Extracting DNA from The Cairns & Mine Howe Whalebone Collections

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

This week, Brenna Frasier from Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia and Vicki Szabo from Western Carolina University joined Dr Ingrid Mainland & Martin Carruthers at the UHI Archaeology Institute to examine the collection of whalebone artefacts recovered from The Cairns & Mine Howe excavations, Orkney.

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.

Vicki preparing one of the larger whalebone artefacts from The Cairns excavation

During this visit, they are working with Ingrid to extract DNA and collagen data from the many whalebone items found at The Cairns to add to the literature and environmental research already completed.

The samples taken will enable the team to determine the species of the animals present, the species diversity present in the Western Atlantic region over the last 1000 years, the use to which the animal bone was put in society and even identify individual animals across the collections.

Some of the extensive whalebone collections from The Cairns & Mine Howe

Vicki said, ” The Cairns is a unique site and is the reason we came over. It has the largest prehistoric whalebone assemblage in our region of study and we are confident that the collection will add greatly to our research.”

New Laser Scanning Collaboration in Orkney

The Big Tree in Kirkwall

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and ORCA Archaeology teamed up with Robert Gordon University to begin a series of collaborative projects using advanced digital technology to record heritage across Orkney.

On the suggestion of pupils from Kirkwall Grammar School from a heritage workshop last year, the team decided that part of the initial pilot project would involve laser scanning the Big Tree in the centre of Kirkwall.

Laser scanning The Big Tree using a Leica BLK360

The Big Tree is something of an icon in Orkney and is in fact a 200 year old sycamore tree that has been a meeting place in the town for generations. The tree itself won the accolade of ‘Scotland’s Tree of the Year in 2017 and looks as if it will remain standing sentinel over the comings and goings in the town centre for a good while yet.

The Big Tree project involved the use of advanced digital data capture techniques and forms the trial run for a whole series of collaborative projects between UHI, ORCA Archaeology and RGU.

Laser image of the Big Tree, Kirkwall

The wider project involves recording the built environment in Stromness and Kirkwall and will utilise the laser scanning expertise developed by the team at RGU together with the archaeological, architectural and social history expertise of the UHI Archaeology Institute. The results so far have been stunning and the scans can be viewed in this video produced by RGU……

The work will also be on show at The Architecture Exhibition ‘An Orcadian Caravanserai’ at The Stromness Community Centre from the 17th – 21st June 2019.

Final year students from the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture will present an exhibition exploring the social and cultural connotations of an ever growing tourism industry through a series of architectural interventions.


UHI Archaeology Students Awarded Carnegie Scholarships

Ness of Brodgar

Congratulations to University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute undergraduates Gary Lloyd and Paul Jack, who have been awarded Carnegie Vacation Scholarships to complete research at the Ness of Brodgar and The Cairns.

The Carnegie Trust Vacation Scholarships provide funding for undergraduate students who wish to develop their own research projects over the summer. Both Gary and Paul submitted their research project design to the Carnegie Trust February and were accepted last week. Students learn how to manage a research project and prepare for postgraduate study. Students will have the opportunity to see their research results published in academic journals or presented at conferences.

Gary at the Ness of Brodgar. Photo: Woody Musgrove

Gary has worked at the Ness of Brodgar as a UHI Archaeology Institute student for the past three years and his research project is examining the Spatulate stone tools excavated from the site. These tools are described as course stone artefacts, but check out the Working Stone website for more details on this category of implement.

Gary said,” The assemblage at the Ness of Brodgar has not been examined as a group and the more complex examples may be unique to the Ness. There are 70+ stone tools that have been labelled as belonging to the Stone Spatula category and I am going to spend eight weeks completing an assessment, recording and cataloguing them, and determine if they have been found elsewhere locally or in the region “

There will be a further blog post detailing Paul’s work at The Cairns very soon….it is also very exciting research and ever so slightly different!!!

Photograph of Gary by kind permission of Woody Musgrove. Check out his website and photographs here. 3D model by kind permission of Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark. See 258 further models on his Sketchfab site here.

