Orkney, Faroes Isles, and Iceland as bringing
goods that “… make this land richer, and we cannot
do without” (Sephton 1994:129). The text is dated to
1186 and is, according to Smith (1984:7), the earliest
reference to Shetlandic merchants. It occurred
at a time when the trade was being concentrated and
markets were being created in places such as Lübeck
and Bergen (Forte et al. 2005:174). The Hanseatic
League became an increasingly dominant force in
northern Europe during the 13th century, and its power
increased as the control of the Norwegian Crown declined.
The first Norwegian treaty with Lübeck was
signed in 1250 (Smith 1984:7). Shetland is mentioned
in only a few references in the next few centuries. In
1316, a Shetlandic burgess is known to have been in
Bergen, whose presence can be seen as an indication
of Shetland’s involvement in the trade routes focused
on Bergen. This Shetlandic–Norwegian trade seems
to have been concentrated on basic raw materials and
commodities whose production entailed relatively little
labor, such as stockfish (i.e., air-dried cod), timber,
and cereals (Helle 1995:47, Lopez 1976:95, Smith
By the 16th century, Shetland had been incorporated
into the large, commercial European markets and
traded stockfish, other fish products, and woollens
with the Hanseatic merchants (Bigelow 1992:18).
However, due to the lack of historical sources and
difficulties in differentiating Shetlandic and Norwegian
products, it is problematic to identify when the
long-range trade of true staples first occurred (Barrett
et al. 2000:16). It is possible that the staples, such
as steatite blocks and vessels, and ragstone hones,
were first transported as ballast, and the main highvalue
commodity would have been, for example,
imported walrus ivory (ibid.:16, Buckland and Sadler
1990:120, Dugmore et al. 2007).
Even though historical records are very limited
from the Viking and Late Norse periods, the material
record can provide evidence of large-scale marketlevel
interaction. Evidence such as resource control,
the production of uniform commodities, and regular/
repetitive exchange can indicate commercial activities
that occurred during these periods.
Steatite is a soft metamorphic rock characterized
by high hydrous magnesium silicate (talc) content.
Due to its high talc content, it is easy to carve with
metal or stone tools, and has a high resistance to heat
(Buttler 1989:193, Turner 1998:95–97).
The relatively easy working characteristics of
steatite have been known by the people living in
Shetland since the Neolithic period. Although it is
not common to find a significant amount of steatite
artifacts from prehistoric contexts, some artifacts are
known (Buttler 1989:194, Turner 1998:95). For example,
4 small square-sided vessels were found from
Jarlshof’s Bronze Age contexts (Hamilton 1956:20),
and some from Kebister’s Iron Age levels (Owen
and Lowe 1999:169). Steatite vessels are also known
to have been used in funerary functions in the Northern
Isles (Turner 1998:95). So far, only 1 prehistoric
site has provided an extensive assemblage: recent
excavations at Bayenne, Yell, provided a significant
amount of vessel fragments dating from the Bronze
and Early Iron Ages (Forster and Bond 2004:220).
Besides the manufacture of vessels, steatite was also
used as temper for pottery during the prehistoric periods,
and pots with steatite inclusions are found all
over Shetland (Buttler 1989:194, Turner 1998:95).
The evidence suggests that, around the Middle Iron
Age, the use of large steatite vessels declined, although
the material was still used as a temper for
pottery, and for lamps and portable objects (Forster
and Bond 2004:220).
Undoubtedly, the zenith of the use of steatite in
the North Atlantic was the Viking Age. At the time,
steatite vessels were Norway’s main domestic ware
to the extent that the Norwegian material culture at
the time has been classified as aceramic. As a result
of the expansion of the Scandinavian culture with
the migrating settlers, steatite artifacts were transported
extensively (Bray et al. 2009:4). A steatite
spindle whorl has been recovered even in North
America at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland
(Ingstad and Ingstad 2001:156). Sources of steatite
outside Scandinavia in Shetland and Greenland were
also utilized (see Figs. 1, 2).
During the Viking Age, the production and
distribution of steatite vessels in Scandinavia developed
from modest beginnings into widespread
distribution networks through which large quantities
of affordable commodities were traded by the 10th
century AD (Schou 2015:204).
Scandinavia and Greenland. The majority of steatite
sources in Scandinavia are located in Norway,
although 7 quarries and other exposures are situated
in Sweden and also some in Finland (Ritchie
1984:60, 64). Steatite quarries are abundant in
Norway, and their distribution is widespread. Only
Vestfold and Vest-Agder districts are marked by
their absence (Ritchie 1984:61, Skjølsvold 1961:149
cited in Forster and Bond 2004:219). A considerable
Journal of the North Atlantic
2016 No. 29
Figure 2. A map of northern Shetland.
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29
concentration has been identified in Hardanger
district, which appears to have been particularly
important, especially in the Middle Ages (Sognnes
1979:223). The quarries consist of both large-scale
excavations (see Skjølsvold 1969) and small domestic
sites (Ritchie 1984:62–63). Steatite outcrops are
abundant in Greenland, and the quality of the stone
is exceptional (Bray et al. 2009:5). Despite the high
quality of the stone, the Greenlandic steatite artifacts
do not seem to have been not exported outside the
source zone (Forster 2004:334).
Shetland. Several metamorphic environments are
situated in what is now Shetland resulted in the development
of steatite. The majority of the outcrops
are located on Unst (Fig. 3), but some also occur
in Fetlar, Northmavine, Lunning (East Mainland),
and South Mainland. Two Norse quarries have been
excavated: Clibberswick in Unst (Buttler 1983) and
Catpund in Cunningburgh (Turner 1998) (Forster
and Bond 2004:220).
Clibberswick has provided significant amount of
evidence of Norse steatite working. The outcrop is
located in northeast Shetland and includes 2 inlets,
of which the more northerly of the 2 has been more
intensively quarried. The north face of the promontory
which separates the inlets (Cross Ness) is
completely covered with bosses (Fig. 3) resulting
from the removal of vessels (Bray et al. 2009:7).
As the quarrying occurred high up on the rock faces
and also well out on the sea cliffs, Ritchie (1981:11,
1984:63) suggests that they could have only been
worked from a bosun’s chair slung from the cliff top
or with a similar arrangement. A small structure has
also been identified on top of the cliff, which provided
evidence of the final-stage manufacture of the
vessels (Buttler 1983:21–22). The place-name also
indicates the presence of steatite, as it derives from
the Old Norse kléa, to fasten stones (for example
fishing weights) (Jakobsen 1928:vol. 1:427) or kleber,
which is the Old Norse word for steatite.
A substantial quarry area is located at Clammel
Knowes, Unst, where a spoil heap including
fragments of steatite has been identified on the
downslope side. A limited number of bosses can be
seen in Gorsendi Geo and Houllans Ness (Fig. 3).
It seems as if small objects were worked at both
these sites as well as in the other outcrops on the
west coast of Unst including Wick of Collaster, Clay
Geo Ness of Collaster, and Fiska Wick (Bray et al.
Several sources of steatite at Fetlar were worked
during the Viking Age and Late Norse Period
(Fig. 4). Several circular or oval bosses, which represent
the Norse manufacture of vessels, can be seen
at Scarpi Geo, Hesta Ness. It is likely that the original
quarrying was more extensive, but evidence has
been destroyed due to quarrying after the First World
Figure 3. Steatite sources in Unst. Figure 4. Steatite sources in Fetlar.
