WHEN Kristian Leith decided to build a shed to house his children’s bikes, he did not expect to unearth a mass burial ground that could hold the key to a centuries-old mystery.

But now Mr Leith is pressing for a full archaeological excavation of his land in the belief that it houses part of the ancient capital of Shetland.

The project to build a shed during lockdown led to 26 skeletons and a treasure trove of ancient artefacts being unearthed in a small section of his garden in Upper Scalloway.

Now Mr Leith is to carry out a full geophysical survey of the garden and adjoining three acre field in a bid to gain evidence of what may lie below.

He hopes the survey will help the case to fund further excavation work,at a time when Historic Environment Scotland faces a restricted budget.

It was while he was digging foundations for an 8ft by 6ft shed, to house his children’s bikes that Mr Leith found the top of a skull just 10 inches below the surface.

The discovery led police to declare the remains as historic, with the investigation being handed over to Historic Environment Scotland, as the body responsible for the removal of ancient remains.

An archeological excavation of the tiny site then discovered 26 skeletons, aged between one and 60. 

Mr Leith, 42, said: “Historic Scotland were contracted to remove the 26 remains only, but during this removal discovered four Pictish roundhouses and a load of historical artefacts dating back to the Iron Age, possibly even back to the Bronze Age. 

“The archeologists left with two van loads filled to the roof with ancient artefacts.”

He added: “I think it could go back to Neanderthal and that this may be the historical capital of Shetland.”

He said an excavation in Upper Scalloway in1990 had uncovered 22 ancient human remains and structures and other items from Pictish, Iron Age and Bronze age times. 

Mr Leith added: “The challenge is to find a budget to excavate the site properly and thoroughly. I believe that with the two digs that have already taken place, they have only just scraped the surface of a substantial settlement that has artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age.

“I strongly believe this site is the ancient, cultural, historical and as yet undiscovered capital of Shetland.”

The father of Erin, 9, Kyle, 6 and Bodi, 2, said: “During lockdown I had done all the painting that my wife requested and the kids were always looking for a shed to put their bikes in, so I decided to build a shed for them.”

“It was only an 8ft by 6ft shed to put the kids’ bikes in but as it transpired I only got down10 inches when I discovered the top of a skull. I contacted the Shetland police who said it was historic and the local archeologist thought there would be more burials to be found on that stretch of ground, we lifted the turf to see. The total number that we discovered was six. We told Historic Scotland who have the responsibility to remove these remains so they arranged for a team to come over to start removing these but six turned to seven, eight, nine, 10 and 26 was what was discovered in an area of about five metres by 12 metres.

“The level of preservation really shocked the archaeologists. They carbon dated two found in 1990 to about 1460 so they think these date to the 1400s, too.”

The bodies were all very closely buried together as if they were in family groups, and there were no headstones, or signs of grave cuts, which led experts to believe the graves were on top of Pictish structures.

Dr Val Turner, Regional Archaeologist for the Shetland Amenity Trust, said: “We know that there are still Pictish remains in the front garden and I would certainly like to see them excavated since remains of houses like these are fairly rare.”

University of the Highlands and Islands are interested to use it as a training exercise for UHI students.

She added: “Since you can literally fall over archaeology wherever you walk in Shetland, the chances of finding something more are reasonably high.”