Examining the Cata Sand Whales

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The excavation at Cata Sand on the island of Sanday in Orkney not only unearthed the remains of Early Neolithic Houses, but also as reported in August, the skeletons of around twelve whales originating in the nineteenth century.

The team led by archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, University of Central Lancashire and volunteers from Sanday Archaeology Group travelled to Sanday to excavate a possible Neolithic site. However within a few hours, two trenches were discovered to contain remains of whale skeletons.

DSC_01001During the excavation, eight individual skeletons were lifted and transported carefully to the UHI Archaeology Institute laboratory in Kirkwall, where Stephen Haines and Claire Mackay, began to examine the remaining bones last week. Stephen is a recent MSc graduate in Forensic Anthropology (UCLAN) and has volunteered to help clean, assemble and analyse the bones. Claire has recently started a research masters at the UHI, in which she will be exploring the exploitation of whales in Late Iron Age and Norse Orkney.

As Stephen assembled the bones into anatomical order, it soon became apparent that, as the area where they were found was an inter-tidal zone, many of the bones were waterlogged and brittle. However, Stephen assembled the bones in order and a number of interesting facts emerged.

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Interestingly all of the animals appear to be missing their heads. A likely explanation could revolve around the known practice of giving the heads of whales as prizes to Captains involved in the hunt or local landowners in the case of beached whales. The head of a whale was especially valuable as it contained a large quantity of precious oil.

Perhaps surprisingly the evidence points to the fact that the animals were not butchered for their meat. There does not appear to be any cut marks on the bones themselves and they were not disarticulated and scattered – as usually found at butchery sites.

So how did these huge skeletons get into the ground? In the nineteenth century account of the whale beaching, a visitor to the island complained about the terrible smell coming from the decomposing animals. Reading the account further, it would seem that this complaint resulted in the local people burying the carcasses on the beach. And there they remained for over 200 years….forgotten by locals and visitors alike.

Sadly, as we don’t have access to the heads, identifying the species involved is incredibly difficult, however based on the general morphology we believe the bones belong to the dolphin family – potentially a Risso’s Dolphin. Further research will confirm the species.

The initial findings have now been edited into a series of videos clips…..


The excavation team included Prof Colin Richards, Prof Jane Downes, Christopher Gee from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Dr Vicki Cummings from UClan in addition to participants from the Sanday Archaeology Group, University of Cambridge, and students from UHI and UCLan, but also involves specialists from as far away as the School of Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, Galicia, Spain.

If you want more information on studying at the UHI Archaeology Institute then email us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or check out our website

 

YAARP – Looking at the Archaeological Landscape Differently

DSC_0069The latest video results are now in from the Yesnaby Art & Archaeology Project team who were working in the field during the summer.

The team led by University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute archaeologist Dr James Moore and visual artist Rik Hammond use the shared language of the disciplines of art and archaeology to explore the landscape of Western Orkney through a different lens. The research project aims to use both disciplines as tools to understand the continuously changing physical environment and people’s perceptions of a specific area on the island.

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James continues, “Everyone perceives a landscape differently, depending on your own experiences, background and so on. An archaeologist would read a location differently to someone who has say trained in geography. A person brought up in an urban environment will see something different to someone who grew up in a rural setting, or on an island. Using GPS, video and a variety of other arts-based techniques we can create maps of activity, and diverse images of the landscape, which consider the ways in which members of the team experience different aspects of the environment, and provides a way of challenging our own perceptions of the landscape. By combining these ideas with our understanding of the locations and distribution of archaeological material obtained through our more traditional survey work we can hopefully begin to think about the ways in which people in the past might have understood and experienced the landscape in which they lived.”

One feature of the project involved placing a camera on the slope overlooking the valley and, using timelapse techniques, create a video to explore the landscape over a period of nine weeks….through sunshine and rain, night and day. The result not only tracks the changing environment of Yesnaby over a defined time period, but in many respects forces us to look at the archaeological landscape in a different way.

This is the third year of YAARP and this year the team have focused on creating unique digital and traditional artwork in the field based on the natural and cultural landscape. The team are looking forward to presenting a taste of the results by staging an exhibition in Orkney during spring 2018. There will be more from the team soon.

Follow YAARP social mediaFacebook @YesnabyArtArchaeologyResearchProject and Twitter @YAARP_Orkney and Rik Hammond @rik_hammond

Thanks to Orkney Islands Council Culture Fund for supporting the project.

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.

‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference-International Speaker Line-up.

Ring of Brodgar
Ring of Brodgar. Photo: Jim Richardson.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute looks forward to welcoming an impressive line-up of speakers and contributors to the ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference on the 14th- 17th September.

The conference sessions include speakers from around the globe on themes relevant to island life – past, present and future.

  • Session One: The Three Islands Group Research Framework (more on this session in a later separate blog)
  • Session Two: Identity and Culture
  • Session Three: Sustainability and Conservation
  • Session Four: Migration and Abandonment
  • Session Five: Connectivity and Travel
  • Session Six: Island Culture and Place

We look forward to welcoming an international array of delegates including  Adam Markham, Deputy Director of Climate & Energy the Union of Concerned Scientists, who will be opening Session Three with a paper entitled: Climate Change, Island World Heritage, and Lessons from Community Responses.

Adam writes in his abstract,Cultural resources, including archaeology, historic sites and intangible heritage are at risk from climate change on islands the world over. Climate impacts include sea level rise, coastal erosion, and extreme weather events. Irreplaceable archaeological and other cultural resources are being lost at an alarming rate, and with them, important and sacred places, and some of the stories and histories that help provide peoples’ sense of belonging. Island World Heritage sites provide an opportunity to draw local and international attention to the threat posed by climate change and to the special circumstances island communities face in responding to change. ”

Come along and listen to Adam in person at 11am Saturday 16th September 2017 when he is scheduled to present his paper.

Everyone is welcome to attend…register by sending in the Conference Registration Form to archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk.

See our Conference website for more details on ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ Conference 2017.

Follow the conference on Twitter #oiopconference