Journal of the North Atlantic
2016 No. 29
War (ibid.:7, Ritchie 1984:73). On the south coast of
Fetlar, the faces of Clemmil Geo and Dammins near
Houbie were also extensively worked during the
Norse settlement. Bosses of all shapes and sizes can
be seen at both of the sites, and several spoil heaps
have also been identified between them (Bray et al.
The most extensive steatite workings at Northmavine
are located in Fethaland on the Isle of Fethaland.
Vessel bosses can be seen scattered around the
outcrops on the steep, partially grass-covered slopes
at Cleber Geo (Figs. 2, 5, and 6). A step appears to
have been cut into the hillside at the steepest part of
the area, possibly to provide a safer area for finishing
the vessels. A significant amount of spoil is also
visible at the quarry. The reworking of the landscape
to such a scale is clear evidence of the intensity of
the activities at the quarry (ibid.:7–8).
Breibister, a short distance to the south of Cleber
Geo, has also been extensively worked. Further
south, the 2 outcrops at the Head of Calsta have
provided evidence of limited workings. Cleber Geo
at Hillswick Ness, in close vicinity to Niddister, has
signs of steatite vessel production too. The working
at the face must have been limited by the difficult
access to the outcrop. It is possible, however, to pick
up pieces of pink steatite from the beach at the eastern
side of the Ness. At Orra Wick, Lunnin, which is
located further south on the eastern side of Mainland
Shetland, a number of bosses as well as a substantial
vessel (which has not been detached) have been
Catpund, Cunningsburgh, is located in the South
Mainland of Shetland. It has been subjected to the
most in-depth research of any steatite quarries in
Shetland, and has proved to be the most extensively
worked outcrop in the archipelago. The site consists
of a large outcrop of talc-magnesite-schist, associated
with serpentine and metamorphosed basic
igneous rocks. Within this outcrop, there are several
areas of good quality talc-magnesite rock, one of the
largest and best-exposed being within the burn of
Catpund, which covers an area of ~550,000 m2. In
these deposits, the rock seems to be almost homogenous,
and talc and magnesite are present in approximately
equal amounts (Mykura 1976:119–120).
This area has been known as a source of steatite
for an extensive period of time, and hollows of
Figure 5. Evidence of steatite workings at Cleber Geo from east .
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29
either square or round shapes are the clearly visible
results of quarrying all along Catpund burn (Turner
1998:95, 99; Turner et al. 2009). Considerable
amounts of steatite were recovered during the excavations
at Jarlshof, but Hamilton did not identify
any manufacturing refuse at the site and therefore
suggested that the vessels must have been imported
from elsewhere (Hamilton 1956:206). However,
Hamilton did not remove all deposits from the site,
and manufacturing evidence has been recently identified
(Colleen Batey, Department of Archaeology,
University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland, UK,
pers. comm.). In any case, Catpund is the closest
steatite source to Jarlshof and, as a result, Hamilton
excavated the area in 1951. He recognized over 15
large mounds of spoil heaps of quarrying debris,
of which he excavated 2. Using the small-find evidence,
Hamilton (1956:206) suggested that 3 main
vessel classes were manufactured in the area.
In the 1980s, a detailed topographic survey was
carried out in the area and was followed by a series
of small excavations, which continued until 1990
(Turner 1998). There is evidence of quarrying from
the natural outcrops and the areas adjacent to the
burn. The burn also flows over some of the worked
areas. There is clear evidence that the burn’s route
had been altered in order to expose new areas for
There are significant spoil heaps to the south of
the burn, which are located around flat, oval-shaped
areas. It is possible that these areas could have been
shafts sunk into the hillside in order for the steatite
to be mined in the areas where the rock was situated
deeper underground. Spoil heaps have been identified
downslope of other Catpund hollows as well
(Ritchie 1984:68–69, Turner 1998:99). If they represent
deep mine shafts, however, it is unlikely that
they would be filled to the extent as they appear today.
In addition, some flat platforms appear to have
been dug into the rock. This type of mining was also
carried out at Østre Myre, Vegarshei, Norway (Buttler
In 1988, a spoil tip of the quarry was excavated
with unexpected results: the heap was excavated to
bedrock and the bedrock showed evidence of quarrying
as well. The area revealed by the excavation (8 m
by 10 m) was densely covered in scars resulting from
the removal of blocks for vessels. This suggests that
Figure 6. A large boss at Cleber Geo.
Journal of the North Atlantic
2016 No. 29
steatite was quarried all over the hillside and not just
restricted in the areas where the rocks were visible. It
seems, therefore, that the steatite had been worked in
far larger scale than previously thought. This largescale
working also explains the significant amount
of debris on the hill. In some areas, the quarry had
been worked in steps of up to 2 m in height (Turner
1998:99–100). It has been suggested that the steatite
working at Catpund could have been of commercial
nature (Ritchie 1984:70).
The area exposed by the excavation contained
over 160 holes within 5 distinctive working areas
(which might represent separate quarrying events;
1. Northern group - vessel blocks
2. West group - square vessel blocks
3. Southwest group - square vessel blocks
4. South group - rounded and/or rectangular blocks
5. East group - plates and square vessel blocks
The holes varied from approximately 0.2 m square to
0.2 m x 0.7 m (oval). The division of the quarry into
separate areas might be an indication of some degree
of organization (i.e., commercial and/or seigniorial)
of the industry (ibid.:100).
The excavated spoil heap included waste from
the quarrying process, half-finished broken vessels
and plates, vessel and plate blanks (i.e., shaped externally
but not hollowed out), and blocks (i.e., rock
removed from the quarry floor which has not been
shaped yet). The only tools found were a smoothing
stone and some sandstone whetstones. As no small
finds were discovered, it is likely that artifacts, such
as loomweights and spindle whorls, were manufactured
away from the site. Neither were any finished
vessels found, which suggests that the vessels were
hollowed out on the site in order to reduce the
weight, and finished elsewhere. No finishing areas
have been identified in close vicinity of the quarry
so far (ibid.:100–101).
The artifacts from the quarry varied greatly in the
methods of tooling and in the shapes and thickness of
the vessels, which would suggest that they were not
worked by a skilled workforce, nor that the working
of steatite was organized to any great extent. It
is possible, however, that different individuals had
their own areas of the quarry, as some divisions were
revealed by the 1988 excavation (ibid.:101). This
finding is possibly an indication of control of the resource
and that permission was given to individuals
to work certain areas of the outcrop.
In 1990, several trenches were opened in the
north area of the quarry, including a trench over a depression
3 m in diameter. The excavation revealed a
1.5-m-deep pit, which was stepped to the north, east,
and south. The technique used in the removal of steatite
was different in this area: instead of removing
the steatite in vessel blocks, it seems to have been
removed in sub-rectangular blocks of ~1 m by 0.5 m
by 0.5 m. This method of working has also been
found from Brennepösen, Akerhus (see Skjølsvold
1961) (Turner 1998:101–102).
Recent research by Richard Jones of the University
of Glasgow was able to differentiate the steatite
from 3 different Norse quarries in Shetland. As
Jones’ rare earth element analysis of steatite by ICPMS
appears to be capable of separating sources in
contrasting geological environments, the technique
should provide crucial information as to the origin of
steatite in the North Atlantic and facilitate the characterization
of material culture deposits in Viking
Age and Late Norse contexts (Jones et al. 2007:640).
