Whale Bone Genetics and the Extraordinary Closure of a Broch

A Fin Whale. Photo: Aqqa Rosing-Asvid. Creative Commons

New DNA results shed light on Iron Age use of whale bone and the remarkable process of ending a broch two thousand years ago.

Results of DNA investigations undertaken on a large collection of whale bone from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Iron Age archaeological site of The Cairns, have afforded a glimpse into the complex relationship of Iron Age communities with whales.

In particular, the identification of multiple whale bones as belonging to a single large fin whale shows how its carcase was strategically and even ceremonially used and deposited during the ending of the monumental broch.

Vicki preparing one of the larger whalebone artefacts from The Cairns excavation. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

In the early Summer of 2019, Dr Vicki Szabo (Western Carolina University, North Carolina) and Dr Brenna Frasier (Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia) collaborated with Martin Carruthers (University of the Highlands & Islands Archaeology Institute), to examine the collection of whale bone artefacts recovered from The Cairns excavations, being undertaken by UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney. The aim of the research was to obtain genetic information in order to provide an assessment of what species of whale, or cetacean, were present at the sites.

The research is part of a large international project funded by the National Science Foundation which is investigating the past use of whales in North Atlantic society. Brenna and Vicki are following up on work completed in Orkney in February 2018 where they examined the whales found at another archaeological site in Sanday, Orkney and other whale bone artefacts from The Orkney Museum.

The Cairns and the sea. Looking across Windwick Bay. Photo: Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

The project has sampled whale bones over a 1400+ year span, from Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Faroes, Shetland, and Orkney. Orkney and Iceland are the primary centres of analysis, representing the Eastern and Western North Atlantic. Orkney offers exceptional assemblages of whale bone from many periods and sites, from the Neolithic to the Norse eras and thereafter. The types of objects produced in Orkney are remarkably stable over a long period of time, as well. The Cairns, though, has given Vicki and Brenna their first opportunity to sample at an ongoing excavation; with most of the other analysis undertaken on assemblages that were collected in the past.

The results from the study show that some of the whale bones that were uncovered at The Cairns were from very large types of whale including sperm whale, North Atlantic right whale, minke, grey whale, and humpback. This is fascinating as it raises questions about whether a site like The Cairns may have been able to stake a claim over the larger whale carcasses, and therefore if this is an indication of relative status and control of resources by the inhabitants of that site. One surprise, though, was the volume of bone belonging to fin whale species in the assemblage.

One of the larger pieces of Fin whale bone found at The Cairns Broch. Photo: Andrew Hollingrake

Fin whales are the second largest species on the planet, after the blue whale itself, and can grow to 27 metres in length. Interestingly, 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 whale bone and species recognition from sites like The Cairns may shed light on this.

The end of two giants: the broch and a Fin whale
The latest stage of the genetic project permits us to connect an entire array of whale bone items. The genetic and molecular study of 33 whale bone items shows that 20 pieces (vertebrae, ribs, scapulae, and other anatomical elements) were from the fin whale species. This is remarkable in of itself, however, 2 key mitochondrial haplotype regions of the genome of each bone were examined, and it is likely that all these fin whale items (except one) are from the same animal. This means that a single, large, fin whale may have been utilised during the last occupation and abandonment of the broch.

The Cairns broch looking across to the North Sea. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

The bones appear to relate to feasting that took place to mark the end of the broch. Some of the whale bones have chop-marks present showing signs of butchery and perhaps bone-working. Others are slightly singed from being subjected to direct heat. The fin whale bones were found in a range of contexts across the broch. Some of the bones were excavated from the uppermost floor deposits of the broch. Others were stuffed into gaps in its walls. Other fin whale bones came from the rubble that was used to infill the broch during the final abandonment.

The presence of this single animal, spread across these varied contexts, links these deposits very closely in time, much more tightly, in fact, than is currently possible with radiocarbon dating alone. It allows the excavators to closely connect several different contexts and stages within the finale of the broch and to appreciate what a relatively swift process the end was. The occurrence of the many bones from a single animal may also allow detailed consideration of the use of whale bone and how it was treated as a resource both physically and perhaps also symbolically.

