How did Iron Age Society Cope with Crisis?

The Cairns Broch looking across to the North Sea

There can be no doubt that we are experiencing a major international crisis that affects all our lives, all of the time at the moment.

It would appear that this crisis may indeed change the way we do things for some considerable time and may even change our society permanently.

As a society we are aided in our understanding of the Covid-19 emergency and the way we can address the social, economic and political effects through our use of technology…..but what of society in the Iron Age? How did they cope with emergencies that affected their way of life? Did they change their way of doing things permanently?

From the comfort of my home office workstation I posed this question to Martin Carruthers, Site Director of The Cairns Broch Excavation in Orkney and Lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

In conversation over the video conferencing link, Martin reflected on the evidence provided by the archaeological record at The Cairns and other sites across Orkney. “One suggestion that has been made regarding Iron Age societies in the Northern Isles is that the mixed farming economy that they practiced (both arable and pastoral; barley and meat) meant that when there was a crop blight or a wet summer and crops were ruined they had meat and stored dairy products as well as wild resources such as hunted deer to fall back on. Similarly, when for whatever reason, there might be disease in the livestock, they had stored cereal produce as added insurance against starvation. That way there was always something to get them through the lean times.

This is the argument made especially by the likes of Steve Dockrill and Julie Bond, particularly for sites like Old Scatness in Shetland. Having said that there are signs of hardship and ill health and malnutrition evident in some of the few sets of human remains that have been recovered from the region.

Growth interruption markers are evident on teeth (indicative of childhood, developmental arrest due to lack of adequate nutrition), there’s a high infant mortality rate in general if the incidence of the little ones (at Howe, Bu and especially ay Berstness/Knowe of Skea, Westray is anything to go by. Indeed, at Berstness there’s evidence of extremely early weening off mother’s milk (in one case at around 2 months(!!) if memory serves, which is probably another indicator of extreme hardship. The mother probably was so poorly off in terms of nutrition that she couldn’t go on nursing any longer!

So there’s plenty of evidence that the Iron Age was a period that challenged individuals and communities to the extremes at least at certain times and places. One aspect of this is that it puts our current misery in a little perspective!

We can, however, also reflect on The Cairns and its relative wealth as seen in the prodigious animal bone, feasting, and waste of viable food items that might indicate they were relatively careless with their food resource because they did not crack open every long bone to extract marrow and the like. Even at the Cairns, though, the small amount of human remains shows that the population sometimes faced difficulties.

The human jawbone that was recovered from a whalebone vessel, deposited at the end of the broch, showed signs of extreme stress on the few teeth that were left in the person’s mouth. Two of them showed extremely nasty dental caries that had spread from one to the other across the gum-line wreaking havoc and decay. This person also had highly worn teeth possibly related to using them to grip substances in the jaw while working on them with hands, such as working on leather or flattening grass stems for basketry.

We might think these are hardly the occupations of a significant and wealthy person, whose remains were ceremonially deposited to mark the end of the broch, however, in Iron Age Orkney, but maybe this is telling us that at times everyone had to muck-in and work hard for the greater community.

There were good times and lean times. Feast and famine may have been the way of much Iron Age life for all. The solidarity of the community and the way they maintained and shared resources may have been their most important coping strategy seeing them through the hard times!

Maybe that is becoming ever more resonant for us today under the present circumstances.”

Check out full story and our dig diaries at The Cairns here.


If you are interested in taking a course with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop Martin and the team a line on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see https://archaeologyorkney.com/courses/

2 thoughts on “How did Iron Age Society Cope with Crisis?

  1. Carrie Carpenter 5th May 2020 / 2:37 pm

    Thanks for the perspective. Back to digging in potatoes for the 2nd wave! 😂

    • seanlisle1 7th May 2020 / 8:28 am

      Thanks Carrie. Keep well in these strange times. Sean

Comments are closed.