DISCOVERED only 13 years ago, the remarkably preserved ancient settlement at Old Scatness on Shetland forced experts to completely rewrite the history of Iron Age Britain.
Old Scatness Broch, a mile from Sumburgh Head, was a pristine time capsule which enabled archaeologists to date the chronology of an Iron Age site in northern Europe with unprecedented accuracy.
It has now been revealed that ambitious plans are being championed by the Shetland Amenity Trust to turn Old Scatness into a world-class heritage centre in a boost for the tourism industry on the islands.
The site is currently open to the public for a only limited season and large parts have to be covered up during the winter to protect it from the elements.
But the trust aims to transform the settlement into a year-round visitor attraction with the addition of a dome-shaped building with a grass roof.
Jimmy Moncrieff, the general manager of the amenity trust, said: "This project could be huge for Shetland. There is nothing else like it anywhere in Britain; Old Scatness is the best preserved Iron Age village in Europe and the jewel in the crown of archaeological Shetland."
Mr Moncrieff said that new techniques developed since the discovery of the Viking village at Jarlshof and Skara Brae, the other major discoveries in Orkney and Shetland, had radically altered what archaeologists now knew about the Iron Age.
Dating mechanisms including carbon 14 and thermal luminescence revealed that the "brochs" – the distinctive fortress-style towers found only in Scotland – had first been built at least three centuries earlier than historians had suspected.
Mr Moncrieff added: "It had been thought that the brochs were built around the time of the birth of Christ or even as late as 100AD. But we now know that the Old Scatness Broch was built as early as 300BC."
Archaeologists had previously interpreted their construction as the result of migrations of Iron Age people, forced to move north to escape the threat of Roman invasion. But it has now been established that the towers were first built by indigenous people in the Northern Isles, reflecting a complex and well-organised society with the economic wealth to build them.
The trust's preferred option for the site's future development is to encase the broch and surrounding settlement under a single structure.
"Not only would the building preserve the site, but it would also give us an opportunity to truly bring the site to life," said Mr Moncrieff.
"There would be suspended gantries and walkways enabling the public to reach parts of the broch at the centre of the site which are inaccessible at the moment.
"The site could be open 365 days a year and we would be far more able to communicate the information and knowledge we have gained about this ground-breaking project.
"At the moment we get about 8,000 visitors a year at the site. But we anticipate that, with a proper centre and marketing, we could certainly get 20,000 to 30,000 visitors a year.
"The centre could be completed within the next four to five years. It could be massive for Shetland."
THE proposed heritage centre at Old Scatness has an estimated cost of 7.8 million.
Shetland Amenity Trust's first step will be to raise enough money to develop the preferred option to a design and engineering concept and then to obtain a full costing for the ambitious scheme. That would enable the trust to submit bids for funding to the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland and other funding sources.
The trust believes that if the funding bids are successful, the centre could be complete within the next four to five years.
Old Scatness was first excavated by staff and students from Bradford University in 1995.