The Fin whale vessel just outside the broch entrance. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute

One of the bones of the giant fin whale is especially remarkable for its treatment. This was a large whale bone, which had been carved from a substantial vertebra to make a vessel. This vessel had been deposited just outside the broch door at the very end of the broch occupation. A remarkable assemblage of objects accompanied the vessel. Two shed red deer antlers had been propped against the outside of the vessel, and a very large grinding stone, or saddle quern, was also placed snuggly against the vessel as though to pin it firmly against the broch outer wall face. Inside the actual vessel, were the remains of two new-born lambs and, most remarkably, the jawbone of an elderly human. This entire collection of items was a very deliberate deposit that appears to have been part of the measures employed to perform an act of closure for the broch.

Martin Carruthers, site director of The Cairns and UHI lecturer in archaeology said: “It’s just amazing to be able to say with confidence that so many of these whale bones, including the vessel with the human jawbone, actually belong to the same animal, especially as we’ve recovered them from the site over a number of different seasons, not knowing all along that the spread of bone belonged to one huge beast. We had some suspicions that something particularly interesting was going on with the amount of whale bone that was emerging from end of our broch, but we’d never have managed to get to this level of specificity without the input and collaboration with Brenna and Vicki”.

When discovered, the whale bones are in a condition where they were cut-up or processed during the Iron Age. That often makes the original anatomical detail and form of the bones difficult to see clearly. Therefore, it can be challenging to identify them to species, let alone recognise bones belonging to a single individual. Martin continues: “One of the most important things, from my point of view, is how this research helps us to recognise the significant role that the treatment of the fin whale had in the dramatic procedures of deliberately ending of the monumental broch”.

What circumstances led to the use and deposition of the fin whale?
Whale bone seems to have been a highly important material for Iron Age communities. The appearance of these ocean giants on local beaches, when stranded, must have occasioned opportunities to recover a large volume of meat, oil (fuel for lamps), as well as a substantial resource for making objects. Whale bone-work clearly included things like our big vessel (The Cairns has also yielded several more whale bone vessels from across the site), but also tool-making (e.g. weaving ‘batons’, chopping-boards, ‘soft’ anvils, and much more), and even for architectural purposes such as large ribs used as roof rafters.

The whalebone distribution across the site which has been DNA tested. Credit: UHI Archaeology Institute

Indeed, it’s possible that a stranding of a major animal, like a massive fin whale, would have represented an exponential contribution to the community’s resources. Vicki Szabo suggests: “As a free and scavenged resource, whale provides a large volume of high value protein. Large whales are generally 14+% body weight bone, which means that a fin whale represents a massive quantity of soft tissue, meat and blubber at around 70%”.

This amount of food input may have served to energise productive capacity, providing additional assurance of a successful year for the community. Perhaps a stranding may have permitted endeavours and projects that might otherwise have been thought risky, making them more manageable. At The Cairns, this whale boon could have included support for a major undertaking such as ending the premier building, the broch, a structure that had dominated the local landscape and society for generations. It would have been no minor activity to demolish the upper parts of the massive and complex broch, and it is likely that the work of rendering it down would have had some serious consequences for the settlement, at the heart of which, lay the broch. It would have been a physically arduous and time-consuming process, probably involving many people, taking them away from other important tasks required of this busy farming group.

That is not to say that the stranding of a single large whale led to the ending of the broch. There is growing evidence that the period around the 2nd Century AD was a time when many brochs were coming to their end, at least in their initial form as high-walled, tower-like buildings. There is a sense, therefore, that things were changing, more generally, in Iron Age society across Northern Scotland at that time, which the waning importance of monumental broch architecture is a part of. However, we may still wonder if occurrences, such as the stranding of a significantly large whale, might encourage a community, perhaps already considering a radical break with the past, to go for it.

