Olivia Lelong (ed.)
Oxbow Books, £25
Review Edward Biddulph
The lives of the Iron Age inhabitants of a coastal settlement in the most northerly of the Shetland Isles are captured in this fascinating excavation report. Over 12 centuries and the rhythms of the seasonal cycle, successive generations farmed the land, herded livestock, gathered and preserved food, made the tools and objects they needed, and maintained their settlement.
Much of the evidence recovered from the site reflects the settlement’s coastal location. Seabirds, fish, and shellfish contributed to much of the inhabitants’ diet. Whale bone was worked into bone implements. Seaweed, heather, turf, and peat were used as fuel. Pumice from Iceland and driftwood that washed onto the shore did not go to waste.
The report is far from a dry description of contexts and discoveries. When we read that before construction of a yard commenced, ‘someone set a painted pebble on the surface’, or that a well-worn paving slab ‘may have been a favourite warm seat’, the past is brought intimately to life. Who needs reconstruction drawings when there are wonderfully evocative descriptions such as these?