Modeling Politics and Pilgrimage in Medieval Orkney

Team Members Participating:

Jennifer Grayburn – @JenGrayburn
PhD Candidate
Temple University, USA

Project Summary:

The Orkney Islands are best known today for its untouched, timeless landscape of fragmented islands, ancient monuments, and agriculture. Yet, in the Middle Ages, a powerful dynasty of Norse earls centered their domain here, ruling not only the Northern Isles, but also large swaths of Scotland’s mainland. Rather than being on the periphery of the British Isles, Orkney was a nexus of sea-travel and trade in the North Atlantic Ocean and North Sea from the ninth to thirteenth centuries. While some medieval sagas and annals supply textual evidence of these cross-sea encounters and relationships from the ninth to thirteenth centuries, Orkney’s monumental landscape offers visual evidence of Orkney’s interactions and aspirations within the larger context of the medieval North Sea world.

Modeling Power and Pilgrimage in Medieval Orkney, relies on both art historical and archaeological methods, and includes both standing medieval structures and known buildings and sites that are no longer extant. It is an extension of the Monasticism in Iceland Project based in Iceland (2013-2016) and the Mapping Magnus Project (2017-2018) based in Orkney, Scotland. Both projects used geophysical surveys and test pits to identify previously unknown architectural data; the discoveries in Iceland suggested key similarities between monastic sites in Iceland, particularly Skiðuklaustur and Þykkvabærjarklaustur, and sites in Greenland and Orkney. The discoveries in Orkney shed new light on a complex of buildings in Birsay, Orkney dedicated to the cult of St. Magnus.

Using photogrammetry, 3D modeling, and viewshed analysis of both interior and exterior spaces, this project focuses on Orkney’s broader landscapes of power and movement, not only within and between key cult sites throughout Orkney, but also between interconnected religious communities across the North Atlantic. Previous GIS viewshed research has already revealed the intervisibility between two towered churches related to the cult of St. Magnus, St. Magnus Cathedral and St. Magnus Kirk on Egilsay. Using the most recent excavation data, historical documents, and oral cult tradition, this project builds on previously isolated site research to identify and analyze the religious monuments as a whole across the islands. We ask: 1). How are Orkney’s religious centers spatially or visually linked? 2). Do sea-based networks differ from land-based ones? 3). How do spatial relationships shape political control or guide the physical movement of people? 4). How do the spatial trends compare to similar buildings in across the North Atlantic, most notably in Iceland and Greenland, where similar church and monastery layouts have been discovered? 5). Can digital methods assist in defining architectural typologies not apparent by other means?

External Link(s):

Preliminary model of the Orphir Church:

Preliminary model of the adjacent Orphir complex:

Mapping Magnus season updates:

Presentation Slides (PDF)