General Information
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The Team




2001 Dig Diary

Westray 2002: General Information


The archaeology of Westray is particularly rich in an archipelago noted for its extraordinary ancient monuments and landscapes. It has produced Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement and rock art (at the Links of Noltland and Pierowall Quarry respectively), Neolithic tombs (at Cott, for example), Iron Age settlement (at Pierowall Quarry and the Knowe of Skea), and one of Britain's largest pagan Viking Age cemeteries (at Pierowall).

The Viking-Age Transitions Project

The site of Quoygrew was first discovered in 1977 when bones and shells were found eroding along the shore. The current phase of excavation started in 1997 as part of the Viking Age Transitions Project (VATP). This broad research programme was designed to clarify a watershed in Orcadian and Northern European history around the turn of the first millennium AD. This period has been associated with important changes such as a major increase in trade, the development of large-scale offshore fishing, the production of surplus crops, a surge in population, the introduction of Christianity and the centralisation of power (in earldoms like Orkney or kingdoms like Scotland and Norway). The VATP intends to date these developments and to understand how they might have been interrelated.

One aspect of the project is therefore to understand the development of fishing and farming following the critical AD 1000 divide. To do so we need to excavate a typical rural settlement. After researching and visiting numerous promising locations - including geophysical survey and trial excavation - Quoygrew proved to be the ideal candidate. It entails a fishing station at the shore (the "fish midden"), a large "farm mound" of kitchen and farmstead midden approximately 50 metres inland, dwelling houses and associated agricultural fields. These deposits span a thousand years - from the 10th century to the settlement's abandonment in the 1930s - and are extremely well preserved. By studying the contents of the middens (bones, seeds and artefacts such as imported pottery), the makeup of the soils and changes in the organisation of the settlement we hope to understand the important changes in economy and trade which marked the transition from the Viking Age (9th-11th century) to the Middle Ages (11th-15th century).


The Quoygrew site, located just north of Rackwick Bay on the north-west coast of the island, contains the remains of a farmstead and fishing station, occupied from Viking times until the 1930's. Survey in the surrounding area has also revealed additional associated settlements. The site now known as Quoygrew was called Nether Trenabie in 19th century sources. This name incorporates the bœr element, traditionally associated with early and high status Norse estates. The site is remarkably well preserved, and includes multiphase buildings with ash and flagstone floors, a coastal fish midden (rich in economic information), a farm-mound of kitchen midden, and a plaggen infield. Radiocarbon and artefact evidence now indicate that these deposits range in date from the 10th to the 17th century AD. The site provides an opportunity to study economic changes associated with the Viking Age - medieval transition in northern Scotland, particularly a major increase in the intensity of fishing, and the issue of long-term settlement organisation. The excavation project will salvage an important eroding site and contribute to management of Orkney's coastal erosion problem. It is hoped that the best preserved inland features will be consolidated as a heritage resource in collaboration with the Westray Development Trust. This year's excavation concentrates on the stone-built longhouse of Late-Norse design (perhaps 12th to 14th century) in Excavation Area F.

2002 Excavation Aims

Preliminary excavations in the farm mound were completed last year. This year we will focus on a dwelling house and the fish midden, trying to understand their development through time. In the hinterland of the settlement we will also be studying the wider landscape, to identify related sites and field systems using a variety of survey methods (from low tech field walking and auger survey to geophysics and terrain modelling).

1st Week's Excavation Diary >>>

The University of York Quoygrew Home Page

© James Barrett & Marcus Smith, 2002      
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