The Cairns Whalebone-the inside story

IMG_3822Post-excavation work is progressing well on the whalebone vessel unearthed at The Cairns late last year.

The vessel not only contained a human jawbone, but also animal bones, remains of ceramic pots and stone tools.

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MLitt student, Karen Kennedy, is working with Dr Ingrid Mainland (Programme Leader for MLitt Archaeological IMG_3828Studies), examining, recording and cataloguing the animal bone fragments as part of her research into ‘Feasting in the Iron Age’.

Initial findings suggest that neonatal lamb, calf and pig bones were deposited within and around the huge whalebone container in addition to fragments of broken pottery and stone tools. This indicates that the inhabitants of the broch took part in a final feast and ceremony to close the structure down following hundreds of years of occupation.

Post-excavation work on the whalebone is almost complete. The object has been carefully cleaned and emptied of all contents. This has enabled a closer examination of the huge find and gives us an insight into the processes involved in the making of this impressive piece. The transverse processes had clearly been hacked off with a sharp blade, but when examined closer, small knife marks are clearly visible around the rim and the whole of the interior.

The Iron Age inhabitants of The Cairns broch seemed to have a liking for whalebone. This object forms part of a growing collection of whalebone objects emerging from the site. Over 60 whalebone objects have been unearthed in the 2016 season alone.

Karen’s work will not only add to our understanding of the rituals involved at The Cairns but on a personal level, will also enhance her career prospects as she learns new techniques involved in front line archaeological research.

Marks on the whalebone vessel rim.

More details concerning our research at The Cairns will be discussed at ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ conference being held in Kirkwall between 14th and 17th September 2017. For more information about our conference, contact or see our conference website.

Call for papers poster outlining the themes

2 thoughts on “The Cairns Whalebone-the inside story

  1. Bernie Bell Tuesday, March 21, 2017 (1:05am) / 1:05 am

    This is just me, rambling – not proper archaeology at all –
    At last years ‘Brochtoberfest’ I was taken greatly with the idea of the ( unusually old) man’s passing, coinciding with the building being closed down, then the souterrain being put in place.
    The souterrain was put in place, the people had to pass by the man’s remains to get inside. It became a place of reverence.
    What’s in my head is………………a dynasty of people – an extended family. They played a large part in the ‘success’ of the Cairns broch, in it’s importance in the surrounding area and in the welfare of the land and the people of that area. And the sea, for that matter – the sea and all pertaining to it mattered to them a lot, too.
    The Whale is a huge, powerful representative of the ocean.
    The dynasty lasted for a long time, but this man was the last of them. He lived to an unusually old age – but his decline and the decline of the broch, and possibly the well-being of the area, declined together. Power waned, in the man and in the land. Then he passed, and his jaw-bone was placed in a big whale-bone vessel which was carefully placed so that he was he was incorporated in, and became an important part of, the new purpose of the broch site – a place of reverence. There might even have been a hope that, by doing this, the fortunes of the area might improve again.
    And there was a big feast, with lots of fish being consumed! Maybe, even though there were lots of fish available, they were seen as being only food for important people, or special occasions. Again, the importance of the sea to these people.

  2. seanlisle1 Tuesday, March 21, 2017 (2:13am) / 2:13 am

    Thanks for your comments and thoughts.

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