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The Social Context of Norse Jarlshof

The Social Context of Norse Jarlshof

By Marcie Anne Kimball

Master’s Thesis, Louisiana State University, 2003

Abstract: A series of excavations from 1897 to 1951 showed the site of Jarlshof in Shetland to have been occupied by proto-Pictish, Pictish, and Viking peoples. These inquiries culminated in J.R.C. Hamilton’s 1956 monograph Excavations at Jarlshof, Shetland. In the years since the writing of the monograph, much new information has come to light that relates to the time periods found at Jarlshof. The concern of this thesis is how the new findings relate to Viking Age Jarlshof and how Viking Age Jarlshof relates to this new information.

In order to set Viking Age Jarlshof into its overall historical context regarding Shetland, a geographic and historical summation of Shetland is given. In order to set Jarlshof broadly within the sphere of Viking movements, the history of, and the reasons for, Viking activity are recounted. Next, specific aspects of Viking Age Shetland are examined. The evidence for the interaction of the Vikings with the native Picts is then reviewed. The relevant details of Jarlshof are then presented, along with the findings of recent studies that have been conducted that specifically relate to Viking Age Jarlshof.

Various studies, especially new archaeological finds, are used to set Viking Jarlshof into its social context and to hypothesize about the history of the site itself. The major conclusions of this inquiry are: Vikings raiding was a product of a transitional stage of economy; the Shetland Norse came from an as yet unspecified region of Norway; the replacement of firehouses at Jarlshof by longhouses may be related to a greater reliance on trade and taxation; the clustering of houses at Jarlshof may be evidence of the antiquity of land management of Shetlanders as recorded in more recent centuries; three stages of Viking colonization that were first hypothesized for Orkney, i.e., pioneering, consolidation, and establishment, are also applicable to Shetland; sites in Orkney also demonstrate that Jarlshof is not unique in the ambiguity of evidence for interaction between the Picts and the Norse; Jarlshof may have been subjected to particularly aggressive Norse activities.

Click here to read this thesis from Louisiana State University

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