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Archaeologists in Scotland have discovered an extensive ancient Viking waterway cutting right through Orkney’s Mainland island.

The Orkney Islands , known for their tall sandstone cliffs and world-famous seal colonies, are an archipelago located off the northeastern tip of Scotland. From an archaeological perspective “ The Heart of Neolithic Orkney ,” a group of 5,000-year-old UNESCO protected Neolithic sites, is of extreme value. These ancient sites include Skara Brae , a 5000-year-old village; the Ring of Brodgar , the third largest standing stone circle in Europe; and the stunning Maeshowe chambered burial tomb and its 12th-century Viking carvings. And it was in the Viking period that the extensive waterway was cut through the Orkney mainland connecting the North Atlantic with the Scapa Flow, where Vikings are thought to have anchored their longships. However, the purpose of the recently discovered Orkney Viking waterway is still not clearly understood.

The Orkney Viking Waterway and the Legacy of the Sea Dragons

The Vikings first settled in the Orkney Islands in the late 700s AD and the islands were ruled over by powerful Norse earls serving the King of Norway until the 12th century. And because the islands were a strategically important part of the Scandinavian kingdom it was only in 1468 AD they were “sold” to the Scottish Crown as part of a dowry in the marriage of the daughter of Christian I of Denmark to James III of Scotland.

Recently, a team of archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands ( UHI), the University of St Andrews and the University of Wales have gathered sediment samples and performed remote-sensing geophysical mapping all over the Orkney Islands mostly focused on places with Old Norse names with connections to the sea, and boats.

One of the researchers taking sediment samples in the “mapping” of the Orkney Viking waterway (University of Saint Andrews)

The Investigation of Places with Old Norse Names

According to a new paper published in the Journal of Wetland Archaeology , the team of researchers investigated names like “Greenay,” which in Old Norse means “shallow waters,” and “Knarston,” which comes from the Old Norse term “knarrar staðir,” from the words “knörr" and “staðir,” meaning “transport vessel" and “farm,” respectively. Therefore, the word “Knarston” represents a place where boats had been anchored. And while one team of researchers scoured old maps and books looking for clues in the phonetics of place names, another team assembled geophysical data.

Heavy agricultural activity over the centuries had obscured this ancient Orkney Viking waterway. But the team of researchers were able to identify a series of infilled channels cutting through Mainland Orkney extending north from the Loch of Harray to Loch Sabiston and Loch Boardhouse, near to the Earl’s traditional seat of power in Birsay. But to understand how this channel was used we must drop the notion that Vikings were “only” wealth obsessed plunderers gathering riches through bloody conquest. They were also skilled and successful traders and the mapping of the Orkney Viking waterway will likely provide more evidence of the Norse trading practices.

A researcher carrying out remote-sensing geophysical mapping on the Orkney Islands (University of Saint Andrews)

Remapping Orkney’s Ancient Inter-Island Trading Channels

Every time a longboat filled with Vikings set sail the chances of accidental death increased incalculably, and this was especially the case around the waterways of Orkney that are greatly affected by the catastrophic tides and swells from the vicious Pentland Firth that separates mainland Scotland from Orkney. Incidentally, the name “Pentland” is also from the Old Norse language: “Petlandsfjörð,” means “the fjord of Pictland,” after the indigenous “ Picts” of Orkney.

Saving on intercoastal travel around the islands, the newly discovered waterway provided the Vikings with a shallow navigable channel “through” the island, by which cargoes of grain and animals could transported. The Orkney Viking waterway is very similar to the inland waterway discovered at the Scottish Viking sites at “Rubh an Dunain” on the Isle of Skye on the west coast of Scotland. The new UHI study claims to provide “new insight into the transfer of goods and people in the west of mainland Orkney” and it will also encourage historians and archaeologists to look for further evidence of water transport in the Viking Age and Late Norse period on Orkney.

What the Newly Found Ancient Orkney Viking Waterway Suggests

The Daily Mail spoke with Dr Richard Bates of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of St Andrews, who said “it was amazing so much evidence still exists that they were able to uncover the ancient waterways.” Dr Alexandra Sanmark of the Institute for Northern Studies , at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said, “I am delighted with the outcome, as multiple pieces of written and landscape evidence suggested the existence of the waterway.” Essentially, the newly discovered Orkney Viking waterway changes how archaeologists think about the transfer of goods and people in the west of Mainland Orkney, and in the Viking’s greater Nordic empire.

Top image: The Orkney River is part of the recently discovered Orkney Viking waterway. The researcher shown in this photo is carrying remote-sensing geophysical mapping equipment.

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