Nick Card Presents Research in China

Ness of Brodgar Site Director Nick Card was invited by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to give a lecture in Xi’an this month – the birthplace of Chinese Civilisation and home to the Terracotta Army.

The trip not only gave Nick the opportunity to take part in an international workshop on heritage management and present the Ness of Brodgar as a case study of how archaeology can contribute to local economies, but also explore the amazing archaeology in and around Xi’an including the famous Terracotta Army associated with the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang – China’s first emperor.

One of the chariots discovered in a pit adjacent to the main mausoleum

Nick, when showing me the photographs from his trip, talked about the sheer scale of the archaeology present in the landscape in and around the city; pointing to huge population mobilisation (reputedly 700,000 for the construction of the mausoleum alone) and highly sophisticated social organisation over 2,000 years ago.

Model of Daming Palace

He continued,” The archaeology is breath-taking, not only in its scale…for example the Daming Palace in Xi’an itself covers an area equivalent to 300 football pitches….but in the artefacts and monuments that are being uncovered. The local archaeologists have only uncovered a tiny percentage of the mausoleum site that overall covers several square kilometres and yet the insight into this incredible civilisation provided by the discoveries so far are nothing short of astonishing.”

The largest pit (partially) excavated at the Terracotta Army. The walls between the rows of warriors supported a roof structure of logs. This one structure could cover the whole of the Ness of Brodgar

Following Nicks presentation on the Ness of Brodgar, the workshop progressed onto discussions on heritage management and the innovative methods being used in China to preserve and present the past. One line of discussion centred on the Chinese creation of huge archaeology parks such as the one in Xi’an.

Layout of the Daming Palace Archaeology Park in Xi’an

The few days Nick spent in the city also gave him the opportunity to sample the local cuisine, which gave him chance to think on LP Hartley’s opening line in the 1953 novel ‘The Go- Between’ “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

The trip was fully funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – a huge thanks to them for this opportunity.

The Ness of Brodgar is a University of the Highlands Archaeology Institute research excavation and is part financed by the Scottish Government and the Leader 2014-2020 Programme.

For more on the Ness of Brodgar dig click here.

Creating Links between Orkney and Europe

Signing the Memorandum of Understanding. at Midhowe Broch. Prof Jane Downes (UHI), Professor Eszter Banffy (DAI), OIC Convener Harvey Johnston
Signing the Memorandum of Understanding. L to R Professor Jane Downes (UHI Archaeology Institute) Professor Eszter Banffy (DAI) and OIC Convener Harvey Johnston

Last week marked the first step in a collaboration between archaeology research institutions in Orkney and Germany.

An important memorandum of understanding was signed at Midhowe Broch, Rousay, on 26th April between UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI and the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Römisch-Germanische Kommission (DAI).

Signed in glorious sunshine by Professor Jane Downes of the UHI Archaeology Institute and Professor Eszter Baffy of the DAI, the document was witnessed by Orkney Islands Council Convener Harvey Johnston.

The memorandum document confirms the willingness of the UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI and DAI to co-operate on future research projects and details the ways in which the three organisations will work together including:

• The exchange of personnel
• Joint research projects and workshops
• Technical support and training
• Other joint projects which will be specified at a later date.

The signing was conducted as a major series of archaeology surveys were undertaken across the island. These projects include the international “Boyne to Brodgar” Neolithic project whose partners working in Orkney are DAI, UHI Archaeology Institute, Historic Environment Scotland and University College Dublin, represented by Assistant Professor Stephen Davis.

What did the Romans eat at the Chester Amphitheatre?

Typical seived samples
Typical sieved samples showing changing nature of Roman deposits in the 3rd Century. Scale 1cm.

Dr Jen Harland, lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, has contributed a chapter on her zooarchaeology research to a major new book on the Roman Amphitheatre located in Chester, England.

The chapter is entitled Fish Bone from Roman Phases and appears in the recently published book: The Roman Amphitheatre of Chester Volume I, edited by Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner.

