Archaeologists believe they have discovered one of the oldest and largest Iron Age settlements in Europe on the remote, windswept Shetland Islands.
Excavations will begin next month on a 5,000-year-old group of villages which they are convinced will be every bit as important as Stonehenge. The Shetlands are thought to have been an early centre of wealth and sophistication, supporting a large population.
"It's a chance in a lifetime because we won't see a site quite as big as this being excavated again," said Stephen Dockrill of the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford.
"This site is a unique landscape and perhaps one of the most important archaeological resources we have in Britain. But because of its remoteness it doesn't have the publicity that Stonehenge gets - even though it is just as important."
The first settlers in Shetland sailed in open, skin-covered boats from Orkney, 60 miles to the south, and Fair Isle, which formed a bridgehead in their migration northwards. Neolithic farmers, who arrived around 3,600 BC, brought with them sheep, pigs and cattle and quickly cultivated arable land in the south of Shetland.
The Bradford team will begin digging at Old Scatness on the southern tip of the main Shetland island, believed to be the longest continually occupied settlement in Scotland, dating from 2,500 BC right up to the 20th century. Preliminary work may also start at the nearby village of Toab, where a mound covering a broch, or great stone watchtower, has recently been identified.
The work at Old Scatness and Toab will complement the spectacular remains of Jarlshof, a prehistorical site that was uncovered by a violent storm almost 100 years ago.
A fourth site, thought to be just as complex as Jarlshof, lies close by along the eroding shoreline at Eastshore. Between them the four sites form one of the biggest Iron Age communities to have been identified in Europe. Little is known about the people who lived in these villages, though the settlements are each characterised by a broch, which provided the centre of daily life, and wheelhouses.
It is thought that all the sites, which are located across two thin peninsulas near Sumburgh airport, were home to wealthy families, first Pictish in origin and later, from around AD 900, Viking and Norse. "They were probably some form of elite who were rich enough to employ retainers and possibly even use slave labour," said Mr Dockrill. "To build a big broch you would require a fair degree of wealth and an economic centre for metalwork. The quality of architecture in the brochs is so outstanding that they may have been able to buy in a specialist stone mason."
The broch at Old Scatness is one of the most impressive on the island, almost 18 metres in diameter. The earliest house is thought to be around 2,000 years old and was abandoned by its original occupants and used as a rubbish dump. Wall cavities, thought to be cupboards, have also been found while iron hearths and whalebone door frames have been identified. Some pottery is thought to date to the early Bronze Age.
"We think the site goes back much further," said Mr Dockrill. "We have evidence of reddish soil on top of the sand which is criss-crossed with early plough lines, so we know it was cultivated.
"Shetland is an immense archaeological resource which is underestimated by many. The land here hasn't been subject to the intensity of agricultural practices that parts of mainland Britain have seen."