History Stories

Archaeologists in the Orkney Islands, off the northeastern coast of Scotland, have uncovered the ruins of what they think is a Viking drinking hall used by elite warriors, possibly including a powerful 12th-century chieftain named Sigurd.

Orkney’s link to the Vikings can clearly be seen in local place names and architecture, as well as the DNA of those who live there. According to one genetic study, about 25 percent of islanders' DNA can be traced to the Norse settlers who first came to the islands in the late 8th century, at the dawn of the Viking Age. The islands remained part of Scandinavia until the 15th century, when King Christian I of Denmark handed them over to Scotland as part of a dowry for his daughter.

After working for years at the Skaill Farmstead site on the island of Rousay, a team of archaeologists and students from the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) unearthed the stone walls of a Viking-era building believed to date to between the 10th and 12th centuries.

Though the farm currently on the site dates to the 18th or 19th centuries, the name “Skaill,” which is a Norse word for “hall” suggests the site may have housed a Norse drinking hall. The partially uncovered building is around 13 meters (42 feet) long, with one-meter thick stone walls. The researchers also found stone benches along either side of the building, as well as pottery and fragments of a Norse bone comb.

It is suspected to have been a high-status site. According to The Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney, a historical narrative about the Norse conquest and rule of the islands written around 1200, the area, called Westness, was home to a powerful chieftain named Sigurd. The UHI team had long expected to find evidence of a Norse settlement underneath the present farm there.

Sigurd of Westness, the saga records, was a chieftain during the 12th-century reign of Earl Paul II. He was married to a woman named Ingibjorg (“the honorable”), and their two sons were also chieftains. As a close friend of Paul’s, Sigurd apparently hosted a feast that the earl attended at Westness just before he was kidnapped in 1136 by Sweyn Asleifsson, known as the “Ultimate Viking,” who wanted to clear the way for Paul’s rival, Rognvald II, to take power in Orkney.

Sigurd is a common name in the annals of Orkney’s Viking-era history. The Orkneyinga Saga states that the first earl of Orkney was Sigurd the Powerful, who had sailed aboard one of the ships led by Norse King Harald Fairhair in his conquest of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles (Hebrides) in the mid-9th century. Another Sigurd, Sigurd the Stout, famously fought under a banner marked with a raven, a symbol of the Norse god Odin. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, this Sigurd also converted to Christianity around 995, before dying in battle in 1014. 

Whatever role the drinking hall on Rousay may have played in 12th-century Viking power struggles, archaeologists are excited about the potential revelations they will find among the many middens (piles of waste) at the site, which can tell them about historic dietary traditions, agricultural practices and more. 

READ MORE: What We Know About Vikings and Slaves

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