Jen’s research investigates the largest single fish bone assemblage in Roman Britain, uncovered during excavations at the amphitheatre in 2004-2006. The Roman structure originally dates from 70AD, but between 85AD and 100AD was re-modelled and timber seating was installed. The lower parts of the timber framework was held in place by dumped material from the arena and elsewhere. This material contained over 20,000 fish remains dating from the Roman to post-medieval period and there were over 4,500 fish remains dating to the Roman period – providing a very useful addition to the zooarchaeology of Roman Britain.

Spanish Mackerel
Spanish mackerel vertebrae. Scale 1cm.

Fish was a prominent part of Roman diet and marked out those elements of the population who wanted to be ‘Roman’. Most of the British Iron Age population did not consume fish as a regular part of their diet. On examining the fish remains, Jen’s research found that flatfish were the most common with over 70% from this order, eel was the second most commonly consumed fish at the site with salmon and trout the third most popular.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that Spanish mackerel was also found in the deposits. These fish are not found in the waters around the British Isles and thus they were somewhat of a surprise during analysis.The Spanish mackerel was, perhaps as the name implies, an import from the coastal regions of Portugal, Spain and the north coast of Africa and they provided a taste of the Mediterranean to Chester’s small Roman population.

Jen’s research also sheds light on the way that the Roman population in and around the amphitheatre consumed their fish. There were no butchery marks on the bones found suggesting that the fish was eaten on the bone and perhaps formed a meal for one or two people. This probably means that the meal would have to be eaten delicately and with care rather than in a fast food/on the move manner.

Location of Chester England
The Roman city of Deva, now Chester

The research also provides clues to the ‘fishing industry’ operating in this part of the Roman Empire during this period. Evidence from the types of fish found in the assemblage suggests that fishing was organised on a local scale with the Roman fishermen not venturing far into Liverpool Bay. However, the ‘industry’ would also have to be organised on a relatively large scale to provide the volume of fish found.

There is also evidence to suggest that tastes, the environment or fishing methods changed over time. There is a trend to find smaller fish in the assemblage as time progresses into the 3rd century and herring also becomes more common – much more like the tastes and preferences of later centuries and much less ‘Roman’.

Harland Oxford poster

BookIf you wish to investigate this fascinating subject further then check out The Roman Amphitheatre of Chester Volume I. Tony Wilmott and Dan Garner. ISBN 978-1-78570-744-5 and can be purchased at https://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/the-roman-amphitheatre-of-chester-volume-1.html

 

New Research Published – suggests long-distance movement of cattle in the Bronze Age

Chillingham_Bull. Thanks to Sally Holmes
Chillingham Cattle. Thanks to Sally Holmes.

Dr Ingrid Mainland of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is the co-author of a new investigation into the origins and husbandry of Mid-Late Bronze Age cattle – now published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

The authors include Jacqueline Towers & Julie Bond of the University of Bradford, Jane Evans of the British Geological Survey, Ingrid Mainland of the UHI Archaeology Institute and Janet Montgomery of Durham University.

Bioarchaeological evidence suggests that the site of Grimes Graves, Norfolk, characterised by the remains of several hundred Late Neolithic flint mineshafts, was a permanently settled community with a mixed farming economy during the Mid-Late Bronze Age (c. 1400 BCE – c. 800 BCE).

Cattle Tooth with enamel sequentially sampled for isotope analysis
Cattle tooth with enamel sequentially sampled for isotope analysis

The aim of this study was to investigate, through isotope ratio analysis (87Sr/86Sr, δ13C and δ18O), the origins and husbandry of Bronze Age cattle (Bos taurus) excavated from a mineshaft known as the “1972 shaft”. Strontium isotope ratios from the molar enamel of ten Grimes Graves cattle were compared with eight modern animals from the Chillingham Wild White cattle herd, Northumberland.

The range of 87Sr/86Sr values for the modern cattle with known restricted mobility was low (0.00062) while the values for the Grimes Graves cattle varied much more widely (range = 0.00357) and suggest that at least five of the cattle were not born locally. Two of these animals were likely to have originated at a distance of ≥150 km.