The typology of steatite vessels
Norway. Amanda Forster has created a typology
of Norwegian steatite vessels using the evidence
from Norwegian sites such as Borgund, Sunnmøre
(see Lossius 1977), Kaupang (see Forster 2004),
and Gamlebyen, Oslo (see Lossius 1979). She also
included the detailed study of ~3100 vessel sherds
from Hedeby, northern Germany (see Resi 1979), as
most of those artifacts originate from Norway (Forster
The evidence from Norway indicates that the
majority of the vessels from the Viking Age to the
end of the 14th century are circular with a round base.
Later, round vessels with a flat base were also manufactured
(ibid.:157). These vessels were produced
both in large scale for trade and in small scale for
domestic use (ibid.:151).
Other types of artifacts manufactured from steatite
include baking plates, spindle whorls, weights,
moulds, lamps, and tuyéres. These artifacts often are
of secondary manufacture, made, for example, from
broken vessel sherds. Consequently, their origins are
difficult to determine and they will not be discussed
here in more detail (ibid.:158–160, 162–163).
Shetland. Numerous different types of vessels
have been recovered in Shetland. Assemblages have
been recovered from Jarlshof (Hamilton 1956),
Old Scatness Broch (Forster and Bond 2004) Sandwick
(Bigelow 1985:105–107), Underhoull (Small
1966:243), the Biggings, Papa Stour (Crawford and
Ballin Smith 1999:131–133), and Norwick (Forster
2007:20). Forster (2004) has created a typology of
Shetlandic vessels and bakeplates which consists of
5 main types.
The forms of the vessels found in Shetland
are similar to some extent to the ones found in
Norway. In both areas, the most common form
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29
semblage from this period consists of a high number
of Norwegian imports, which are circular, hemispherical,
and well-manufactured (ibid.:319–321).
The Norse phase is characterized by the Norse
adaptation to their local environment. The use
of steatite varied depending on the access to the
sources. The extensive importation from Norway
declined together with the decline of the movement
of the people, and it seems that the internal trade,
which had developed within Scandinavia during the
Viking Age, did not extend to the North Atlantic
colonies (ibid.:323–324). In the areas without local
sources of steatite, such as the Western Isles and the
Faroe Isles, the diminished numbers of the vessels
provided a stimulus for the development of locally
produced ceramics (for the Faroese pottery see Arge
2000; Stummann Hansen 1991:51). In Iceland, steatite
was partly replaced by the use of local stone,
imported pottery, and wooden artifacts. In Shetland,
the local resources were increasingly utilized, and
Shetlandic vessel types developed. Steatite was not
replaced in Orkney, but artifacts were imported from
Shetland. For example, 4-sided steatite vessels have
been recovered from Pool from contexts dated to
the mid-10th and 11th centuries. The uniformity of
the vessel type, together with its wide distribution,
suggests a level of organization and might be an indication
of the development of the steatite industry
in Shetland. The bulk of the artifacts in Greenland
were produced locally (Forster 2004:324–325).
The Medieval phase is characterized by the continuous
displacement of steatite in the areas without
an easy access to a source and by the continuing
importance of local resources where available. Steatite
was still in use throughout the North Atlantic,
although only in Shetland, Orkney, and Greenland
had the use not diminished significantly since the
Landnám phase. A limited number of artifacts were
imported to the Faroe Isles and the Western Isles
both from Norway and Shetland. The numbers from
Shetland are not extensive, and the vessels seem to
have originated from the Catpund quarry. The exportation
of vessels and bakerstones was significantly
more extensive to Orkney. The production at Catpund
probably increased during this period, as the
products were exported. The exportation suggests
some control of the quarry and the production and
distribution of its products. Within Shetland, there is
evidence of the use of several quarries. The production
probably declined by the end of the 14th century
in response to increasing imports of ceramics, and
thereafter production probably continued only for a
smaller, domestic market (ibid.:327–330, 359).
Imports from Norway have been recovered both
from Orkney and Shetland. In Iceland, the finds
is an undecorated, round-bottomed bowl (Buttler
1989:199). The most significant difference is the
appearance of sub-rectangular (oval) and square vessels
in Shetland, which seems to have been an indigenous
development. As thick fragments of these vessels
have been recovered from the Early Viking Age
deposits from Old Scatness, this form seems to have
been developed already by the 9th century. Four-sided
vessels were recovered from prehistoric contexts
from Bayenne as well, which might suggest that
the structure of the stone dictated the shape of the
vessels. For example, the majority of vessels from
Old Scatness were manufactured from fine-grained
steatite, but most of the sub-rectangular vessels were
of significantly coarser stone. However, the development
might have been functional as well. This type
of vessel was more functional for long hearths which
were common at the time. Thin-walled square vessels
were introduced approximately at the end of the
11th century (Forster and Bond 2004:225–226).
There seems to have been a general decline in the
use of steatite during the Late Norse and Medieval
periods in Shetland, as pottery became more common.
For example, the Biggings, Papa Stour (Crawford
and Ballin Smith 1999:145–146), Jarlshof
(Hamilton 1956:Plate 85) and Sandwick (Bigelow
1985:107) have provided evidence of an increase in
the use of pottery over the period of their inhabitation.
The importation of continental redwares in
particular seem to have had a great effect (Forster
and Bond 2004:226).
Other steatite artifacts found from Shetland
include loomweights, line sinkers, spindle whorls,
drill whorls, metalworking apparatuses, as well as
trinkets and toys (Buttler 1989:195–198).
The trade of steatite in the North Atlantic
In order to understand the trade and origins of the
steatite artifacts in the North Atlantic, Forster (2004)
examined the assemblages recovered from the Faroe
Isles, Iceland, Orkney, Caithness, the Western Isles,
and the towns of York and Dublin, all locations
where there were no local sources of steatite. Together
with the evidence from Norway and Shetland,
a picture of the use of steatite in the North Atlantic
As Forster suggests, the Landnám phase is characterized
by the transport of original imports from
Norway with the migrants when they moved to the
North Atlantic islands. The origins of the steatite
artifacts are also almost exclusively Norwegian.
The only exceptions are the baking plates recovered
from Old Scatness, which do not appear in Norway
until the 12th century, together with the less wellmanufactured
vessels from Shetland. A typical asJournal
of the North Atlantic
2016 No. 29
is possibly the result of sporadic exchange or contact
between the elites of the island groups (Forster
The control of quarries in also evident in Norway
where areas such as Hyllestad may have been
under the direct control of local magnates during
the Viking period and by the 12th century were controlled
by non-local political and economic elites.
Tenant farmers appear not to have been able to use
quarries for their own benefit. Eventually the lands
were transferred to ecclesiastical institutions (Baug
The artifactual, ecofactual, and, to some extent,
historical evidence indicates that fishing was an
important part of the economy in Shetland during
the period of Scandinavian settlement. The evidence
indicates that both line and net fishing were practiced.
