Burnt Mounds, Shetland Islands, 2008, Series III

I was standing in the doorway of my great-grandmother’s croft home, three summers ago.  It was my first trip to Shetland-after flying to Edinburgh from New York on one day, and the next, taking a train to Aberdeen, then a 12-hour, overnight ferry to Lerwick Port, and a car ride up to North Roe.  Just a day into that first trip, I was introduced to Bertha and Douglas Murray and from their croft home, was shown Peat Haa off in the distance, my great-grandmother’s birth home.  Within minutes, I was standing in the threshold of the ruin-about 150 years after Jane Stove would have been living there.

Douglas drove me over in his pick-up and let me out to walk up the hill to Peat Haa.  An 8 or 9-year old boy, stood in his rubber boots and slicker, looking out to me from behind binoculars.  He started talking before I reached him, about the retired, French airplane that is parked in his drive, in front of his contemporary, cedar shake home built just above the ruin.  I half listened, peering into the ruin through the doorway-four supporting, hand-build stone walls were intact and two built-in hearths remained at either end.  The upper floor and thatched roof were missing-the open space filled with fallen wood beams and slats.  The staircase was detached and askew, open to the sky.

The boy’s older brother walked down from the house on the hill and started talking quickly too.  I adjusted a bit for the dialect and heard about the shards of pottery they had found inside the walls of the ruin.  Then their grandfather walked down and said they were planning to tear down the remaining walls.  I asked, and took two stones from one wall, one for me and one for my mother-something for us to have in hand to craft a story from.

This past summer, my third visit to Shetland, I found myself equally taken in by stones.  I’d heard about an archeology project over on Bressay Island-a 10-minute ferry ride from the mainland.  On Bressay, I was introduced to Jon Pulley, a 21-year old Shetlander-and, I learned later, distant kin.  Pulley was home for the summer, from Glasgow University, volunteering on the project-the rescue of a Bronze Age Burnt Mound from tumbling into the sea.

Burnt Mounds, found in the landscape in Britain and Ireland, mainly, are really heaps of shattered stones that were discarded after being heated and plunged into pools of water-that is, some time more than 3500 years ago.  The Burnt Mound at Bressay is even more interesting and rare in that structures were built around the site as well-a hearth, a cistern, a stone tank, and a sloping chute.  But, because of coastal erosion from the gales that so often batter Shetland, archeologists excavated the site and are rebuilding nearby on terra more firma.

On the day I met up with Jon Pulley, he and drystone dyker Jim Keddie were slipping a mover’s strap under a large slab of sandstone.  They adjusted for tension and then worked the stone into a layer of wall, a layer similar to that found upon excavation.  Pulley and Keddie worked from photographs taken and maps drawn during the dig, attempting to get it just right.  But archeologists don’t actually know, with any certainty, the why of these mounds.

They see evidence for possible cooking purposes, for saunas for bathing or fulling wool, and for softening hides for leather production, or some combination of these explanations.  To help imagine the purpose, a replica is also being built to pilot the heating of stones and possibility of boiling water.  I was mesmerized at the site, looking down into the dug-out pit, and getting lost in the story.  Here, ancient burnt stones found, buried.  At Peat Haa, more recent, small stones, on the surface, still wedged in the wall of a stone home.

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