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Orkney’s Christian Viking heritage

The Old Man of Hoy, the famous 140m rock stack that rises out of the sea in the Isles of Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, is well known as a magnet for adventurous climbers, writes Norman Hammond. Less well known until now, however, was that people lived atop some of these rocky towers, far above the sea and separated from the island.

Recent excavations have uncovered part of an unconventional Viking Age village on the top of another Orcadian sea stack known as the Brough of Deerness, lying at the eastern extremity of Mainland, Orkney’s principal island. At 30m high and 80m across, it is an unexpected place to find a 10th to 12th-century church surrounded by the foundations of approximately 30 other buildings.

Fieldwork in the 1970s discovered that the existing ruined church was built on the foundations of an earlier chapel. The two construction phases were separated by an archaeological layer containing an Anglo-Saxon coin minted between 959 and 975, said Dr James Barrett of the University of Cambridge, who directed the new investigation. This find shows that the site is one of the earliest known Christian settlements in the Viking North Atlantic. Intriguingly, the cemetery around the church contained only six graves including five of children, one newborn.

• Full story at the Sunday Times.

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