Unst, in common with the rest of Shetland, contains a very wide and varied range of archaeological sites going back some 5,000 years, sites which are all the more obvious in the turf-covered eastern half of the island.
This page gives a taste of what lies in store, but to put it all into context we recommend that you first read the summary Shetland's Archaeology in the About Shetland section of this website.
Neolithic & Bronze Ages
Also known as the "New Stone Age", the Neolithic Period saw the transition from hunter gathering to farming, though people have continued to hunt and gather on Unst right up to the present day. The Bronze Age, as the name suggests, saw the arrival of metal working and, it would appear, a rise in population and increase in warfare, possibly exacerbated by the deterioration in the climate at this time.
The archaeological evidence for these periods on Unst consists largely of massive burial mounds and standing stones, and possibly also some of the field boundaries found high up above today's cultivable land.
A large cairn on the summit contained bones and some steatite pottery, while a heal-shaped cairn nearby had the remains of two cists – stone coffins.
Hill of Caldback
Two chambered, heel shaped cairns around 16 metres across.
Oval cairn 10 metres in diameter with a central chamber.
Bordastubble Stone, Burragarth
A large standing stone standing 3.8 metres high.
Clivocast Stone, Uyeasound
A tall, narrow stone 3 metres tall and 0.9 metres wide.
Rounds of Tivla, Crussafield
A probable Bronze Age cremation cemetery situated downhill from a group of 3 round cairns, one containing a cist. The cemetery consists of 3 circular earthworks surrounding central stony spreads some 9 metres in diameter.
As with the rest of Shetland and Scotland, the Iron Age seems to have seen an increase in warfare and a further development of an aristocratic society. Brochs, so much a mark of the northern Iron Age are also present on Unst (there are 5 in total) and there are also a number of houses, one of which is being excavated at Sandwick beach, Easting in the south east of the island.
Situated on top of a steep hill rising 160 feet from the sea at Lunda Wick, the broch is surrounded by two ramparts and ditches and Iron Age house remains underlie the later Norse farmhouse further down the hill.
Situated on the coast near the ferry terminal, the broch is in a ruinous state but still have some extremely impressive ramparts and ditches.
An Iron Age house – small and oval in shape, it associated with field clearance mounds and some burnt stones and slightly later wheelhouse-type pottery.
The Sandwick excavation is a rescue dig intended to understand the site before it is washed away by the sea. Work started in 2005 and the 2006 season was filmed for the BBC's "Coast" series. The archaeologists stayed at Saxa Vord for the 2007 season - and very productive their work was too. To find out more see: Sandwick Iron Age Excavations
Quite simply, Unst has best-preserved Viking archaeology in a rural setting to be found anywhere in the World. The absence of any intensive farming over the past 1,200 years means that over 30 Viking longhouses have been identified on the island, along with some other exciting monuments.
The houses are massive - 23 metres (75ft) by 5 metres (16ft) – with thick, low outer walls and thatched pitched roofs. Inside, the floor was sunk below ground level and contained a central fire trench, while along the side walls ran the benches on which the people sat and slept. Keeping warm was clearly important so the houses ran down the slope instead of along it, animals being kept downhill so that their heat would rise and warm the domestic end above. The Vikings made full use of a local steatite (soapstone) outcrop at Clibberswick, on the north shore of Harold’s Wick, to make bowls and other useful utensils.
Vikings kept livestock – sheep, cattle and pigs – and they also grew grain in a system similar to the crofts of today. Grain would be sown in spring, after which the men would go raiding, returning in late summer to harvest the crop.
The Viking Unst Project
So rich and significant is this archaeology that the "Viking Unst Project" was formed as a multinational, £1 million heritage project to investigate the nature of Viking settlement and place it in context, presenting the results to the public. The work involves archaeological excavation, reconstruction and display – including the display of the replica longboat, the Skidbladnir, on the shores of Harold’s Wick. In 2008, Viking Unst will also start work on a replica Viking longhouse, the first in Britain, which will be located beside the Skidbladnir. Once completed, the house will become the focus for “living history” talks and demonstrations and Viking feasts will also be held. Saxa Vord guests will be warmly welcomed – and very well fed in a Viking way!
Excavations take place in early summer, the archaeologists staying at Saxa Vord.
From Archaeology To History
Although much of our knowledge of Shetland’s Viking and Norse Period’s comes from written sources, and although archaeological excavations continue to shed new and valuable light on the culture of Shetland into the 20th century, it is at the end of the Norse Period that is the watershed between Shetland’s Archaeology and Historical past. See the History of Shetland page for the continuation of Shetland’s Cultural Story.