However, there is a considerable variation of
the quality of the assemblages from different sites,
depending on the excavation methods and the conditions
for preservation (Graham-Campbell and Batey
Evidence from Shetland
Every Norse excavation in Shetland has provided
artifactual evidence of fishing. For example, the
excavations at Underhoull have recovered artifacts
inclusive of small line sinkers and a sandstone boulder
probably used for sharpening fishing hooks. Fish
were probably also used for oil production at the
site, as 2 artifacts, unique to Underhoull, appear to
have been used for rendering down fish livers (Small
1966:241–242). Artifactual evidence of fishing was
recovered from the excavations at Sandwick South
and Jarlshof as well. Line-sinkers were recovered
from both of the sites, and Jarlshof even produced
evidence of fishhooks. Sandwick South also provided
evidence of linesinker production, as sinkers
in various stages of manufacture were recovered
from the living quarters of the dwelling (Bigelow
1985:119, Hamilton 1956:153).
The ecofactual assemblage, however, provides
the most extensive evidence of the Norse fish exploitation
and its effect on the economy during the
Viking and late Norse periods (Graham-Campbell
and Batey 1998:214). Unfortunately, sites such as
Underhoull and Jarlshof were excavated prior to the
introduction of modern methodologies, and thus, the
recovered assemblages from those sites are limited.
The excavations at Old Scatness provided extensive
evidence of fishing, although a relatively limited
range of species were present. Gadids, in particular
remain extremely few and are exclusively from
Norway. The low numbers of Norwegian goods
throughout the North Atlantic suggests that steatite
could have only been a secondary trade good and
therefore linked with the growing stockfish trade and
the movement of staple goods in the North Atlantic
(ibid.:327–330, 359; see above).
The analysis of the origins of steatite is at the moment
largely based on typology. However, emerging
techniques such as rare-earth element analysis by
ICP-MS (see Jones et al. 2007) can be used in the
future to determine the origins of the artifacts and
confirm/refute the typological theories.
The control of the steatite resources in Shetland
As mentioned above, the exported vessels from
Shetland appear to have originated from only Catpund,
Cunningsburgh, and the vessels produced
were of a standard form. Therefore, it is highly
likely that the production and distribution of the
quarry products were controlled at least by the end
of the 10th century (Forster 2004:330, 362). However,
this is not necessarily the case for the other,
smaller-scale quarries in Shetland, where the production
could have been for local consumption and
for domestic use. It is possible, however, that some
farms specialized in steatite vessel production and
produced a surplus of vessels which they could have
traded locally. Evidence from Belmont, Unst, possibly
suggests the theory, as the final stages of vessel
production took place at the settlement (Larsen
Evidence from Catpund, Cunningsburgh (Forster
2004), suggests that individuals could have been
allocated areas within the quarry that they could
utilize. This, again, is a strong indication of what is
termed “resource control”. Further indication of the
possible increase of control is suggested by evidence
from sites such as Sandwick South (Bigelow 1985),
which are located close to steatite outcrops but have
not produced any evidence of manufacturing. It is
possible that these sites were not given permission to
participate in steatite manufacturing and had to rely
on other resources.
Despite the extensive exports to Orkney, the
spread of Shetlandic steatite products appears to
have been limited within the political sphere of the
Earldom of Orkney. It is possible that the resource
control in Shetland is related to the development of
the Earldom, and the distribution of the commodity
therefore reflects its territories. The continuation of
the trade beyond the separation of the Earldom in
1195 suggests that links between the archipelagos
did not cease to exist. The recovery of the Shetland
type of vessels from the Western Isles and the Faroes
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29
assemblage, which possibly indicates the production
of cured fish for exchange (Barrett 1997:618; see
also Perdikaris 1996, 1998).
The ecofactual assemblage from Jarlshof covered
both the Viking Age and the Late Norse period.
Bones of cod, ling, and saithe were recovered (Hamilton
1956:214). However, if modern excavation
techniques were used, the amount of recovered fish
bones would have most likely been significantly
greater. According to Bigelow (1985:121), the contrast
in fish-bone levels at Jarlshof and Sandwick fits
the classic pattern of under-representation of small
bones. In any case, the (seemingly partial) evidence
from Jarlshof suggests that fishing became more
important in the Late Norse period as, according to
Hamilton (1956:157), steatite line sinkers appeared
in “ever-increasing numbers”. Moreover, all the fishhooks
were recovered from the later contexts as well
The dominant species during all periods at Old
Scatness was saithe, which is a reflection of the
abundance of the species in the waters around Sumburgh
Head. Small saithe could have easily been obtained
by fishing from the shore. The Viking contexts
from Structure 6 were dominated by larger cod and
saithe. This structure may have functioned as a store/
smoke house (Dockrill et al 2010:165–177). The late
Norse evidence from Old Scatness was recovered
from a midden situated northeast of the Iron Age village.
The midden provided an extensive assemblage
of fish remains. Compared to the previous periods,
the proportion of cod to other fish increased and the
fish became more substantial in size (Turner et al.
2005:247). These larger cod, ling, and saithe must
represent boat-based fishing, and some may have
been processed as stockfish (Dockrill 2010:167).
Trade in fish products
Historical sources describe the emerging trade in
cured fish in northern Europe, albeit only to a limited
extent. The first possible, although somewhat unreliable,
indication is an anecdote in the Egil’s Saga
(written in the first half of the 13th century) that mentions
fish exportation from Norway to England in the
9th century (Pálsson and Edwards 1978:49). By the
11th century, the evidence becomes more reliable,
and by the early 12th century the evidence is strong.
For example, the records from this century indicate
that a person fishing in Vågan was required to pay 5
fish as a tax by a royal decree during the combined
reign of the Kings Eysteinn, Sigurðr, and Óláfr Magnússon.
Slightly after this time, houses and a church
were ordered to be built for the fishermen in the area
saithe (Pollachius virens), was the most dominate
species. The nature of the contexts from which the
fish-bone assemblages were recovered varied greatly
though. The Pictish and Viking evidence derived primarily
from domestic structures, and the late Norse
evidence was excavated mainly from large coastal
middens (Dockrill et al. 2010:165–167).
The Viking evidence consists mostly of young
saithe that were most likely caught from shore using
nets or rods and line. Mature saithe, cod, and ling
were abundant in the Norse middens, being indicative
of boat-based fishing. The evidence suggests
that some of the large fish were also processed as
stockfish. It remains unclear, though, whether the
stockfish was consumed locally or exported elsewhere
The fishbone assemblage from Sandwick South
was dominated by young saithe of lengths under 50
cm, suggesting that they were most likely caught
from the shore. However, large fish from the cod family
were also recovered, which must represent linefishing
from boats. The bones were deposited outside
in the yard, often in substantial concentrations. These
fish were crucial for the daily subsistence in Shetland,
although oil could have also been produced for trade
from them (Bigelow 1985:191–193).
Shellfish (both limpets and whelks) were also
recovered in considerable quantities from Sandwick
South (ibid.:121). A substantial late Norse shell
deposit was also recovered from Old Scatness. However,
it remains uncertain whether at Old Scatness
shellfish were used as bait for fishing or represent
culinary refuse (or a mixture of both) (Dockrill et al.
Limpets were often used as fishbait in later times,
and historical records indicate that both limpets and
whelks were eaten during periods of famine (Fenton
1978:542). Even though they are poor as a long-term
food resource due to their low nutritional value, they
were crucial in northern maritime environments
as a short-term source of calories and assured the
survival of a population, as they were available in
abundance throughout the year (Bigelow 1985:121).
