Death & Life at The Cairns-New Radiocarbon Dates.


Death and life at a broch: New radiocarbon dates at The Cairns site shed more light on rituals of living and dying during the Iron Age.

Newly acquired C-14 dates and a dietary assessment for a remarkable deposit of human remains discovered at The Cairns, an Iron Age broch site under excavation in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, have given new insights into the nature of what was probably an act of closure at the end of the life of the broch.  Additionally, analysis has revealed some details of the life and death of the individual who is considered likely to be one of the occupants of the broch.


To recap: in July of this year excavations at the Iron Age period settlement site yielded a surprise discovery: a disarticulated human jaw.  It had been placed in the upper fill of a very large, carved whalebone vessel made from a substantial vertebra.  The vessel was resting against the outer wall-face of the broch near to its main entrance.

Also present within the whalebone container were the loosely articulated remains of three new-born lambs, and other animal bones.  Propped against the side of the whalebone vessel/container were two substantial red deer antlers placed upright, on-end.  These were shed antlers, and were both right-sided and therefore from two different animals.  On the opposite side of the container from the antlers, a very substantial saddle-quern had been placed snug against the base of the whalebone vessel.

Prior to the new dates, it had been considered possible that the human remains, which are thought to be male, might date to an earlier point than the actual deposit they were placed in.  This is because it has sometimes been suggested that Iron Age communities might be holding on to fragments of their ancestors, curating them as it were, in order to use them to add even more drama and significance to certain rituals performed at important times in the life of the community.   The new dates, however, make it more likely that the man died quite soon before the time that his jaw was deposited in the ground.

Time of death

The new radiocarbon dates show that the man died sometime between AD120 and AD240 in the latter part of what is conventionally termed the Scottish Atlantic Middle Iron Age.  As well as dating the human bone, one of the new-born lambs from the contents of the the-location-of-the-whalebone-vessel-and-human-jawbone-deposit-against-the-outer-wallface-of-the-brochwhalebone vessel was also dated.  This returned a date of AD89 to AD214.  The semi-articulated nature of the lamb bones means that this almost certainly conveys the time when the whalebone deposit was placed in the ground and is, therefore, an independent verification of the date for the human bone.  Thus, the dates largely overlap and this means that the human jaw probably did not represent a curated item, held over for a protracted period of time after death, before being finally deposited.  Instead, the date of the death of the man is of the same period as the last occupation of the broch itself before it was partly demolished and infilled with rubble, as indicated by previously obtained dates.  These were AD 84-210 and almost identical to the date range for the lamb bones!  This is also supported by the relative dating information obtained from our reading of the stratigraphy from the deposits.

It seems all the more likely that these human remains and the whalebone container etc., are indeed part of the measures taken to provide closure on the broch at the end of its use.  Essentially, these are an act of decommissioning, a ritual marking the end of the broch.

The life (and unusual diet) of the individual

It’s not possible to reveal a fulsome biography of the individual from his remains given that only the mandible bone was present.  A preliminary assessment of the human remains, however, is providing very useful insights into his lifestyle.  The study suggests that the jaw belongs to a person of some considerable age for the period, perhaps 50, but he may well be several decades older than that.  The individual is thought to be male, but it can be difficult to be certain of this given the basis of just a single bone.  The individual seems to have led an active working life judging by the condition of the teeth – only two were left! The jawbone had grown over most of the sockets of the missing teeth showing that these teeth had been lost during life.  This tooth loss may have been brought about partly through the individual using his mouth in the manner of a third hand, to tightly clamp materials, such as grasses and straw, whilst working on them with his hands, perhaps in making plant-fibre items such as bags and containers.  The teeth that did remain were quite substantially worn down, possibly from the activities just mentioned, but possibly also by the abrasive grit accidentally included in bread and bran products made with flour produced on sandstone grinding stones (querns) that have been frequently found on the site.

The analysis of the jaw also revealed more unusual aspects of the dead man’s diet.  The isotopic values of his bone chemistry showed that he had consumed a surprisingly high quantity of marine-derived protein (probably largely fish).  Most isotopic studies of human remains from the Middle Iron Age (the time of the brochs) tend to show very low or imperceptible levels of fish proteins in the human diet.  This might seem surprisingly counter-intuitive considering the fundamentally coastal, island nature of Iron Age Orkney, however, this lack of fish is also amplified by examination of on-site, Iron Age period middens, the rubbish heaps of food waste, which very rarely contain much in the way of fish at all.  For once, we have evidence of substantial fish consumption in a human from this period, and perhaps this feature of his diet is something that marks him as special, a particular category of person, perhaps even an important person.  We are, after all, very often reminded that we are what we eat!

This now makes events at the end of the broch, revealed during earlier seasons of excavation at The Cairns, all the more interesting.  A curious aspect of the late occupation looking-across-the-interior-of-the-brochdeposits excavated from inside the broch is that, unlike the majority of Middle Iron Age buildings, they did contain fairly substantial amounts of fish bone-strewn across one of the uppermost floor horizons, in a manner suggestive that lots of small fish being smoked inside the broch in a final episode of activity.  Is there some connection, then, between the dead man with his unusually high marine protein diet and these fish bones from inside the broch late in its occupation?  Further work on the human bone will be required to try to figure out if the marine contribution to his diet occurred throughout his life, or only at a certain point, or episodically, but the coincidence is intriguing, and also, perhaps, supports the suggestion that he is very much someone who was strongly associated with the broch.

It seems likely, then, that the man from The Cairns actually lived in the last half century, or so, of the main monumental phase of the broch before it went out of use.  When he was a young man, the monumental broch, and its surrounding settlement would still have been the paramount place in the landscape and was most likely a potent symbol of authority and order.  Indeed, it is very tempting to think that the man was himself a member of the broch household, and that by the time of his death, at least, was considered to be an important member of the community, perhaps an elder.  It may not be pushing this line of consideration too far to suggest the possibility that it was his death that occasioned the final abandonment and decommissioning of the broch.  There are plenty of examples in the ethnographic literature, from different cultures around the world, where the death of an important person, who had a significant association with a particular house, resulted in the end of that entire house as well.  Perhaps the death of the man from The Cairns was the final impetus required to end the broch in a period when perhaps its use and integrity had already been in decline for a time.  More analyses in the near future should add even more detail and fascinating new elements to this developing story of life and death during the Iron Age.

The site of The Cairns; the remarkable deposit of human remains and the whalebone vessel/deer antler deposit, will shortly feature in the Archaeology TV series: Digging for Britain.  The programme will be screened on Tuesday the 13th of December, at 9 pm, on BBC Four.


Martin Carruthers would like to thank Orkney Archaeology Society for funding the new radiocarbon dates.