South Uist (G-B) : Did the Gaelics 'tame' the Vikings?

'Salvage archaeology' dig on Scottish island of South Uist to preserve, record history of 800-1000 A.D. Viking occupation before erosion washes evidence away


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118247 webArchaeologists dig at an excavation site in Bornais on the island of South Uist. Photo courtesy of Niall Sharples and the HCA Archaeology Image Bank

Detectives and archaeologists both piece together events by analyzing the evidence that is left behind.

"They even use the same tools," says Cameron Wesson, Lucy G. Moses Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

"Forensic science is archaeology applied to recent sites," he adds.

Wesson and Niall Sharples, professor of archaeology at Cardiff University in Wales in the United Kingdom, are taking a team of students--including 12 from Lehigh--on a four-week archaeological expedition this summer in South Uist. The island is part of the Outer Hebrides--also known as the West Isles--just off the west coast of Scotland. Among the team's goals will be to piece together what happened when the Vikings arrived on the island more than 1,300 years ago.

An archaeological anthropologist, Wesson's primary research interests center on European colonization of the indigenous peoples of Eastern North America with a focus on sites in Alabama and Georgia.

The South Uist dig represents the first phase of a three- to five-year collaboration with Sharples to search for commonalities between the Viking occupation and the European colonization in parts of the American South. He is interested in what the data may reveal about common patterns of colonization--regardless of the time period or geography.

There is a particular urgency to excavating South Uist, says Wesson.

"Climate change has caused bigger and more violent storms. The rising sea level is accelerating soil erosion causing human remains to erode onto the shore. Artifacts that have been left untouched for more than a thousand years will soon be lost. Our team will be conducting 'salvage archaeology'--trying to excavate, preserve and record what's there before it's completely destroyed."

Wesson and Sharples gained permission to explore the region from the National Trust for Scotland, Scotland's largest conservation charity, which is seeking to rate the importance, or value, of particular sites. The duo will present a summary of their findings to the Scottish government next year.

Support from a Lehigh Mellon Digital Humanities Initiative grant will enable the group to share their findings with the wider community. Wesson and the students will take photographs, record 3-D images and upload real-time data from their excavations. One student will record footage for a documentary film about the expedition. The team has set up a website to distribute information. The students will host a live chat every evening during the dig to answer questions about the fieldwork and the nature of the project. The website can be accessed at

Common origins of colonization

Much of Wesson's work is focused on the nature of social, political, economic and environmental impacts of colonization.

"The motivation for colonization is often the same," says Wesson. "Back home the colonizers are running out of resources, usually land. Migration to other locales was often a consequence of primogeniture--the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child--a major source of inequality and poverty throughout history."

Primogeniture was a likely motivation for the Norse seafarers--popularly known as "the Vikings"--who "raided and traded" from their Scandinavian homelands across wide areas of northern and central Europe. It would likely have been the Norwegians who landed in South Uist around 800 A.D.

"If you were a second or third son you were not able to acquire land in your own community," says Wesson. "Pillaging your neighbor was not OK, but you were free to find land elsewhere."

The indigenous people the Norse encountered in South Uist were Gaelic fisher folk. Today, the island of about 1,700 inhabitants (according to the 2011 census) is among the last remaining strongholds of the Gaelic language in Scotland.

The Vikings as neighbors

Though a group of archaeologists surveyed the Hebrides Islands in the late 1990s, South Uist remains largely unexplored.

The Lehigh-Cardiff team will look for evidence of habitation such as stone used for house foundations, pottery, cooking utensils, storage vessels, fishing gear, fish hooks, iron nails, and fittings and riggings from ships. Wesson expects that in addition to human remains, the group will also find sheep bones as the inhabitants of the Hebrides have been sheep farmers for more than 1,000 years.

Using shovels, trowels and hand picks "we will dig until we find sterile sub-soils that don't show signs of human presence," says Wesson. According to Wesson, it's possible to uncover 300 to 400 years of occupation in three or four feet of soil.

The artifacts will be cleaned, studied and chemically analyzed, ultimately providing clues as to how the arrival of the Vikings changed the story--of the region, the indigenous people and the Vikings themselves.

"We want to answer the question 'What's it like to have the Vikings as your neighbors?'" says Wesson. "What happens when they move in or when it's time for their sons and daughters to be married off?"

Conquerors or immigrants?

Views of colonialism fall into one of two general categories, says Wesson.

"There is the idea that colonialism inherently involves violence, bloodthirsty conquerors and the cutting off of heads. Another theory says the process has often been more benign--there was land available and the inhabitants welcomed newcomers."

Cultural hybridization is the term anthropologists use to describe the phenomenon of cultures blending over time. The result, as Wesson puts it, is that "both groups become something different than they were before." A particular culture might also change through cultural imposition, the tendency of a group to impose its values and patterns of behavior onto others. In this model the indigenous population is threatened by the invading group.

"You either convert to our ways or you're going to get pushed out," says Wesson.

"Immigration has always been fraught," he adds. "For some, welcoming foreigners invites troubling questions: 'Will we lose our identities?' 'Will they change to be more like us? Or will they change us?' Others welcome the diversity and vibrancy that immigrant cultures bring."

So, did the Vikings conquer the Gaelics, or did the Gaelics "tame" them?

"In the history of migration, few populations have moved to a new place and, by the second or third generation, remained unaffected," says Wesson.

Previous evidence has shown that the local people of the Hebrides "Christianized" the Norse seafarers into giving up their "raiding and trading" ways.