Cattle mandible - occlusal (biting surface) view
Cattle Mandible – occlusal (biting surface) view

Intra-tooth δ13Cprofiles for eight of the Grimes Graves cattle show higher δ13Cvalues compared to those of Early Bronze Age cattle from central England. Most of these profiles also display pronounced shifts in δ13C during the period of enamel formation.

One possible interpretation is that the cattle were subject to dietary change resulting from movement between habitats with different vegetation δ13C values. More comparative data, both archaeological and modern, is required to validate this interpretation.

The multi-isotope approach employed in this study suggests that certain cattle husbandry and/or landscape management practices may have been widely adopted throughout central Britain during the Mid-Late Bronze Age.

The full report can be downloaded from the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports. You may have to subscribe to the journal if you or your organisation are not members.

Scientific dating research unravels the story of life in prehistoric Orkney

DSC_0091

Scientific dating study brings into view how communities in one of the most important Neolithic regions in Western Europe chose to farm, gather together and bury their dead.

Constant and rapid changes in the settlements and monuments indicate communities with rivalries and tensions between households and other social groupings.

A new study, published in Antiquity journal, is challenging the previously understood narrative for prehistoric life on Orkney. It was led by Professor Alex Bayliss of Historic England and is based on the interrogation of more than 600 radiocarbon dates, enabling much more precise estimates of the timing and duration of events in the period c.3200-2500 BC.

The study is part of a much wider project, The Times of Their Lives, funded by the European Research Council (2012–2107; www.totl.eu), which has applied the same methodology to a wider series of case studies across Neolithic Europe. That project has demonstrated many other examples of more dynamic and punctuated sequences than previously suspected in ‘prehistory’.

20170908_143202Neolithic Orkney is well-preserved and is a time of stone houses, stone circles and elaborate burial monuments. World-renowned sites such as the Skara Brae settlement, Maeshowe passage grave, and the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness circles have long been known and are in the World Heritage Site (given this status in 1999). They have been joined by more recent discoveries of great settlement complexes such as Barnhouse and Ness of Brodgar.

The new study reveals in much more detail than previously possible the fluctuating fortunes of the communities involved in these feats of construction and their social interaction. It used a Bayesian statistical approach to combine calibrated radiocarbon dates with knowledge of the archaeological contexts that the finds have come from to provide much more precise chronologies than those previously available.

DSC_0067

Professor Alex Bayliss of Historic England, leader of the Orkney study, said: ‘This study shows that new statistical analysis of the large numbers of radiocarbon dates that are now available in British archaeology really changes what we can know about our pasts. People in the Neolithic made choices, just like us, about all sorts of things – where to live, how to bury their dead, how to farm, where and when to gather together – and those choices are just beginning to come into view through archaeology. It’s an exciting time to be an archaeological scientist!’

The study indicates:

  • Orkney was probably first colonised in c. 3600 cal BC[1]. There was an expansion and growth of settlement and building of monuments from c. 3300 cal BC.
  • Settlement peaked in the period c. 3100–2900 cal BC
  • There was a phase of decline c. 2800–2600 cal BC, measured by the number of stone houses in use
  • Settlement resumed in c. 2600–2300 cal BC, but only away from the ‘core’ area of the Brodgar-Stenness peninsula in western Mainland. It was probably about this time that the Ring of Brodgar itself was erected, probably bringing people together from across Orkney but into what was now a sacred, not a domestic, landscape

DSC_0089The study suggests that the period saw competition between communities that was played out in how they buried their dead and in their communal gatherings and rituals. The study also throws up other complexities in the sequence of development on the island:

  • An overlap between the construction of different kinds of burials tombs – passage graves and large stalled cairns – in the later fourth millennium cal BC
  • An overlap between the emergence of the new pottery style, flat-based Grooved Ware, characteristic of the Late Neolithic in Orkney, and the round-based pottery of earlier Neolithic inhabitants
  • The first appearance of the non-native Orkney vole, Microtus agrestis, c. 3200 cal BC. This is significant as it is found today on Orkney and on the European continent but not in mainland Britain. It was probably introduced via direct long-distance sea travel between Orkney and the continent. The study therefore also considers whether new people from continental Europe were part of this complex cultural scenario.