The substantial amount of fishbones and shellfish
indicate the importance of the marine environment
as a source of food at Sandwick South during the
Late Norse period. Bigelow (1985:123) interpreted
the small saithe as representing subsistence-based
activities. The larger specimens would have been
essential to a commercial-orientated fishery, but
“the faunal collections from an archaeological site
… cannot supply evidence for that sort of specialization”
(ibid.:123). However, an imbalance in the
ratio of cranial and tail elements was identified in the
Journal of the North Atlantic
2016 No. 29
constituted 97.9 percent of the total dry bone weight.
Cod, ling and saithe were the most common species
(Barrett 1992:10, 23).
Barrett (1997:621) suggested a model for cured
fish production, according to which the exported
gadid fish probably contained the bones of the appendicular
skeleton and some or all of the vertebral
column. The cranial bones and the anterior portion
of the vertebral column possibly remained at the
processing sites. He also identified possible complication
in the pattern, as for example fish heads may
have been discarded at sea, used as animal fodder, or
spread as manure. Also the fish that spoiled during
the processing were probably discarded to the middens,
as well as the bones of locally consumed fish.
Furthermore, the variation in preservation has an
effect on the recovered assemblages (ibid.:622).
Despite the potential for uncertainty, the overall
evidence from Robert’s Haven suggests that cod,
saithe, and ling were processed according to the
proposed cured-fish model: cleithra and other appendicular
bones were under-represented, transverse cut
marks indicate that the gadid were often decapitated
anterior to the cleithrum, the posterior caudal vertebrae
were under-represented, and butchery marks
indicate that only the anterior portion of the spine
was cut off during processing (ibid.:628). These
characteristics are consistent with zooarchaeological
evidence recovered from other Norse coastal sites in
Iceland and the Faroes (see Perikaris et al. 2007)
Earl’s Bu, Orkney. Earls Bu is located on the
south of Mainland Orkney, approximately 200 m inland
from the shore of Scapa Flow. The site consists
of a Viking Age horizontal mill which was superimposed
by middens associated with the Medieval
elite settlement located in the vicinity (Batey 1993,
Batey and Morris 1992). Parts of the midden, which
dated from the 11th and 12th centuries, were studied
by Barrett (1997:628–629) for comparison with the
Robert’s Haven assemblage.
The midden at Earl’s Bu had a domestic character
and is thought to have originated from the occupation
of the nearby Bu (an elite settlement). Its
bone preservation was poorer than the middens at
Robert’s Haven. Despite this, 13 different species of
mammals were identified from the bone assemblage.
Fish bones were also abundant and were dominated
by the gadids (ibid.:629, Batey and Morris 1992:34–
Cod (39.1 percent) and haddock (22.4 percent)
were dominant in the assemblage, but saithe (3.3
percent) and ling (2.1 percent) were almost absent
(Barrett 1995:262). The genuine abundance of
haddock was clearly identifiable, even though the
Bergen, strategically situated between the fishing
districts of the north and the Continental European
markets, gained a dominant position in the export of
stockfish, fish oil, and other fish products to areas
around the North Sea and the Baltic, especially during
the Hansa era.
Zooarchaeological evidence from Lofoten,
northern Norway, indicates that around the 13th
century there was a significant increase in stockfish
production. Perdikaris (1999) suggests that this was
a result of the economy changing from the local
chieftains trading for prestage to the international
market economy under ecclesiastical and royal control.
Iceland appears to have become involved during
the late 13th century, when the fishing became
more specialized, as was the case particularly in
the islands of Vestmannaeyjar in the south and the
peninsula of Snæfellsnes in the west. The chieftains
and ecclesiastical institutions soon gained control of
the best fishing farms and settlements and as a result
controlled the export of fish products, initially via
Bergen (Helle 2003:284).
During the second half of the 13th century, the
German Hanseatic merchants gained control of the
Norwegian markets and expanded it to include (for
example) the important trade between Bergen and
England. By the 14th century, they also controlled
northwestern continental Europe, the Rhine regions,
and the Baltic (ibid.:284). The earliest evidence of
Hanseatic merchants visiting Shetland is from ca.
1415 (Friedland 1983:88). However, the references
to Scandinavian Scotland during the earlier centuries
are sparse and therefore do not indicate from
what period onwards Shetland was incorporated into
this European trade network (Barrett 1997:616).
As the historical evidence for the fish trade in
the Earldom of Orkney is sparse, the archaeological
evidence can provide significant additional information
of the fish trade in the Northern Isles. However,
as no substantial fish-rich middens have been investigated
with modern methodologies in Shetland,
evidence from Orkney and Caithness will be used in
the discussion instead. Barrett (1997) assessed the
zooarchaeological evidence from Robert’s Haven
in Caithness and Earl’s Bu in Orkney in order to
determine whether the production of cured fish was
identifiable in the archaeological records as a bulk/
Robert’s Haven, Caithness. A coastal, fish-rich
midden was analyzed at Robert’s Haven that measured
approximately 25 m in length and 1.2 m in
depth and was dated to the 13th/14th centuries. Fish
bones dominated the recovered bone assemblage and
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29
a product of seasonal inshore and offshore fishing,
which probably also generated surplus. The surplus
could have been traded locally in Caithness or in
Orkney in return for agricultural products, or used
to pay rent or taxes (Morris et al. 1995:269).
Barrett (1997:634) identified 7 factors that suggest
stockfish exports from the Earldom of Orkney:
• There is evidence of long-distance trade from the
earldoms in the form of imported products and
(limited) historical evidence.
• The fish-processing evidence from Robert’s Haven
is consistent with the production of cured
fish products, which were traded in northwestern
Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries.
• The intensity of fishing in Robert’s Haven is also
consistent with Post-medieval commercial fishing
stations in Shetland.
• There are also other middens that possibly indicate
the same intensity as Robert’s Haven (e.g.,
Quoygrew, St. Boniface, and Sandwick South).
• Circumstantial historical evidence from the 12th
century possibly indicates that the earldom participated
in stockfish trade.
• A record survives which mentions that the Royal
Exchequer of Scotland bought 15,000 dried fish
from Caithness in 1329.
• The pattern is consistent with 15th-century and
later records concerning Orkney, Shetland, and
Caithness that specifically discuss the fish trade.
An intensification of fishing has also been identified
from some sites during the Late Norse period.
For example, more fish were recovered from deposits
in Buckquoy dating to Late Norse phases IV
and V than from all the preceding phases together
(Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998:215). The artifactual
assemblage from Shetland might suggest
intensification as well, as there is an increase of
imported goods from the 12th century onwards and,
therefore, exportation probably increased as well,
most likely of dried/stock fish (Bigelow 1989:190).
This increased need for dried fish has been explained
by factors such as Lenten fare or military rations
(Barrett 1997:616, Graham-Campbell and Batey
It is likely that the Shetlandic situation was
similar to the one in Orkney and Caithness, and
similar changes in fishing practices probably occurred
during the Late Norse period. It is, therefore,
possible that similar archaeological deposits to the
ones identified at Robert’s Haven, Freswick Links,
and Earl’s Bu could be discovered in Shetland when
more coastal sites are excavated.
species is often exaggerated on sites with poor bone
preservation. As haddock is a deep-water taxon
that is not currently present in the vicinity of Scapa
Flow, it is possible that they were caught to the west
of Orkney or in the Pentland Firth. Also of interest
is that saithe, which is typically the second-most
abundant taxon in the Viking Age and Medieval assemblages
from the Earldom, was practically absent
at Earl’s Bu. Due to the settlement’s high status, it
is possible that the inhabitants controlled resources
from throughout the earldom and therefore were in
a position to exclude the fish from their diet (Barrett
The zooarchaeological assemblage suggested
that decapitated fish had been transported to the site.
