Historic Blunders: Viking saga

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Marion Garry could hardly believe it. Inspired by a television programme about do-it-yourself archaeologists, she begun poking around in her back garden. And then she could barely move for experts.

They sealed off the site in Buckhaven, Fife, and were gingerly scraping soil from around the huge stone slabs that she had told them about. They were talking excitedly about Vikings. Could this be the first evidence of a Norse settlement on the Scottish mainland? Had the rocks been placed there deliberately, some time in the 9th century?

Things had been found in this area before. In the 1920s, a Bronze-Age burial chamber had been excavated nearby. However, a Viking village would easily top that. No wonder everyone was so excited.

As Douglas Speirs, chief archaeologist at Fife County Council, later told the BBC: "It did seem a reasonable and plausible situation that this might be a site of some antiquity in so far as it was situated on a raised beach right next to the sea."

Taking into account the types of stones used and the pattern in which they were arranged, he said: "It had all the hallmarks of ancient building techniques."

With hindsight, though, the chief archaeologist wished that other factors had been taken equally into account - not least the Second World War child's gas mask and the old television remote control that his team had unearthed amid the buried rubble.

He also might have regretted setting quite so much store by the testimony of a neighbour who, having lived next door since the house was built in 1939, swore blind that there had never in all that time been a patio on the site that was now receiving so much attention.

However, a sunken patio from the 1940s is precisely what the supposed Viking village turned out to be. "We were buoyed up by the fact that we were digging for something of some significance," said Douglas Speirs.

"After all our efforts, you can imagine how silly we felt."

David Newnham

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