Book Reviews

“Ebbing Shores: Survey and Excavation of Coastal Archaeology in Shetland 1995-2008” by Hazel Moore & Graeme Wilson

Reviewed by Dr Mary MacLeod Rivett

Moore, H & Wilson, G (2014) “Ebbing Shores: Survey and Excavation of Coastal Archaeology in Shetland 1995-2008” Historic Scotland Archaeology Report no. 8, Pbk, 353 pages, 224 illustrations (colour & B/W), 42 tables, RRP £25, ISBN 978 1 84917 158 8, reviewed by Mary MacLeod Rivett

Ebbing Shores: Survey and Excavation of Coastal Archaeology in Shetland 1995-2008

“Ebbing Shores: Survey and Excavation of

Coastal Archaeology in Shetland 1995-2008”

It is always a pleasure to have the opportunity to review a new archaeological volume deriving from work in Shetland, and this is no exception.  The quality of preservation of archaeological remains in the islands is generally excellent, as a result of relatively non-intensive agricultural practice, and the last 30 years of archaeological research has revealed  ‘that the archaeology of Shetland is every bit as rich as any of its northern neighbours’, as Noel Fojut comments in his introduction to this report (16).

Ebbing Shores, published as Historic Scotland Archaeological Report no. 8, brings together a synthesis of the results of 730 km of coastal erosion assessment surveys carried out between 1995 and 1998, and the site reports for three significant excavations triggered by these surveys, a Bronze Age burnt mound at Cruester on Bressay, a late Bronze Age to Iron Age settlement at Bayanne on Yell, and a late Iron Age smithy at Burland on Trondra, all carried out by Hazel Moore and Graeme Wilson of EASE Archaeology on behalf of Historic Scotland, Shetland Amenity Trust and the local community.  The detailed results of the surveys themselves are freely available, along with all the other coastal erosion assessment reports for Scotland, provided online by the SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology & the Problem of Erosion) Trust . One further excavation, of a Bronze Age burnt mound at Tangwick on Mainland, was published earlier as part of a survey of Shetland burnt mounds (Moore & Wilson 1999: 203-237).

A book such as this, providing the results of work driven by serendipity as much as by the academic preferences of the excavators, provides an interestingly alternative light on the archaeology of the north of Scotland.  As research professionals, archaeologists have an understandable tendency to choose to excavate the extremes of settlement; in practice, in the islands, this often leads us to concentrate on the monumental, the earliest, or the most liminal.  In development-led archaeological work, the drivers of revelation are the landscape choices of modern commercial and domestic needs.  Coastal erosion gives a different type of transect through the landscape, and therefore reveals a different group of sites.  As a result, the sites excavated here are perhaps unusual in their lack of monumentality, and in many ways the more interesting for that.  At Burland (240-337), for example, excavation took place on the smithy site, not the adjacent, and more rapidly eroding, broch (246); at Bayanne (87-239), the site was a long-lived farm, built, rebuilt and adapted from the Bronze Age well into the first millennium AD, but never had a broch or other dramatic architectural statement.

Cruester burnt mound is seen by Moore and Wilson as fitting into the pattern defined in their earlier report (1999: 230, 234-5) as a special place, seasonally or intermittently used for feasting, but they emphasise the fact that the debate between the two prevalent burnt mound interpretations of cooking site and steam bath remains undecided; their concluding comment, in passing, about ‘the consumption of special foods, possibly in combination with bodily cleansing’ (67) would seem to cover all possibilities, and be a most probable explanation for the genesis of this and similar sites.

Bayanne and Burland were much larger excavations, and the reports on these two sites take up the bulk of the volume.  Bayanne in particular was a long-lived site, and produced a significant assemblage of finds.  It provides an interesting insight into the local use and adaptation of different forms of curvilinear architecture over nearly 2000 years, moving from the earliest curvilinear post-built structure of the Bronze Age (115), to an oval stone building (118), through a radially divided round house explicitly not identified by the excavators as a wheelhouse (120), to the figure of eight shaped houses of the 3rd to 5th centuries AD (121-122). Each of these forms was constructed using local building techniques (120), and none of the buildings is a ‘perfect’ example of the type, rather formed pragmatically using earlier structural remains and materials available on site, an encouragement to excavators to consider the social reasons for architectural change in a local context.

It is striking, in looking at the results from the excavation of the Late Iron Age smithy at Burland, how little metal there was in the assemblage from the site (259-264).  The site was in use from the late first millennium BC to c. AD800, and produced evidence for both non-ferrous and ferrous metal working, in the form of slag, furnace linings, moulds, a tuyere, and hearths, but there was almost no metalwork, indicating extremely high levels of recycling and reuse, and implying a high value for metal.  The continuity of function on the site, separate from but linked physically by the access causeway to the adjacent broch, has potential implications for understanding the social role of the smith and smithy in an Iron Age community.

If there is a criticism of the content of this volume, it is that I wonder whether the reports and surveys could not have been subject to a more synthetic analysis, supported by, for example, phased coastal maps indicating sites of similar periods, and incorporating further evidence held by the local Historic Environment Record.  It may be that the authors did not feel that was appropriate in the remit of the Historic Scotland series, but it would have enriched the evidence presented here.

The book, a softback A4 monograph, is copiously illustrated with field sketches, photographs, plans and maps, in both black and white and colour. Unfortunately, the illustrations are one of the main points of criticism; the scale of maps and drawings is wildly variable, for example the map of coastal erosion sites on Lunnasting, fig. 1.57 (43) occupies less than a quarter of a page, whilst immediately overleaf, analogous maps of Whalsay and South Mainland (figs. 1.58 & 1.59, 44-45) each occupy more than half a page and look coarse and over-simplified in comparison.  A partial site plan, fig 3.8 on page 91 is reproduced at twice the scale of a plan of the same site on page 94, making it difficult to relate the two.  Most of the photographic illustrations are very small, 80mm x 50mm, and figures 3.22 (105) and 3.24 (106) appear to be the same image, whether by accident or design.  There are also a few errors and omissions (‘scarped’ rather than ‘scraped’, for example, pp 105, 106), which catch the eye.

This is a very useful volume, which provides an indication of the ways in which the results from coastal surveys can be incorporated into a wider understanding of the Scottish coastline.  It will be exciting to see how future regional excavation and survey can build more widely on the results of the erosion assessments carried out by Historic Scotland in the 1990s, and it is to be hoped that future volumes of this type will soon be produced.

Moore, H. & Wilson, G. 1999 ‘Food for thought: a survey of burnt mounds of Shetland and Excavations at Tangwick’ Proc Soc Antiq Scot 129, 203-37

Dr Mary MacLeod Rivett, MacLeod Archaeology and researcher at University of the Highlands and Islands

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