In addition, cut marks identified from fish bones,
although few in number, are consistent with the consumption
of cured fish at the site (ibid.:632).
Freswick Links, Caithness. An excavation was
carried out at Freswick Links between 1980 and
1982 that concentrated on midden deposits eroding
at the coast. During the excavation, 40 tons of archaeological
deposits were wet-sieved with 1-mm
mesh. The fish bones were generally well preserved
(Morris et al. 1995:154–155). The assemblage was
dominated by large gadid fish, but concentrations
of small saithe were also identified. However, the
fish bones were not evenly distributed within the
excavated area. The eroding middens at the cliff
edge were dominated by fish bones and shells, but
mammal bones were more common than fish bones
in the middens further inland (Graham-Campbell
and Batey 1998:216, Morris et al. 1995:154–155).
The evidence from the late Norse deposits suggested
activities such as cooking, fish drying
and smoking, and bait preparation (Morris et al.
Thousands of fish were represented in the Freswick
links middens, and in some areas of the middens
over 100 fish were processed at the same time.
Even then, only 1 area produced an assemblage substantial
enough to be interpreted as waste products
of commercial-scale fishing. According to Morris et
al. (1995), if the stockfish trade had been an important
part of the community’s economy (for example,
similar in scale to the Norwegian stockfish trade),
there should have been more of the large assemblages.
The fact that imported products cannot be
easily detected also suggests that large-scale export
of stockfish might not have occurred at Freswick
(Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998:218). However,
even if fishing was not commercial in scale, the assemblages
indicate the significance of it to the local
community. The middens could be interpreted as
Journal of the North Atlantic
2016 No. 29
Whales, Seals, and Birds
Whales were hunted by the Norse for their meat,
oil, blubber, and bones. The whales were caught
by the Norse with several methods, of which the 2
most common ones appear to have been the catching
of large whales by hand-harpooning from boats
and the driving and beaching of long-finned pilot
whales. The former was still practiced in Norway in
the Late Medieval period and continued sporadically
in Iceland into the 18th century (Lidquist 1997:7–8).
The latter is still regularly practiced in the Faroes,
where the catches have been recorded since 1584
and still constitute 30 percent of the archipelago’s
meat production (Department of Foreign Affairs,
Faroe Islands 2007). The method was also practiced
in Shetland and Iceland and to a lesser extent in
Orkney, the Western Isles, and Ireland (Lidquist
Drive-beaching hunts occurred when a pod of
whales was discovered in close proximity to land and
when the weather conditions were suitable. The Faroese
customs suggest that a number of boats gathered
in a semicircle behind the pod and drove the whales
towards a chosen firth. When the whales were close to
the beach, a hook with a rope attached to it was driven
into the backs of them, and they were pulled to the
shore and killed by cutting the spinal cord. The catch
was divided and the local occupants received an equal
share of the meat and blubber (Department of Foreign
Affairs, Faroe Islands 2007). The whole community
today is involved in the event.
In Shetland, the place-names—such as Whale
Firth in Yell, and Whalegarth and Whalayre in
Unst—are a clear indictor of whale hunting. Whale
bones have also been identified from Norse contexts
from (for example) Jarlshof and Old Scatness (Dockrill
et al. 2010:136–137, 156; Hamilton 1956:214).
The practice appears to have continued well into the
Post-medieval period, as an account from the early
1800s narrates that a pod of ~200 whales had entered
the Uyea bay and the locals prepared to catch them,
but had to wait due to the Sabbath and, as a result,
the whales escaped (Atkinson 1832 cited in Hunter
Seals were hunted by the Norse as well for
meat, blubber, and bone. They were usually taken
in groups by clubbing or netting at their habitual
gathering places (Fenton 1978:26). Evidence from
Jarlshof indicates that seals (especially grey seals)
were commonly hunted, particularly during the
10th and 11th centuries, when they were utilized as
much as domestic animals (Platt 1956:215). They
have been identified from both the Viking and Late
Norse contexts from Old Scatness (Dockrill et al.
2010:136–137, 156) and the Sandwick South assemblage
as well (Bigelow 1985), but only in traces. The
lack of utilization at Sandwick South is possibly due
to the settlement not having access to the required
resources if the seal culls were strictly controlled by
the landowners during the Viking and Late Norse periods
as has been documented for the Post-medieval
period. Interestingly, by 1360, the 2 important sealkilling
locations in southern Unst, Uyea and Haaf
Grunay, were controlled by the powerful landlords
of Papa Stour. It is possibly a coincidence, but could
also be an indication of the control of the resource
already at the time (Ibid.:120).
Both Jarlshof and Sandwick South also provided
evidence of the utilization of birds. Bird bones were
identified in the faunal collections at Sandwick, but
not in abundance and in far lesser quantity than the
remains of fish (ibid.:121). There is an abundance of
seabirds around Jarlshof in the present day, and both
domestic and wild bird bones were identified in the
bone assemblage (Platt 1956:214).
The bird remains recovered from the Viking
and Late Norse contexts from Old Scatness were
relatively sparse as well. This can be seen as an
indication that birds constituted a fairly minor food
resource. The species eaten included gulls, shag,
cormorant, and gannet (Dockrill et al. 2010:171).
Animal Husbandry and Cultivation
The bone assemblages and the presence of byres
indicate that cattle had a significant role in the Norse
economy of Shetland. Sheep also appear to have
been important for both meat and wool production.
For example, Sandwick provided evidence of butchered
sheep bones, and loomweights and spindle
whorls have been recovered from every Norse excavation
within the research area. Both botanical and
artifactual evidence of the use of grain were also
recovered from Sandwick, and several rotary querns
and carbonized seeds of hulled barley and oats
were recovered in the excavation. The recovery of
charred seeds from several excavated areas suggests
local cultivation rather than importation (Bigelow
Hamar and Belmont also provided evidence of
cultivation, as both hulled six-row barley and oats
were recovered during the excavations. Interestingly,
some of the barley grains appeared to have been
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29
harvested before they were fully ripened. The probable
explanation for this is the challenging environment
and short growing season in Shetland (Turner
et al. 2013:146, 209). Flax/linseed was also recorded
in several samples from Belmont, and it appears that
it was processed at the site (Ibid.:209).
The excavation at Upper House, Underhoull,
also provided evidence of cultivation. Barley, oat,
flax seeds, and a single grain of what is likely bread
wheat were recovered. It is likely that the recovery
of barley, oat, and flax represent cultivation on the
site. It is unlikely, however, that wheat was cultivated
due to the difficult environment. It could
have been present as a weed or imported through
trade networks. Overall, the density of cereal from
the site was low, which in itself might be an indication
that cereals were not used with great intensity
at Upper House, or, alternatively, that the cereals
were imported from elsewhere (ibid.:172). Artifactual
evidence from Underhoull is also suggestive of
cultivation, as 2 rotary querns and broken points of
ploughshares were recovered during the excavation
At Old Scatness during both the Viking and
Late Norse periods, by far the most economically
important species were cattle, sheep, and pig. Cattle
were primarily used for dairy production, although
there is evidence of beef consumption as well. Sheep
were utilized for wool, meat, and possibly skin. Pigs
were used almost exclusively for their food production.
