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A uniquely Scottish monumentBrochs are unique to Scotland. There are over 500 of them, the vast majority spread throughout the northern and western Highlands and the islands. Many of these tall circular towers stood alone, but in Orkney they were generally surrounded by sizeable villages. The broch village at Gurness is one of the most impressive. It has also been archaeologically excavated, thus providing a more vivid impression of life in the Scottish Iron Age than other comparable sites.
A thousand years of settlementArchaeological excavations in the early 20th century showed that the village began between 500 and 200BC. A large area, roughly 45m across, was defined by deep ditches and ramparts. At a later stage, an entrance causeway was added on the east side, and a circular broch tower built in the west half. Around the latter arose a settlement of small stone houses, with attached yards and sheds. Some time after AD 100 the broch was abandoned and the ditches filled in. The site thereafter continued as a single farmstead until around the 8th century. The last activity came in the 9th century, when a Viking woman was buried here with her grave-goods.
The brochGurness Broch was probably the residence of the principal family of the community. It also provided the last defensive resort. Within its massively thick walls the broch originally had a single central hearth, a ring of stone-built cupboards around the wall, and a sunken water feature traditionally interpreted as a well. A spiral stair led up to upper levels in the tower and to the wall-head. When the broch began to collapse, this arrangement was altered. The ‘well’ was filled in and the interior refitted with new partitions. Most of what the visitor sees today dates from this secondary phase.
The broch villageThe village at Gurness is the best-preserved of all broch villages. There are numerous houses. Each had an entrance leading to a large living-cum-sleeping room, off which lay smaller side rooms. The main room had a hearth, a large tank set into the floor, cupboards and sleeping spaces. Some houses had a yard outside, open to the sky, and a separate shed.
A Viking cemeteryThe Vikings who settled in Orkney from around 800 often used the mounds of earlier settlement sites as burial places, and this was the case at Gurness. The grave of a Viking woman was found here, along with some grave-goods – a sickle blade and a pair of ‘tortoise’ brooches. Human bones and other Viking objects, including shield bosses, suggest that Viking men were buried at the site also.