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A Bad Day in Shetland

Barren, storm-swept islands in the North Sea have been a human refuge for more than 5,000 years

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Why the first human settlers chose to locate their colony at a place called Jarishof is more difficult to explain. Located on a desolate, wind-swept spit of land just around the corner from Sumburgh Cliffs, it contains evidence of continuous human habitation from 2500 BC up to the 17th century AD. Perhaps it was the presence of nearby fresh-water springs or driftwood on the beach that attracted the first settlers — or was it the bird colony itself that lured them here? The bones of puffins found in the Jarishof's middens suggest that eggs and nestling birds from the nearby Sumburgh rookery were harvested for food.

Excavations at Jarishof have uncovered remarkably well preserved Bronze and early Iron Age structures but when we arrived, cold and soaking wet from our bird-watching escapade, the only building of any interest was the visitor centre with its warm hearth and coffee bar.

The rain never really stopped but it did let up enough for us to take a quick look around the Jarishof site where we were free to wander in and out of Bronze- and Iron-Age dwellings for a closer look at how people lived there hundreds of years ago. I recall one 1600 year old house where the walls, cupboards and benches were still intact and I thought — when the roof was still on and a peat fire was glowing on the hearth this must have actually been a cozy place to escape the weather.

For centuries this house, and most of the Jarisof site, lay buried in sand, which probably explains their remarkable state of preservation. Until a violent storm in the late 19th century stripped away the dunes and excavations began, the site was hidden and forgotten. Until then the only building visible on the site was the Old House of Sumburgh, a fortified Scottish house built during the 16th century.

The most remarkable thing about Jarishof is the seamless change from a Neolithic stone- to a bronze- and, finally, to an iron-based culture at the same location. The discovery of iron, around 800 BC, had enormous cultural impact. Equipped with iron tools and armed with iron weapons the people embarked on a furious round of new construction — all built on top of the older bronze-age structures. All of that iron, including that used by the Vikings who inhabited the site from the 9th to the 14th centuries, was smelted from locally obtained bog ore. Over thousands of years the slimy brown iron oxide that accumulates in bogs and swamps builds up into layers of limonite, a soft iron-rich mineral that can be mined with nothing more than a crude shovel and smelted in a simple clay kiln.