Just some of the whale bone unearthed at The Cairns. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

There was a very practical bonus to be had in the harvesting of a very large whale, but we may also wonder if the appearance of such a large beast stranded on the foreshore meant more to Iron Age communities than just a resource. In many non-Western societies, and, indeed, many ancient European ones, sudden natural phenomena such as the highly prominent death of a significant type of animal may be seen as a conspicuous indication of arcane and esoteric forces, taken as a sign, an auspicious, or inauspicious, omen. Even though stranding may have been more common with a larger population of whales thought to exist in prehistory, it might be that both the practical impact, and the potential ideological and psychological effects of the appearance of a big stranded whale created the critical timing and final motivation for major change.

Other Animal Offerings? Animal Bone Groups at The Cairns
Whales are not the only animals present in interesting circumstances during the final stages of the occupation and abandonment of the broch. Indeed, across the site there are what are known as animal bone groups (ABG’s) present that date to the period of the broch and afterwards. These are articulated animals, or articulated parts of animals, apparently deliberately deposited. These derive from cattle, sheep, and red deer as well as cat, pig, otter and even, in one case, an articulated seal flipper!

To date, around twenty such ABG’s have been recognised from The Cairns. Probably many more await discovery. In many, or most, cases they may well be butchered joints of meat. It may be that these ABG’s are indeed portions of meat, but they are not discarded in middens as one might normally expect and seen elsewhere on the site. Instead, they were left in certain locations within the buildings of the site and across floors, and infills, as if they were actually posed. Indeed, many look like they have been displayed. Some of the bones reveal traces of weathering on the surface of the bone, indicating a period of exposure prior to being covered in soil, rubble or new house floors.

Whale bone from The Cairns…showing cut marks. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

Why formally place animal bones?
What did these deposits mean for the people of the Iron Age? Martin Carruthers says: “At the Cairns, I wonder if many, or all, of these deposits followed on from activities that celebrated the end of the broch and the beginning of new things for the community, who by no means just disappeared thereafter”.

Human occupation of the site lasted at least another 800 years after the end of the broch. Carruthers continues: “they might also be acts of propitiation, an assuagement of the decision to end a major building that had been highly valued for so long, by many previous generations of inhabitants. Perhaps the inclusion of our elderly human jawbone as part of the process was also a nod in the direction of the past of the broch, when it was in its hey-day? When that person was in their youth the broch would still have been the major symbol of authority in the landscape, and the jawbone may well have belonged to someone who had been a member of the broch household”.

A further possibility is that the formality and recurrence of all these depositional acts were themselves a source of comfort and reconciliation, especially in the face of major transitions underway on site, and in wider society, a response to crisis that drew comfort from the long-standing tradition of deposition.

Whatever the truth of the mentalities and motivations, the process of ending the broch was measured, carefully planned, required resources of people as well as of materials, was physically difficult, as well as probably not a little dangerous. It also seems to have entailed serious ideological input and consideration, not least indicated by the deposition of human remains like our jawbone inside the fin whale vessel.

The end of the broch seems also to have involved the butchery and perhaps sacrifice of animals, feasting, and especially, perhaps, reflection on the past, present, and future of the community.

Major New International Research Project to Investigate Early Modern Trade Routes

Natascha Mehler surveying the German Trading site at Gunnister Voe, Northmavine, Shetland used around 1600. Photo Mark Gardiner

A team of archaeologists and historians from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, University of Lincoln and the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven have been awarded a grant of £779,000 from The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the German Research Council (DFG) to undertake a major international research project into how emerging economies identified and adapted to opportunities for trade in early modern Europe.

The three-year programme is entitled Looking In From The Edge (LIFTE). The UK team is led by Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon at the UHI Archaeology Institute based at Orkney College UHI, who will work collaboratively with Dr Natascha Mehler from the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven, who is leading the German team.

The UK team includes Associate Professor Mark Gardiner from Lincoln University and a team from the University of the Highlands and Islands comprising Dr Jen Harland, Dr Ingrid Mainland, Paul Sharman, Julie Gibson and Dan Lee.

Skaill multiperiod farmstead, Rousay, Orkney. Photo Bobby Friel @Takethehighview

During the early modern period the development of a world system of capitalist trade gradually extended until it brought much of the globe within its influence. In Europe as well, it led to peripheral places becoming closely tied into continental European trade networks, transforming their largely subsistence and low-level trading economies to commercialised, surplus-producing ones.

This exciting European project will not only involve academic teams from across northwest Europe, but will also engage local communities and train individuals in various methods of research from archaeology, history and geography. The research teams will use archive research, land and sea surveys, excavation of trading sites, study of artefacts and biological remains to examine in detail how the islands of Orkney and Shetland were integrated into a wider economic realm in early modern Europe. In effect the research will look at how communities were affected and became involved in the very early stages of the global economy that we know today through the mechanism of the Hanseatic League and other trading networks across the North Sea.

17th century storehouse, St Marys, Orkney

Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon said, “This project offers us an exciting opportunity to work as an international team with communities in Orkney, Shetland, Germany and Norway on the little-researched impact of international trade on north-west Europe’s peripheral communities during the period from 1468–1712. The work will give us an opportunity to look into the mechanisms of early modern trade and how the Northern Isles adapted to a changing economic world. How did this emerging international trade change the islanders’ way of making and trading their wares and products? What were the consequences of this rapidly changing and expanding world on the social and economic ways of life for the islanders? All questions that are surely as relevant now as they were more than 300 years ago.”

Dr Mark Gardiner continued, “The east coast of England, with its major ports on the Humber and around The Wash, played an important role in fishing and trading. It looked both to the Hanse ports of continental Europe and the communities of the North Atlantic. We will be studying historical sources and using excavation to show how the Northern Isles of Scotland were brought into these trading networks of early Modern Europe.”

The research team at UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College, with Professor Neil Simco, Vice-Principal (Research and Impact) of the UHI, and Professor Jane Downes, Head of the UHI Archaeology Institute

Dr Natascha Mehler said,“In recent years, German trade with the North Atlantic islands has been studied in more detail and our knowledge about trade mechanisms and the cultural impact of this trade has increased considerably. But the focus of recent projects has been mainly on Iceland and its role within the network of the Hanseatic League. This new project now allows us to zoom into Orkney and Shetland and put into context the enterprise of Bremen and Hamburg merchants who travelled to the Northern Isles.”

Notes

Hanseatic League: A medieval organisation of mainly North German merchants aiming to represent their common interests and to secure their trading operations abroad. It´s main area was the Baltic Sea and the North Sea where the League was established in numerous towns and cities such as London and Bergen. During the course of the 15th century, it expanded into the North Atlantic.

The significance of 1468: This was the date that Orkney and Shetland passed from Norwegian to Scottish control. 

Early Modern period: c 1500 to c 1780, spanning significant changes in religion, society, work and trade, bracketed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

UHI Archaeology Student Awarded the Robertson Medal from The Carnegie Trust

Professor Jane Downes, Professor Andy Walker, Professor Neil Simco, Neil Ackerman, Professor Dame Anne Glover, Professor Edward Abbott-Halpin, Professor Colin Richards

Neil Ackerman (32), a PhD researcher at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has been awarded the Robertson Medal from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland for academic year 2019-20.

The silver medal is awarded each year to the scholarship candidate judged to be the most outstanding for that year’s competition. Neil becomes the university’s first postgraduate student to receive this honour. He was selected from 18 awards made in this year’s Carnegie postgraduate scholarship competition.

His research, entitled ‘Scotland’s earliest built environment: halls, houses and big houses’, looks at the earliest buildings of Neolithic Scotland. This period reveals a settled farming architecture for the first time, and also a growth in the size of public meeting halls. Studying the Neolithic period from the perspective of both monumental halls and domestic architecture will uncover a new understanding of the earliest Scottish Neolithic period.

Neil Ackerman and Chair of the Carnegie Trust for Universities of Scotland Professor Dame Anne Glover

Developing an insight into this varied architecture across Scotland, as well as producing a precise chronology, will also revolutionise the knowledge of the Neolithic in Scotland and wider contacts at the time.

Originally from Edinburgh, Neil graduated with a first-class degree in BA (Hons) in archaeology, based at Orkney College UHI in 2016, before working at Aberdeenshire Council’s archaeological historic environment team for nearly three years. He moved back to Orkney in 2019 to set up his own company, Ackerman Archaeology Limited, and continue with his academic studies. He is undertaking his postgraduate degree through the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute with the aid of the Carnegie scholarship funding.

Professor Jane Downes, director of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute said: “I am delighted that Neil has been recognised for his exceptional work. His undergraduate research supported by a Carnegie Trust vacation scholarship has contributed to our understanding of roofing technology from the Neolithic period. His original thinking has advanced understandings of the extraordinary site of the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney and has had international recognition.”

Talking about receiving this award, Neil said: “This means so much to me. I have not always had a straightforward path to get to this stage. I left school at 16 with few qualifications and worked in various service jobs, before returning to education. I never thought I would go to a university, far less study at this level. “

Neil being presented with his medal today at Orkney College UHI

“To have received a Carnegie Trust scholarship was a massive achievement and to now be awarded the Robertson Medal on top is a huge honour. It helps to confirm all the decisions made to be where I am now. I have a highly supportive supervisory team and together we have put a lot of work into developing a subject that we feel is very important. It is heartening to see our efforts rewarded.”

Neil was presented with his award on Thursday 23 January 2020, at Orkney College UHI, by Chair of the Carnegie Trust for Universities of Scotland Professor Dame Anne Glover and its chief executive chair Professor Andy Walker, Professor Neil Simco, vice-principal (research and impact) at the University of the Highlands and Islands with Professor Edward Abbott-Halpin, principal of Orkney College UHI.

The Carnegie Trust also operates a vacation scholarship scheme for students undertaking a degree course at a Scottish university. In 2019, four students from the University of the Highlands and Islands were successful in receiving awards.

Applications for this year’s scheme is open until 31 January 2020. For more information visit our website www.uhi.ac.uk

New Research Project Commencing in North Isles, Orkney

Mid Howe Tomb, Rousay, Orkney. Credit: Dan Lee

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology has been commissioned by the North Isles Landscape Partnership Scheme to undertake the Neolithic Landscapes of the Dead project, exploring the tombs of the isles.

The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) based at Orkney College has received a grant from the North Isles Landscape Partnership scheme (NILPS) to undertake the Neolithic Landscape of the Dead project during 2020-2022.

An activities programme of research, walks, archaeological fieldwork and schools activities will investigate some of the most iconic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney as well as bring the lesser known sites into the spotlight – telling the stories of island tombs.

The project will also create new 3D models, interpretation, research archives and a new ‘tombs trail’. The trail will allow islanders and tourists to explore Neolithic sites in the North Isles.

Decorated internal stone at the Holm of Papa Westray tomb. Credit: Antonia Thomas

Few can doubt the importance of archaeology and heritage to the community and economy of Orkney and the Neolithic sits at the heart of the imagination and identity of the islands. Beginning some 5500 years ago and spanning a staggering 2500 years, the Neolithic was when people first farmed the land, grew crops, made pottery and adopted new forms of objects such as polished axes and maceheads.

The Neolithic was also a time when people’s relationship with the dead and their ancestors changed. People were buried communally in tombs, where bones and other offerings were jumbled together into one ancestral place. In Orkney, there are over 80 stone-built tombs of various architectural styles – ‘Maes Howe’, ‘Stalled’ and ‘Bookan’ types – with over 50 of these located in the North Isles. The tombs project will support islanders to explore and tell the stories of this remarkable group of tombs in the islands, and the secrets they may hold, which can play a part in supporting island communities now and into the future.

If you live in the North Isles of Orkney and would like to get involved in the project or find out more, please email: Enquiries.ORCA@uhi.ac.uk

Quoyness Tomb, Sanday. Credit: Antonia Thomas

Dan Lee (ORCA’s Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist) said, “We are really looking forward to working with islanders to celebrate the amazing Neolithic tombs in the North Isles of Orkney, and bring some of these less-explored sites into focus. Who knows what new stories they can tell?”

Andy Golightly Programme Manager said ”This is a really good opportunity for people living in the North Isles, to work with Orkney College to learn more about the unique tombs on their Isles and possibly gain new skills and experience. Having the information produced, displayed and available locally will also benefit visitors to the Isles, opening up more of the Isles history to a wider audience.” 

More information on this project https://www.nilps.co.uk/projects/tombs-of-the-isles

Spotlight on Research: Art & Archaeology

Antonia looking at rock art at the Ness of Brodgar

Each month we aim to bring you a snapshot of research carried out at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

This month we talk to Dr. Antonia Thomas and her research on art & archaeology. 

Dr. Antonia Thomas is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute based in Orkney, Scotland.
Antonia’s work focusses on Art and Archaeology in its broadest sense, from the interpretation of prehistoric art, to the intersections between contemporary art practice and the archaeological imagination.

She is interested in various aspects of visual and material culture, such as stone-carving and sculpture, photographic theory, vernacular buildings, prehistoric architecture, graffiti and mark-making, and contemporary archaeology. Antonia has published widely on these subjects and has collaborated on several transdisciplinary art and archaeology projects.

Talking to Antonia about her latest research she continues….“My two favourite subjects are Art, and, Archaeology. I feel so lucky to be able to combine these in my teaching and research! We run a variety of Art and Archaeology courses here at the UHI, from summer workshops to postgraduate modules.”

Art & Archaeology Residency at the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness

One of the best aspects of my job is getting to know new people and places. I have been really lucky this year to be invited to speak at some amazing places. I was in Aarhus, Denmark, in February discussing Neolithic art in Orkney as part of a research seminar in the Department of Archaeology. Professor Jens Andresen at Aarhus has been excavating an amazing site on the island of Bornholm, which has produced these lovely carved ‘sunstones’ – it was brilliant to be able to compare these with the carvings we have here in Orkney. And then in July, I was the guest of Renmin University in Beijing, where I presented at a seminar on Cultural Heritage. China is such a culturally rich and fascinating country, and I can’t wait to go back! I am hoping to set up some art/archaeology projects there in the near future with my Chinese colleagues.

And then in September, I was in Shetland at the Shoormal conference, to talk about the relationship between contemporary art and archaeology in Orkney. You can read a version of my paper from the conference in the latest edition of Art North magazine.

Drawing the Wreck of the Norholmen at Warbeth, Orkney

The highlight of my year, however, is always when our popular accredited Art and Archaeology stand-alone courses start up again in January and I get to meet the new students. It is always such a diverse group, and every year’s so different. And, some exciting news for the near future – we’re soon going to be launching a brand new, unique MA programme in Contemporary Art and Archaeology! As well as the opportunities for researching Art and Archaeology for an MRes, or PhD, I can’t wait to see what projects emerge.”

Selected Publications (for full list see Antonia’s UHI Research Page)

  • Thomas, A. in press. (expected 2019). ‘Duration and representation in archaeology and photography’. In L. McFadyen & D. Hicks (eds.), Archaeology and Photography: Time, Objectivity and Archive. London, Bloomsbury.
  • Thomas, A. 2019. ‘Parallel Visions: Art, Archaeology and Landscape in Orkney’. Art North 1(3), pp.28-30.
  • Thomas, A. 2019. ‘Image and process in an architectural context: decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar’. In A. Jones & M. Diaz-Guardamino (eds.), Making a Mark: Image and Process in Neolithic Britain and Ireland, pp.142-163. Oxford, Windgather.
  • Thomas, A., Lee, D., Frederick, U. & White, C. 2017. ‘Beyond Art/Archaeology: Research and Practice after the ‘Creative Turn’’. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 4(2): 219-229. https://doi.org/10.1558/jca.33150 
  • Thomas, A. 2016. Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney: Process, Temporality and Context. UHI Archaeology Institute Research Series: 1. Oxford, Archaeopress.[download link]
  • Thomas, A. 2014. ‘Creating contexts: between the archaeological site and art gallery’. In A. Cochrane & I.A. Russell (eds.) Art and Archaeology: Collaborations, Conversations, Criticisms, pp.141-155. One World Archaeology Series, Volume 11. New York, Springer-Kluwer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-8990-0_11 
  • Card, N. & Thomas, A. 2012. ‘Painting a picture of Neolithic Orkney: decorated stonework from the Ness of Brodgar’. In A. Cochrane & A. Jones (eds.), Visualising the Neolithic, pp.111-124. Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Interested in studying Art and Archaeology with us at the UHI? Email Antonia on antonia.thomas@uhi.ac.uk for more information on any of these courses.

