Ancient DNA Study at The Cairns Lands Massive Whale Tale

The whalebone vessel unearthed at The Cairns

Preliminary results of genetic research into whalebone from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research site at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney, show that some very large whale species were sourced for tools, vessels and equipment during the Iron Age.

In the early Summer 2019 Drs Vicki Szabo, (Western Carolina University) and Brenna Frasier (St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia) collaborated with Dr Ingrid Mainland and Martin Carruthers at the UHI Archaeology Institute, to examine the collection of whalebone artefacts recovered from The Cairns and Mine Howe excavations, Orkney.

The aim of the research was to obtain genetic information in order to provide an assessment of what types of whalebone, or cetacean, were actually present at the sites. The research is part of a large project which is investigating the use of whale bone in Western Atlantic society over the last 1000 years. Both Brenna and Vicki are following up on work completed in Orkney during February 2018 where they examined the whales found at Cata Sand and other whalebone artefacts from Orkney Museum.

Brenna creating a sample from a whalebone artefact unearthed at The Cairns

Martin Carruthers, Site Director at The Cairns archaeology excavation said, “Initial results from the study show some of the whale bones that were uncovered at The Cairns were from very large types of whale including sperm whale and humpback. One surprise, though, is the appearance of fin whale. Fin whales are the second largest species on the planet, after the Blue Whale itself, and can grow to 27 metres in length. In particular, one very significant artefact from the Cairns site, is a very large vertebra from a fin whale, and that’s an item that was carved into a vessel or container. At the time of its discovery during the 2016 season it was found to contain a human jawbone and two neonatal lambs.”

Iron Age whalebone vessel in situ next to the entrance to The Cairns Broch

Martin continued, ”The vessel had been placed just outside the broch wall, very close to the entrance, when the broch was put out of use around the Mid-2nd Century AD. As well as the whalebone vessel and jawbone, two red deer antlers had been propped against the vessel and a very large saddle quern, a grinding stone, had been positioned against the vessel to pin it firmly in place against the broch wall. All this treatment appears to have been part of the measures employed to perform an act of closure of the broch.”

The discovery that this vessel is from a fin whale is fascinating in its own right, but there are several more Fin Whale items from the site so it should be possible to identify relationships between animals and also match bones across the site to the same animal. When more results are forthcoming from the study it will be interesting to note any concentrations of fin whale from certain areas of the site, or phases. Martin suggests that it may be possible to effectively trace multiple items from the same animal and see how a carcass was distributed across the site.

Vicki preparing one of the larger whalebone artefacts from The Cairns

Beyond the vessel, there’s a particular concentration of bone in the broch and it will also be very interesting to see what this research can reveal about the use of whalebone in this monumental Iron Age structure.

Interesting and intriguingly fin whales are also amongst the fastest whales in the sea, capable of bursts of 45KMH when hunting, or threatened, and they can dive fast and very deeply. Indeed, in the modern era, the fin whale was only really hunted in large numbers once the explosive harpoon was invented, and so it is unlikely to have been hunted in the Iron Age, but rather a stranded individual. That does not mean that other types of whale were not hunted, and the question of whether some whales were pro-actively sourced during the Iron Age remains unanswered. In time, further study of patterns of whalebone and species recognition from sites like The Cairns may shed light on this.

The Cairns Broch looking across to the North Sea, Orkney

The results discussed here are simply preliminary findings and ultimately there will undoubtedly be more exciting information, and stories, to come out of this research soon…

For background information to the research, see our blog link: https://archaeologyorkney.com/2019/06/18/extracting-dna-from-the-cairns-whalebone-collection/

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