Professor Alasdair Whittle of Cardiff University, Principal Investigator of The Times of Their Lives, said:  ‘Visitors come from all over the world to admire the wonderfully preserved archaeological remains of Orkney, in what may seem a timeless setting. Our study underlines that the Neolithic past was often rapidly changing, and that what may appear to us to be enduring monuments were in fact part of a dynamic historical context.’

Professor Colin Richards of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute in Kirkwall, Orkney, and co-author of the study, said:  ‘Our study shows how much remains to be discovered in Orkney about the Neolithic period, even though it may appear well known. This applies throughout the sequence, including in the period of decline at its end.’


‘Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney’ Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. 2017. Antiquity 91, issue 389 (October 2017), 1171–88. doi:10.15184/aqy.2017.140

[1] cal indicates dates calibrated by radiocarbon dating

Above taken from Historic England Press Release. Research paper available here.

 

Harvesting Seaweed- Fertilised Bere Barley – Experimental Research Reaps First Results

Field trial

Magdalena Blanz, PhD Student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, is progressing well with her research into Seaweed as Food and Fodder in the North Atlantic Islands: past, present and future opportunities.

For her PhD, Magdalena is investigating the importance of seaweed use in the past, and how traditional use of seaweed can inform modern-day practices. In particular, she is researching how the chemical composition of skeletal remains changes with the consumption of seaweed, to allow the identification of past seaweed consumption.

“After starting my reading for the PhD, I realised that distinguishing between the use of seaweed as animal food and the use of seaweed-fertilised terrestrial plants would be important, and might not be straightforward to do chemically, which is why we did the field trial”, Magdalena describes.

Back in May 2017, Magdalena commenced a field trial in partnership with Orkney College Agronomy Institute and the James Hutton Institute in Dundee – planting bere barley and applying seaweed as a fertiliser in a controlled experiment (see earlier blog post here).

far right is not fertilised
Far right sample of Bere was not fertilised

The bere from the field trial has now been harvested and first results indicate that fertilisation with seaweed worked well: Seaweed-fertilisation doubled the yield of bere barley compared to unfertilised plots. Magdalena is now moving onto the second phase of her research: Identifying the differences in chemical composition caused by fertilisation with seaweed.

Magdalena continues: “If there is a significant difference, the question is if this difference will also affect the chemical composition of the skeletal remains of humans and animals that consume seaweed-fertilised crops, and if there is a potential of finding such differences in archaeological charred cereal remains.”

workworkwork
Magdalena in the field in front of UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI

Many thanks to Dr Peter Martin Orkney, Dr Burkart Dieterich and John Wishart from the Orkney College Agronomy Institute. Magdalena’s supervisors are Dr Ingrid Mainland (UHI Archaeology Institute), Dr Mark Taggart (UHI), Dr Philippa Ascough (SUERC) and Prof Feldmann (University of Aberdeen), and she can be contacted at Magdalena.Blanz@uhi.ac.uk.

If you are interested in pursuing research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, contact Mary Connolly studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

This research was funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme.

 

Applying Archaeology Research

Archaeology is not only concerned with researching the past, but also applying that research to provide insights into present-day issues – such as climate change, food supply and overall change in society.

Last week, Magdalena Blanz, a PhD student at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Insitute, commenced a field trial in partnership with Orkney College Agronomy Institute and the James Hutton Institute in Dundee.

Magdalena is researching how seaweed was used in prehistory and how this under-utilised resource could be used in commercial farming in the future. The research is supervised by Dr Ingrid Mainland and is based in Orkney.

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If you are interested in postgraduate research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then please do not hesitate to get in touch by e-mailing at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our guide page on this blog.


This PhD studentship is funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme