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.
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.”
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.
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 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/
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 email@example.com. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research excavation at the Ness of Brodgar has been nominated both by Professor Eszter Bánffy of the German Archaeological Institute, and Dr. Michael Boyd of the University of Cambridge for the prestigious 2019 Shanghai Archaeology Forum (SAF) Awards Program (Discovery Award).
Founded in 2013, Shanghai Archaeology Forum is a global initiative dedicated to promoting the investigation, protection and utilization of the world’s archaeological resources and heritage.
The biennial SAF Awards “recognize individuals and organizations that have achieved distinction through innovative, creative, and rigorous works relating to our human past, and have generated new knowledge that has particular relevance to the contemporary world and our common future.
It aims to promote excellence and innovation in archaeological research, advance public awareness and appreciation of archaeology, foster the protection and conservation of the world’s archaeological resources and heritage, and encourage international collaboration and partnerships between scholars and others from different countries”.
The Discovery Award, in particular, is made for archaeological excavations or surveys that have yielded major discoveries significantly furthering or even altering our knowledge of the human past, locally and/or globally.
We should hopefully be notified by early November of the results.
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 email@example.com
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.
A team from ORCA Archaeology discovered sections of wall that were part of the St Magnus Cathedral Close last week while undertaking a watching brief for an Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project in the heart of historic Kirkwall.
A series of walls, pottery and animal bones were unearthed only inches under the surface of the road near the entrance to Victoria Street. Archaeologists know from previous work that remains of structures dating back to the Iron Age exist in this area, but this is the first time that structures directly relating to the cathedral precinct have been identified in this particular area.
Comparing the walls to the 1882 map, the structure appears to be part of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Deans Manse, which were demolished in the 1930’s to make way for a car park and to allow vehicle access to Victoria Street. In common with many Cathedral precincts in the British Isles these imposing buildings would have been part of a large complex used to welcome pilgrims and house ecclesiastic staff associated with the Cathedral.
The gable wall of the Chaplain’s Chamber and Sub-Dean’s Manse was recorded standing to more than 0.9m in height directly beneath the present road surface. It was aligned East-West, running from near the top of Tankerness Lane towards the entrance to the Daily Scoop Cafe, directly underneath the new kerb line. The gable wall which was 1.35 metres thick was built with very large flagstone slabs bonded with clay.
Interestingly, although the walls appeared to be the actual house walls rather than foundations there was no sign of the gable door visible in the old pictures. The western end of the wall appears to have been demolished earlier and the door may have been lost there. There is a possibility therefore that the building demolished in the 1930s was built on top of these earlier walls of the Chaplain’s Chamber / Sub-dean’s Manse.
What was the Cathedral Precinct, why was it there and who lived in it? All the buildings from the site of the Kirkwall Community Centre South into the top of Victoria Street and East up to the Bishop’s palace formed the Cathedral Precinct. Although there would have been earlier buildings to house Cathedral staff most of the buildings, including the Chaplain’s chamber and Sub-dean’s Manse were built under bishop Robert Reid as part of a grand piece of town planning in the 1540s shortly after he became bishop of Orkney. At this time Orkney and the rest of Scotland were still predominantly Roman Catholic and the cathedral was a Catholic cathedral. Reid had previously studied law in Paris, worked as an ambassador and was the president of the Scottish College of Justice amongst other things.
On his arrival in Orkney he found the Bishop’s Palace partly ruined and the diocese in some disorder. To rectify this he appointed seven new top staff members – known as dignitaries in the church – to take responsibility for aspects of its running along with thirteen chaplains. It was within the cathedral precinct that these and other staff members lived and worked.
The Sub-dean, who lived in the manse that the ORCA Archaeology team uncovered, for example had the responsibility of the Cathedral provost when he was unavailable. This involved the management of the canons, prebends and chaplains as well as having responsibility for the vicarage of South Ronaldsay and the maintenance of the Burwick Kirk. The Sub- dean also worked as butler to the Bishop and had the parsonage of Hoy and the vicarage of Walls.
Along with the construction of the Cathedral precinct bishop Robert Reid also built the Moosie Tower and rebuilt St Olaf’s Kirk of which the archway in Olaf’s Wynd is a part. Several of the buidings of the precinct are still existing today: the old grammar school, part of a “large court of houses to be a colledge for instructing of the youth of this country in grammar and phylosophy”, is on the north east side of the Daily Scoop cafe. The Sub-chantry, Arch-deanery and residence of the chancellor are standing as parts of The Orkney Museum.
The old name for Tankerness Lane was School Wynd where you would have seen and heard the scholars of the Cathedral’s Kirkwall Grammar School running down to the shore of the Peedie Sea to play after school.
Chris Gee, Project Manager at ORCA Archaeology said, “Kirkwall was quite different then from the town we know today. In the area of Bridge Street and Albert Street lay the old Royal Burgh and secular trading centre. As we have seen previously the castle stood around the southern limit of the Burgh at this time backing out onto the Peedie Sea and the main harbour of Kirkwall. It was much larger and deeper then with the plots on the west of the street backing onto its shore. There were slips and piers for unloading and loading goods from lands around the North Sea. The reformation was to come though within a couple of decades and see an end to this sacred centre with many of the manses being acquired by wealthy merchants. Some of the rivalry between these two centres may still be seen played out between the Uppies and Doonies on Christmas and New Year’s day. “
Dr Sarah Jane Gibbon, lecturer specialising in medieval ecclesiastic research at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute added,” We know from written sources that buildings extended from the Cathedral in the direction of present day Victoria Street. To see the physical evidence of cathedral precinct structures so close to the surface of Broad Street is very exciting and reminds us of the importance of Kirkwall being at the centre of the Cult of St Magnus in the medieval period. We can imagine pilgrims journeying from all over the medieval North Atlantic area to venerate the remains of St Magnus here at St Magnus Cathedral.”
The archaeology has now been recorded and the site carefully covered over to preserve for future generations. The Orkney Islands Council infrastructure project continued without delay.
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.
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.
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.
Located in Orkney, the Ness of Brodgar is one of the largest and most important Neolithic excavations in Europe.
As the eight week dig season comes to an end, the international team working at the site uncovered an incredible underground structure that sheds more light on the sophistication of the first farmers who built the stone structures 5000 years ago.
With over five thousand finds recorded this year, and over 100 archaeologists from all over the world participating in this years excavation, ranging from students from the University of the Highlands and Islands to others from the American Williamette University, one could definitely argue that the Ness has been a very busy site this season.
Archaeologists working at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research dig adjacent to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site in Orkney found a massive drain running underneath several of the stone buildings at the site.
The team of archaeologists including ex-students of the UHI Archaeology Institute and volunteers from across the globe uncovered this Neolithic structural gem two weeks ago while working at the rear of Structure 8, and under midden and rubbish deposited in this area.
The team initially found what appeared to be a void, but when the archaeologists removed one particularly large stone, a stone lined drain was unearthed. The drain can be traced directly for over 1.8m, but potentially extends for at least 30m across the site perhaps heading for the Loch of Stenness. It is 50cm wide and at least 70cm deep and there is nothing quite like it on site. Other drains found around the structures are significantly smaller which may highlight its importance as a main drain for the site.
The Ness of Brodgar Site Director Nick Card said, “This is an important discovery as it reinforces the complexity of the architecture in the Neolithic at this 5000 year old site and indicates the high degree of planning required in their construction. The only other drain of similar size known in Orkney is the one found at the World Heritage Site at Skara Brae – located just five miles north of the site here at the Ness of Brodgar.”
Nick continues, “This discovery is thought-provoking as it further adds to the grandiose and complex nature of the architecture of the buildings as they are interlinked with one another. Furthermore, it displays the level of planning involved in the construction of this site. This is without even taking into consideration the work required to build and maintain such a drain!”
Nick believes that the drain was built during the primary phase of construction of the later piered structures and taking this into account, it places the construction of the drain at a very early period of the site itself, and means that it played a very important role in the more complex phases at the Ness of Brodgar which followed.
This year also saw the continuation of work in Trench T; a trench at the very tip of the Brodgar peninsula that has uncovered one of the most complex buildings on site: Structure 27. This structure is extremely large compared to many other buildings on site, highlighting its importance and significance, and is unlike any other building at the complex or indeed elsewhere. The inner wall faces were built using large orthostats, both upright and on edge instead of the usual dry-stone construction. Even the outer wall faces were exquisitely built, with fine masonry and stepped foundations. The building was abandoned as the remaining structures continued in use and covered with domestic rubbish to form a huge midden mound which could have been seen from a considerable distance – perhaps a reflection of prehistoric conspicuous consumption, and the status and affluence of the Ness!
2019 also found the archaeologists on site unearthing a great selection of incised and beautifully decorated stones that have come to be such a feature of the Ness of Brodgar. One found by Structure 12 was particularly fine with delicately made incised motifs including chevrons and opposed fan motifs.
