Archaeology The Cairns

Insight into the people of The Cairns

There are many signs that people lived at The Cairns 2,000 years ago. We have an insight into their working and social lives by the things that they have left behind – jewellery, tools, even a little stone figure carved from a pebble.

But where are they? Where are their physical remains?  It’s as if the physical site had a life of it’s own and then was left for dead. But the actual people have been absent from our story. Up until now.

Martin Carruthers, The Cairns site director, takes up the story:

After the excitement of finding the cell, opening off  the western wall face of the broch, yesterday I thought that we’d be recovering today and would settle into the more normal pace of work involved in the final week tasks of recording.

But it wasn’t long at all until something remarkable occurred.Let me give you some context to begin with. Quite low down against the broch wall, a single tooth was discovered – quite worn and suspiciously human-like in its appearance.

We were just digesting this fact and had let Carolina return to her work, when she found more human remains. This time she had uncovered a large piece of a human mandible – the lower jaw bone.It was found about 40 centimetres to the south of the first tooth and the single tooth still present on this mandible appeared to be similarly worn to the first.

This created a stir as this is the first substantial human remains to be found on site. On the one hand, The Cairns is a settlement site so it’s no real surprise that we have not encountered much in the way of human bone.

The View that would greet the people of The Cairns every day.

However, I’ve been constantly considering the possibility that we might well find human remains because Iron Age settlement sites of the period do, fairly often, yield pieces of human skeletons.

Often these are only partial remains – an arm bone here, or a partially articulated hip and leg bone there. There are even fairly common occurrences of human heads, in particular, from Iron Age sites. There’s nothing apparently sinister in all this. There’s not too much evidence that these are particularly gruesome outcomes of violent activity. When you consider the context in which these remains have been found, interesting patterns emerge.

Often, they turn up in deposits that are being formed at sites when there is major change under way. Frequently, they are found associated with the foundation and construction of major buildings, like brochs and roundhouses, or sometimes towards the end of such buildings’ lives –  when they’re in the process of decommissioning and abandonment.

It looks like the deposition of these disarticulated human remains was not part of a funeral ritual, i.e. its not about dealing with the dead. Instead, the bones seem to have been used to make an even more significant act of these rituals of foundation or abandonment.

It’s quite possible that many of these bits of human bodies were already quite old when they went into the ground. Perhaps, like the relics of saints bones curated and used in the Medieval period, these Iron Age bones were associated with notable individuals, ancestors and founders of kin groups and lineages.

Then the deposition of parts of these renowned persons, in foundations or in the infill of buildings, might have been an appropriate, and powerful, way of accentuating just how significant the lifecycles of these buildings actually were for the community. It’s an interesting thought!

From the very preliminary information that we are able to work from just now, our human jaw  appears to be deposited in the context of the abandonment of the broch and its covering, both inside and out,  with rubble.

The jawbone appears to have been placed in a stone feature built against the broch wall and covered up by the rubble. Even more interestingly, the jawbone was centrally placed in a massive whalebone vertebra!

The whalebone appears to have been worked, carved-out to form something of a vessel! Perhaps there will be more fragments of human bone inside this container.How does this discovery of human remains make us feel on site?

Well, it is perhaps a little sobering, and sombre in a way, especially after the giddy excitement of yesterday’s discovery of a new, perfectly preserved chamber in the broch wall. However, it really brings home to the team and myself just how human the site of The Cairns was.

It’s easy to get drawn into the archaeological detail on site and to be impressed by the monumental nature of the buildings – especially the broch itself – and you can begin to see the archaeological remains in quite an abstract manner when working with them.

However, the discovery of, at least a piece, of one of the ancient occupants of the site, really does pull you up short, and reminds you in the most direct terms of the basic humanity of this place.

It’s absolutely fascinating to finally be able to gaze on one of the Iron Age people of The Cairns.

Thanks to Sigurd Towrie and Orkneyjar