Q&A with Ian Tait

Mariana Cerqueira, 10.12.2014
Shetland Museum’s curator on the collection being awarded Recognised status
Ian Tait is the curator at Shetland Museum and Archives. This month the museum’s archaeology collection was awarded Recognised status by Museums Galleries Scotland to acknowledge that it is a collection of national significance.

The collection comprises 300,000 to 400,000 items that represent all aspects of life in Shetland from 4000BC to the 17th century, from agricultural tools to funerary traditions. The collection is considered to be the most complete archaeological record of the Viking/Norse presence in the British Isles.

What is the significance of this collection for the world of archaeology?

Shetland, on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, posed challenges to people in the prehistoric world. In a land devoid of trees and blasted by gales, and where most of the landmass wasn’t cultivable, society was never one of magnates and powerbrokers.

Because of this, artefacts of farming, fishing and other survival skills predominate. This environment has saved thousands of sites and artefacts from millennia of later development, and surely no place in Britain has so many components to make a complete picture.

Our archaeological picture is enlivened by higher-status items within the Shetland context, but one can only truly appreciate this by seeing the wider vista of life’s challenges.

Devoid of flint, islanders had to use quartz, and the technique reached its zenith with polished felsite tools unique to Shetland.

Distant from the trade routes, there was no bronze age, but our iron age saw an extraordinarily accelerated development, through metal use, political, religious and linguistic realignments, and extensive fortress-building.

In turn, Viking colonisation wiped the slate clean, ushering in radical change in architecture, art and technology.

All these phases were typified by farming and, later, allegiance to potentates elsewhere – not in Shetland – and has left a priceless artefactual legacy.

Why do you think the collection was awarded Recognised status?

Doubtless our strongest strand is its uniqueness. Distance meant that the techniques practised in Shetland were attenuated versions or entirely local responses.

Some took advantage of local resources; only in Shetland will you find such diverse and sustained use of the readily carved steatite.

Other methods maximised what the islands could offer. In the dearth of other materials, building in stone rather than timber means even Neolithic huts and tombs survive in remarkable condition on the characteristically small Shetland scale.

At the apex of society, the mysterious Pictish symbol stones  are unique in and of themselves, even within Shetland.

The environment has provided some remarkable survivals, such as peat-bog finds of iron age cultivation tools, and marine ship sites of the early modern period.

To me, the fascination and utility of these artefacts is not their extraordinariness – it is their ordinariness. It is, of course, exceptional to have them survive at all.

What does this award mean to the Shetland Museum?

It will do two things, one in the short term, the other in the long term.

First, the collection will be thrust to the forefront, which ensures it gets the attention it merits.

The recognised status validates what we putatively felt to be the case, but has now been verified by independent assessment.

In the longer term, the award can be used to support and give leverage to applications to third-party bodies such as funders who we deal with, enabling the organisation to unlock the potential of its collection and continue to provide information to the public and assist researchers.

It isn’t an end in itself, rather it is a qualification that we can use to maximise our archaeology collection.

What are your plans for the collection?

In the immediate future, our biggest challenge is a spatial one.

The collection is growing apace and we are upgrading the quality of storage of the existing holdings.

All this will necessitate a major upgrade of our environmental control systems, which will entail a thorough works programme and for which funding is being sought.