Horse, dog, and cat bones were also present
suggesting that they would have been utilized for
meat or skins, although their main purpose would
likely have been as live work animals (Dockrill et
al. 2010:136–137, 156).
The main cereal during the Viking and Late Norse
periods at Old Scatness was six-row hulled barley.
Oat, however, appeared to increase in importance
during the Norse settlement and is present in almost
80% of samples from the Viking period and in all
Late Norse samples. It appears that the Norse also
introduced flax to Old Scatness, which would have
provided linseed oil and flax fiber (ibid.:193–195).
Jarlshof provided evidence of animal husbandry
as well, although as it was excavated over half a
century ago, the techniques of recovering organic
materials and environmental data were poor. As a
result, the report on organic remains consists of just
one page for the whole site and the report of animal
bones from the Norse deposits consists of only 2
pages. The report indicates that sheep, ox, pig, horse,
seal, red deer, dog, whale, fish, and bird bones were
encountered during the excavation. The sheep bones
were common during the whole settlement period,
but mainly consisted of older animals, which would
suggest that the secondary products were more valued
than the meat (Hamilton 1956:214). This finding
might partly be due to the taxation in Shetland, as
the principal tax commodity during the medieval
period was butter. The intensification of dairying is
also suggested by the increase of the early mortality
of calves during the Late Norse period at Sandwick
South (Bigelow 1989:188–189).
According to Hamilton (1956:214), oxen were
common at Jarlshof, and pig remains consisted of
both young and old animals. Pigs were expensive
to raise in the northern environments and could be
very destructive to cultivated areas and increase the
risk of erosion. It is also possible that smaller settlements
such as Sandwick South could not afford them
Every excavated settlement in Shetland has
provided evidence of imported commodities. Consequently,
it is obvious that the archipelago had
connections to other lands in Scandinavian and
even further afield. Shetland offered a staging post
on several seaways: to Iceland and beyond; to the
Western Isles and Ireland; to the Fair Isle, Orkney,
and the British east coast; and, of course, to Scandinavia
(Morrison 1973:384). The imported materials
indicate that settlements in Shetland did not exist in
isolation but were part of a lar ge economic system.
Sandwick South provided evidence of imported
pottery which included English Scarborough and
Grimston pottery and North German proto-stoneware
from phases 2–3 (AD 1200–1350). It is likely
that all the bone combs recovered from the site were
imported as well, as no manufacturing waste was
identified and very similar combs have been recovered
in Norway. In addition, an hourglass-shaped
lamp was discovered that has close parallels from
Norwegian urban sites from the 13th and 14th centuries
(Bigelow 1985:108, 121–124). A similar lamp
was discovered from the Biggings, Papa Stour, as
well (Crawford and Ballin Smith 1999:139). It is
possible that the economy at Sandwick and elsewhere
in Shetland underwent significant changes
at some point and the major marine resources were
used for exportation as well as consumption (Bigelow
The artifactual evidence from Jarlshof also clearly
indicates the site’s far-reaching connections. The
evidence from combs show clear links to Scandinavia.
During the Late Norse period at least, combs
were produced in the Scandinavian manufacturing
centers and exported widely around the Atlantic. The
combs recovered from Jarlshof follow the stylistic
Journal of the North Atlantic
2016 No. 29
developments in Scandinavia (albeit with a possible
delay). For example, the comb found from a Phase
II midden, probably of mid-9th-century style, has
close parallels from the Oseberg burial (Hamilton
1956:130). The double-sided “fish-tail” composite
comb recovered from a Phase VII context has close
parallels from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden
(Clarke and Heald 2002:83).
Further links can be demonstrated with metalwork.
For example, a trefoil mount that Hamilton
(1956:150) interpreted as a brooch found from a
Phase III (10th-century) context has close parallels
from Iceland (2), North Yorkshire, and Lincolnshire.
The mounts are of insular style and were most likely
manufactured by the same master somewhere in the
British Isles (Paterson 1997:649–656). A significant
amount of other artifacts recovered from Jarlshof
have their origins elsewhere as well. Some of the
steatite vessels might have originated from Norway,
for example (see above).
The Biggings provided evidence of extensive
importation of different materials, which is an indication
of the great wealth of the settlement. The
importation is of a scale rare for rural settlements
of the Early and High Middle Ages in Scotland.
The quantity and variety of imported goods increases
from the 11th and 12th centuries until the
beginning of the 17th century. The most dominant
group of imports is the ceramics. The imported
wares include, for example, unglazed Paffrath
ware, proto- and near-stonewares from Germany,
Medieval English wares, and North German and
South Scandinavian redwares (Crawford and Ballin
Smith 1999:99, 127).
The significant amount of wood recovered from
the Biggings is a clear indication of trade as well.
The imported wood was mainly used in construction
of the buildings from the 11th to 15th centuries,
but also for the manufacturing of small artifacts,
such as spoons. Historical evidence—along with
the size of the wood used, and the quantity of Scots
pine and oak timber—also suggests that the wood
mainly originated from southern or eastern Norway.
It seems that bark and branches were removed from
the timbers prior to the importation to the site. The
evidence from the wooden floor indicated that the
timbers had been radially split and prepared prior to
the importation as well. Some of the smaller items
were probably also imported, as their manufacturing
required significant amount of skill, which the
people living in treeless environment probably did
not have. Other imported wood includes beech and
ash probably from Scandinavia, cork oak from the
western Mediterranean, and balsa wood. The occurrence
of balsa wood in a context dating to 13th/14th
centuries remains unexplained as it grows in Caribbean
and tropical America. The total lack of marineboring
molluscs infiltrating the timber suggests that
only a trivial amount of the wood recovered is driftwood
(ibid.:79, 98–99, 127).
Imported items were also recovered from Old
Scatness, the bulk of which were steatite vessels and
artifacts (Dockrill et al. 2010:266–288). Pottery was
also imported which included possibly Late Roman
grey-ware sherds and a Middle Saxon import from
the east coast of England (ibid.:227–228). Other
imports include several glass beads (ibid.:347–348).
Furthermore, evidence of extensive metalworking at
Old Scatness suggests a sophisticated metal trade,
including tin or tin bronze from southwest Britain as,
due to the nature of the metalworking, it cannot have
been sustained by an economy based on scrap metal
Specialization of the Settlements during the Late
It appears that the settlements began to specialize
their production during the Late Norse period.
As seen above, the evidence from steatite production
and fishing both suggest it to some extent. The
excavation at Belmont provided evidence of steatite
production (Larsen 2013:181), which was not identified
at Sandwick, for example (Bigelow 1985). The
specialization is also suggested by the distribution
of the Late Norse settlements. As the location of
the settlements expanded into more peripheral areas
without access to the sea, it would not have been feasible
for them to take part in fishing as an everyday
activity. For example, Snabrough is located so far
inland that it would have taken too long to get to the
shore and back every day (Fig. 7).