Another breath-taking find this year was a beautiful yet unfinished macehead found in Trench X by first time University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology student Aqsa. This macehead is made of olivine basalt, a rock type which is believed to originate on Hoy. To add to the excitement excavators found a further axehead on the same day and seems to have been discarded before it was completed.
In true archaeology style, as the site was beginning to wind down, a truly amazing find was uncovered: a human bone. The bone is an ulna, which is part of the lower arm, and is most likely from a young adult.
The bone itself was found in a foundation deposit relating to the remodelling of Structure 10, which is the last major and grandiose construction built around 2900 B.C. This structure required reconstructing within a generation or two of its construction, which is the point at which the builders added a new internal south wall and corner buttresses. Intriguingly this seems to be the point when they deposited the arm bone into the structure’s foundations. It is contemporary with another human arm bone found close by in 2016, along with the leg bones of several very large cattle.
Site Director Nick Card said, “These bone deposits all seem to be part of a votive foundation deposit associated with the rebuild of Structure 10. Other unusual finds from related foundation deposits such as a carved stone ball, one of the largest and most complex decorated stone blocks from the Ness, and unusual pottery forms, all point towards the importance of this remodelling of the largest building at the Ness.”
Further in-depth analysis of the human bone including DNA may hopefully determine if the two arm bones are from the same individual or if not, were they related?
Work on site will continue next year in order to shed light on this site and the amazing discoveries that keep on coming.
The Ness of Brodgar continues to be a major tourist attraction on the island with over 18,000 visitors to the site in the eight week dig season, 200,000 hits on the website and over 1,000 people attending each Open Day. This project is being part-financed by the Scottish government and the European Community Orkney Leader 2014 – 2020 Programme.
The community archaeology excavation at the Burn of Swartigill is now nearing completion for this season.
The dig itself is organised by the Yarrows Heritage Trust in collaboration with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and ORCA Archaeology. Rick Barton, Project Officer with ORCA Archaeology, talks us through the finds of the week…..
We have begun our third and final week of excavation for this season at the Burn of Swartigill in Thrumster, Caithness, and it’s time for an update from week two.
The theme has been one of rubble removal and soil sampling! Much of the later rubble within our round house, Structure B (or squashed rectangle house, to be more accurate) has been removed to reveal more of the courses masonry on the north and south arcs of the building. It is rewarding to see the shape and form of this building emerge after being obscured by rubble for so long. Work along the entrance way into Structure B on the east side has revealed a threshold stone!
In the centre of the structure, we are starting to see more ashy deposits associated with tantalising hints of edge set stone underneath the later hearth feature. This could be an earlier, more formal hearth, perhaps associated with the original occupation of the building.
We have also been sampling deposits on the west side of Structure B, which we know to be rich in charred plant remains, charcoal and magnetic residues from preliminary analysis of samples from 2017. With a more extensive area of this deposit exposed, we intend to do a more detailed soil chemical analysis with the samples from this season. This could give us some insight into what sort of activities were undertaken on this surface in the Iron Age.
Artefacts were thin on the ground in the first week of the dig, as we focussed on removing alluvial soils and rubble deposits. This past week, the artefacts have started to appear, with a spread of pottery near the hearth in Structure B and a brace of quern stones to add to those recovered from previous years. We have also recovered two hone stones or whetstones. Unlike the previous example of this artefact discovered on the site back in 2017, which looked distinctly Viking in shape, the two found from this season appear distinctly prehistoric in form.
We have been helped out by school children from Lybster, Dunbeath, Thrumster and Watten primary schools, who have been doing sterling work on site to help uncover Structure C on the south side of the dig. This is an area we have only partially exposed in previous seasons, so we are delighted to have to have had the children lend a hand in exploring this building.
We bade farewell to the majority of our stalwart student volunteers on Thursday, they have worked extremely hard and, we hope, have learned a lot about archaeological excavation and the North of Scotland Iron Age. Thanks to Leia Tilley from the University of Durham, Kenny McElroy from the University of Glasgow, Iona Cargill from Oxford University, Sierra Renna from Willamette College in the USA and Calum Hall and Mary Renshaw from the University of the Highlands and Islands. We hope to see you all again next year!
Thanks also to all the volunteers and visitors who have contributed their time and efforts to the dig so far. If you haven’t seen the site yet or still want to come and take part, there is still plenty of time!
We will be working on site every day until Sunday the 8th of September, though Saturday the 7th will be out last full day of digging as we need to spend some time on Sunday putting the covers back over the site and making sure its secure for the winter.
Come along to see our progress any time this week, and even join in the excavation! No previous experience is required.