Jarlshof – A Viking Age Gateway to the Shetland Islands

The archaeological site of Jarlshof on the isle of Mainland (formerly known in Old Norse as ‘Megenland’), Shetlands, is doubtlessly one of the most remarkable historical vestiges of the British Isles. The site, comprising remains which date from Antiquity up to the Modern Age, preserves equally reminiscences of a past Norse settlement.

South Mainland in the Shetland Islands is dotted with many reputed archaeological sites, including Jarlshof on its southernmost tip. Ranging from Bronze Age and Iron Age artefacts to the successive phases of Pictish and Norse settlement, this site is of remarkable historical interest.

Elevated view of Jarlshof archaeological site in the Shetland Islands. Image source: www.viking.archeurope.info

Although there’s no clear evidence that during the Viking Age the site could have been the seat of a Norse nobleman pertaining to the dynasty of the Norwegian Earls of Orkney, Jarlshof literally means ‘Earl’s Mansion’ in Old Norse. The name of the site is actually a 19th century invention, stemming from the novel ‘The Pirate’ by Sir Walter Scott.

With respect to the Norse settlement of the area during the Viking Age, it’s very likely that the Norsemen successively inhabited what is now Jarlshof between the 9th and 14th centuries. A series of excavations from the 1930s unearthed the first known Norse longhouse from the British archipelago, and following subsequent diggings throughout the 1950s it was discovered that fishing and farming activities were central to this community.

Seven Viking Age longhouses can be seen at Jarlshof, but only two of them were actually inhabited at a certain point during the early Middle Ages by the Norsemen. Everyday life during the Norse settlement of Jarlshof in the Viking Age encompassed basic activities which took place in other small living quarters. In addition, what could have been a sauna was subsequently replaced by two outhouses.

Life back then was as well subject to a rather rudimentary cuisine involving beef, sheep, pork, and Atlantic cod. It seems that wool was also an important part of the trade between Shetland and other regions of the Norse world.

The Viking era ruins from Jarlshof constitute the largest archaeological site of this period in the British Isles, with the extensive excavations of the 20th century providing key data concerning the architecture of the buildings, tools, and daily life of the area during the early Middle Ages.

Below you can watch a short aerial animation of Jarlshof from Antiquity to the Modern Age from the Youtube channel of Historic Environment Scotland:

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