Viking Drinking Hall Unearthed On Orkney Provides ‘Unparalleled’ Insights Into Chieftain’s Life
Archaeologists excavating on a tiny island off the north coast of Scotland have discovered an 800-year-old Viking ‘Bu’, or drinking hall , once serviced by a high-ranking Orcadian Norse chieftain.
The Discovery of the Viking Drinking Hall
Orkney was once a great seat of Viking power and the archipelago was ruled by the Scandinavian kingdom until 1468 AD when King Christian I of Denmark sold it to the Scottish crown. This newly discovered vestige of Orkney’s past Norse glory was discovered at Skaill Farmstead in Westness, on the island of Rousay and this ‘high-status’ Norse drinking hall is believed to date as far back as the 10th century.
For several years a team of researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute (UHIAI) has been helped by students and residents of Rousay in an effort to find the building which the name ‘Skaill’ suggested was a Norse hall or drinking hall for a high-status chieftain. Dan Lee, co-director of the excavation project is quoted in The Scotsman saying “We have now found the hall at Skaill” which offers the researchers an “unparalleled opportunity to research eating habits in the region over a millennia”. “You never know, but perhaps Earl Sigurd himself sat on one of the stone benches inside the hall and drank a flagon of ale,” he added.
An overhead view of the trenches with the Viking 'drinking hall' on the left. ( UHI Archaeology Institute )
Excavating the Norse 'Drinking Hall'
Putting the discovery into context, after a summer on the high seas pillaging, raping, and conquering anyone you find with farmland and females (for slaves), Vikings returning to Orkney and letting their hair down had a ‘thing’ for pints of ale - lots of them. The ancient drinking hall was discovered beneath a more recent farmstead which was tilled between the 10th and 12th centuries. It measures more than 40 feet (13 meters) in length and its ‘substantial’ stone side walls are 18 feet (5.5 meters) apart.
Inside the ancient boozing chamber archaeologists discovered stone benches running along the side walls and soapstone was discovered which had originated further north in Shetland. Among the smaller items recovered were a bone spindle whorl for spinning animal hairs and grasses into yarns and a fragment from a Norse bone comb was also found.
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Excavation of the northern outer wall of the Norse 'drinking hall'. ( UHI Archaeology Institute )
These excavations are part of the Landscapes of Change - Archaeologies of the Rousay Clearances and Westness Estate project who state on their website “Geophysical survey suggests the site could be a ‘farm mound’” and that the project is “specifically interested in looking at the development of a high status late Norse estate and into the historic period through significant socio-cultural and climatic change, to investigate long term occupation and change”.
Ancient Saga Provided Clues
Westness is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga - a 13th century historical narrative of Orkney, the Shetland islands and their relationship with Norway - as the home a powerful 12 th century chieftain called Sigurd. The farmstead at Skaill, which archaeologists have focused their work on, dates from the Norse period and was occupied right up until it was abandoned in the mid-19th century clearances.
However, as revealing as these architectural features and artifacts prove to be, they will not provide anything like the information that will be derived from what was ‘thrown out’ by the Vikings of Rousay. Data about the past Norse “diets, farming, and fishing practices,” according to project co-director Dr. Ingrid Mainland from UHI) is coming from “a millennia of middens [refuge piles] which will allow us an unparalleled opportunity to look at changing dietary traditions , farming, and fishing practices from the Norse period up until the 19th century”.
Skaill Norse Hall exposing more of the northern wall of the 'drinking hall'. ( UHI Archaeology Institute )
The foundations of a similar Viking drinking hall can still be seen in Orphir Parish on the mainland of Orkney beside Orphir Round Church (or Round Kirk) beside a later Norse horizontal watermill. This example, according to the Orkneyinga Saga , was built by Earl Haakon Paulsson in 1117 AD after killing his cousin and co-ruler Magnus Erlendsson and the saga refers to it as a ‘large drinking-hall’ known as the Earl's ‘Bu’.
Top image: Skaill Norse Hall, the discovered Viking drinking hall below the present farmstead. Source: UHI Archaeology Institute .
By Ashley Cowie