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/

Programme of Public Talks @UHI Archaeology

The Cairns Broch Excavation 2019

Dr. Ragnhild Ljosland, Lecturer at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, details the public talks which are planned over the next few weeks.

The talks are open to everyone and are designed to share some of the exciting research carried out by the speakers to a large audience.

Most of the talks will be recorded or can be accessed via video conferencing so that people outside of Orkney can also access the incredible findings of these UHI collaborative research programmes.

  • Thursday 31st October 1-2 pm, Art Department, Orkney College UHI Martin Carruthers Site Director, The Cairns Broch excavation, will be speaking in the Ruination & Decay seminar series: “Ancestral piles: Decay and stabilisation in the culture of ruination at The Cairns Broch, Orkney.” Dial-in 53051@uhi.ac.uk. The seminar has been filmed and will be published shortly.
  • Wednesday 6th November, 7 pm Orkney College UHI restaurant: Olwyn Owen “Curiouser and Curiouser : the puzzling cases of Tuquoy and Scar”.
  • Thursday 14th November, 1 pm Art Department Orkney College UHI. Dial-in 53051@uhi.ac.uk A double bill in the Ruination & Decay seminar: “The sky above the shore” music performance with Peter Noble, Anna Wendy Stevenson & Dr Miriam Iorwerth. Followed by “Reconnecting with ruins: Ancestral Tourism & Heritage work in Tiree” Joanna Rodgers, UHI Centre for History.
  • Friday 15th November, 7.30 pm Warehouse Buildings, Stromness, Ragnhild Ljosland will be giving the George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture for the GMB Fellowship. “Carve the runes: What makes runes so fascinating and why did they appeal to George Mackay Brown?” (No VC available for this lecture.)
  • Friday 29th November, 4 pm Orkney College Lecture Theatre Colleen Batey, Visiting Reader in Northern Studies, is giving the UHI Archaeology Institute Research Seminar with the title “Viking Boat Burial, from Norway to Orkney and Beyond.”

Please feel free to contact programme co-ordinator Ragnhild Ljosland if you have any questions or comments. Her e-mail address is Ragnhild.Ljosland@uhi.ac.uk

PhD Opportunities at the UHI Archaeology Institute

The University of the Highlands and Islands is seeking outstanding applicants for doctoral AHRC funded studentships in Archaeology.

A select number of studentships will be available for PhD applicants living the UK and the European Union. Successful UK applicants will benefit from a fully-funded PhD studentship (stipend plus fees). For successful EU applicants, only fees will be covered.

The initial deadline to submit your application is 4 November 2019, Midday GMT. If you wish to apply, please see the eligibility criteria and details of the application process on the University of the Highlands and Islands website here.

We are able to offer supervision in a wide variety of specialisms: Neolithic and Later Prehistory, Norse and Medieval North Atlantic, Contemporary and Historic Archaeology, Funerary Archaeology, Environmental Archaeology, Zooarchaeology, Landscape, Art and Archaeology.  We also accept students who wish to self-fund.

For more details on the UHI Archaeology Institute, staff research interests check out our website here.

If you are interested in applying please contact Dr. Ingrid Mainland in the first instance ingrid.mainland@uhi.ac.uk

UHI Archaeology Institute Autumn Seminar Series

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Research series of seminars is restarting for the season on Friday 11th October with an exciting monthly programme scheduled for the next semester.

This seminar series provides a platform for researchers connected with the UHI archaeology institute and invited guests to share ongoing research within the Institute and further afield.

New for this year, the seminars have now also been opened up to the wider community, recognising the broad interest in archaeology in the Highlands and Islands. Anyone with an interest in archaeology is welcome to come and listen, either in person in Orkney or dialling in using the UHI’s video-conference system (requires Cisco Webex Teams software).