Economic specialization is also suggested by the
place-name evidence. For example Niddister, Northmavine
(first mentioned in 1490), from where there
is no easy access to the sea, derives from Old Norse
naut, n., cattle and setr, a farm (Stewart 1987:229,
234). This nomenclature strongly suggests that the
settlement specialized in cattle husbandry at the time
of its coining. Another example is Smirgarth, Unst.
The settlement’s name derives from the Old Norse
Smjör-gerði, from smjör, n. butter gerði, a fenced
piece of land (common in farm-names) (ibid.:91,
94). It is highly likely that the site focused on butter
production at the time of its coining. Other sites
whose place-names suggest specialization within
the research area include Bighton, Unst (from bygg,
n. a barley), Hestaness, Fetlar (from hestr, a stallion
or horse), Collaster, Unst and Colvister, Yell
(from kálfr, m. a calf), Bixsetter, Yell (from bygg, n.
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29
Figure 7. Norse Settlements in Northern Shetland.
Journal of the North Atlantic
2016 No. 29
barley), Buster, Yell (from bú, n. cattle), Russetter,
Fetlar (from hross, n. a horse or mare), Sodasness,
Cuppister, Yell (from sauðr, m. a sheep), Swinaness,
Unst (from svín, a pig), Buness, Unst (from bú, n.
cattle), Priesthoulland, Northmavine (from prestr,
m. a fish), Sütwell, Northmavine (from sauðr, m. a
sheep), Bool, Unst (from bú, n. cattle), Sweinsgarth,
Yell (from svín, a pig), Clipprigarth, Unst (from
klippari, m. a sheep shearer), Grisgarth, Unst (from
gríss, m. a hog, young pig), Colvadale, Unst (from
from kálfr, m. a calf), Cubil, Fetlar (from kýr, f. a
cow), and Ockran and Ekren in Northmavine (from
akr, m. or ekra, f. a cornfield) (ibid.:36, 73, 93, 96,
98, 140, 142, 212, 228, 230, 231, 272).
As these references to specific elements of farming
are so common, they can be seen as an indication
of a large-scale specialization in the community. It is
also worth noting the substantial variety of different
products indicated by the place-names. They suggest
that some farms focused on animal husbandry and
others on cereal production. Farms with an easy access
to the sea continued with fishing as their main
economic activity. This specialization was probably
at least partly dictated by the pressure on the land
and from the resulting habitation of inland locations
which were not preferable for conducting fishing
as a primary production activity. In these circumstances,
the resources available for the settlements
began to vary. Some farms would have had a more
substantial space available for them suitable to carry
out various forms of animal husbandry or cultivation.
Depending on the location, the farms would
have chosen the type of animal or crop suited to their
particular environment. As noted, the place-name
evidence suggests that at least one farm even may
have specialized in butter production. The evidence
also indicates that at least some farms engaged primarily
in the cultivation of barley and corn.
Also as a result of specialization, the settlements
probably would have created a surplus of their particular
products that would have been sold or traded
in return for other commodities. For example, the
coastal farms could have traded fish, together with
fishing by-products that could have been used as
fertilizer for infields, to the inland settlements.
Control of the resources could have influenced
settlement specialization as well. As mentioned
above, it is possible that seal culls were strictly
controlled by the time of the Viking and Late Norse
periods and that some elite settlements, such as the
Biggins, could have had exclusive access to important
It is possible that the control of steatite outcrops
and production influenced specialization. Evidence
from Catpund suggests that areas of the quarry were
utilized by different individuals, which could be seen
as indicative of control. Also, the uniformity of steatite
vessels exported from Catpund to Orkney and,
to a lesser extent, the Western Isles and the Faroes
suggests control of the resource (Forster 2005:69).
Furthermore, Belmont has produced evidence of the
latter stages of vessel manufacturing even though
there are no outcrops in its vicinity. These findings
strongly suggest that steatite was a highly controlled
resource and only farms/individuals with permission
could utilize it. It is therefore likely that these farms/
individuals produced a surplus that was traded for
The uniformity of the steatite vessels also suggests
commoditization of the object being traded.
Uniform objects would have increased the buyers
and sellers understanding of the objects’ value, utility,
and other characteristics.
This combination of evidence indicates that the
economy of late Norse Shetland appears to have
been a mix of subsistence and trade. Further evidence
of specialization could be gathered by excavations
of the farms and their associated middens
together with mapping and comparing their infield
and the surrounding field boundaries.
Even though early historical sources indicating
Shetland’s connection to the wider Viking world are
limited, archaeological evidence clearly indicates
that Shetland was integrated into the North Atlantic
network, which consisted of both rural settlements
as well as centralized places for exchange on the
numerous islands, archipelagos, and lands. All excavations
have provided evidence of acquisition of
imported artifacts and, in some cases, also of bulk
goods (see the Biggins above). Shetland provided a
staging post on several seaways in the North Atlantic:
to Iceland and beyond; to the Western Isles and
Ireland; to Orkney and the east coast of Britain; and
to Scandinavia proper.
Archaeological evidence also clearly indicates
that the inhabitants of the archipelago used a variety
of local resources for both subsistence and for market
production. Due to Shetland’s circumstances,
fishing played a crucial part in the economy of the islanders,
but the sea also produced other food sources
such as seals, whales, and seabirds, all of which were
utilized by the islanders. The land available for the
inhabitants also was used for a variety of resources.
The evidence indicates that cultivation played an important
part together with animal husbandry. Steatite
production was also important at least for some of
2016 Journal of the North Atlantic No. 29
Evidence from steatite quarries and settlements
suggest that the production at the larger quarries,
such as Catpund, was controlled to some extent. It
is also possible that other resources, such as seal
colonies, were being controlled as early as during
the Viking and Late Norse periods by the larger
Archaeological and place-name evidence suggests
that at some point during the Norse settlement
of Shetland the settlements began to specialize.
It appears that some focused on fishing, others on
steatite production, and others on different types
of animal husbandry and cultivation in addition to
their subsistence production. As a result of this specialization,
the farms would have begun to produce
surplus of their particular product and traded this for
other products locally or, in some cases, possibly
even outside of Shetland. The economy in Shetland
therefore began to develop from a purely subsistence-
based economy towards a market economy
during the early second millennium.
This research was carried out for my Ph.D. thesis at
University of Glasgow. I would like to thank my Ph.D.
supervisor, Dr. Colleen Batey, for her assistance and guidance.
I would also like to thank Dr. Julie Bond and Steve
Dockrill for their advice and allowing me to participate in,
and access the information from, several excavations in
Shetland; Val Turner and Carol Christiansen for providing
me with information from the databases of the Shetland
Amenity Trust and sharing their knowledge of the area;
Beverley Ballin Smith for providing me information of
the Norwick excavations; Brian Smith for providing me
information of the historical records of Shetland and the
Shetland Archives; Ian Tait for allowing me to access
the collections of the Shetland Museum; Zoe Outram
for providing me with reports from the excavations and
surveys in Shetland; Dr. Terence Christian, University of
Glasgow, for his assistance with the illustrations; Simun
Arge for sharing his expertise of the Norse in the Faroes;
Anne-Christine Larsen for her information of the Belmont
excavation; Dr. Tom Horne for his assistance; and the Osk,
Huttusen Säätiö, for funding the research.
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