October is a busy month with two seminars. First up in the seminar series, on the 11/10, is Siobhan Cooke of UHI Archaeology Institute and Stromness Museum, who will be talking about “The Wrecks of Scapa Flow: Salvage and Collecting at Stromness Museum”.

Following on the 25th is Astrid Nyland, special guest from the University of Stavanger, with “More than meets the eyes! The use of rock and quarries in the Mesolithic and Neolithic of Norway.” This should invite an interesting comparative perspective considering what we know of rock use during Orkney’s prehistory.

And in November, the UHI Archaeology Institute is delighted to welcome Colleen Batey from the University of Glasgow, who will be presenting on “Viking Boat Burial: From Norway to Orkney and Beyond” on the 29th November.

This talk ends the autumn season, but the seminar series will carry on also in the spring, with talks from Orkney County Archaeologist Julie Gibson and specialist on Neolithic art Antonia Thomas scheduled for January and February, and more to follow throughout the spring.

New UHI Archaeology Paper Examines the Origins of Aquaculture

Combined cultivation of rice and tilapia fish aquaculture in a paddy field. Source: Wiki Commons Kembangraps

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce the publication of an important research paper in the Nature Ecology and Evolution journal.

The paper by Dr Jen Harland, Lecturer in Archaeology UHI Archaeology Institute, examines the wider implications of the work published by Nakajima (2019) comparing the size of ancient and modern carp. The paper concludes that the initial stages of aquaculture began around 6000BC, perhaps three thousand years earlier than was previously thought.

Utilising the three stage model of fish domestication proposed by Nakajima (2019),Dr Harland reiterates that the process of domesticating common carp commenced with the use of wild species in managed ponds and ditches within two areas in the world – an eastern population in China, Laos and Vietnam and a Western population in the Black Sea, Aral Sea and Caspian Sea areas.

Common Carp: the inpharyngeal bones which facilitated the results from the main study. Photo: Dr Jen Harland

Full domestication commenced in Asia when carp fish farming was combined with a rice paddy cultivation producing a symbiotic relationship in which the fish naturally ate weed plant species and insect pests while providing natural fertilizer. Examining archaeological specimens from the Chinese Neolithic site of Jiahu, and comparing these measurements to modern carp raised in a traditional Japanese rice and fish co-culture, Nakajima and co-authors were able to establish that carp were being managed at Jiahu by 6000BC – much earlier than previously thought.

Dr Harland goes on to emphasise the point that the final stage of domestication can be recognised only when breeding, diet and habitat are all controlled by people. Previous studies have shown that the start of aquaculture in Europe was signalled by the management of carp in controlled ponds during the Roman period in the Danube region. Carp then became truly domesticated in Europe in the 12-14th centuries AD. Various authors have questioned whether the domestication of carp took place in Asia or in Europe, and whether or not the domesticated animal was then moved from one region to another. Given the evidence for the early origin of fish farming reported in Nakajima’s study, Dr Harland states that is is likely that common carp was domesticated independently twice, once in Asia and separately in Europe.

Common Carp bones. Photo: Dr Jen Harland

Dr Harland said… “It was a real honour to be invited to write this news and views piece discussing the wider context of Nakajima’s study on the origins of carp aquaculture. As archaeologists we discuss the advent and spread of farming and domestication in the context of cattle, sheep and pigs, but the domestication of fish is often overlooked. Farmed fish are of huge importance to our diets today, but these intensive methods are very controversial. By using archaeological methods to examine the origins of aquaculture, it’s now apparent that these carp were raised in a sustainable and balanced system alongside rice cultivation for a very long time indeed.”

Dr Harland goes on to state that modern aquaculture will soon produce half of the world’s fish supply, but intensive methods are resulting in environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and non-native species invasions. This paper emphasises that adopting a long established fish-rice co-culture system would continue a long tradition of sustainable farming which largely avoids the pitfalls of modern intensive mono culture fish farming – showing that we have much to learn from traditional methods of agriculture and aquaculture.