The ‘Elder’

In 2016, the excavation team encountered a remarkable deposit outside the broch - which included the jawbone of an elderly woman.
The whalebone vessel, which contained the human mandible, with the deer antlers and saddle quern outside the broch entrance.

In 2016, the excavation team encountered a remarkable deposit outside the broch.

A whalebone vessel had been placed tightly against the broch wall and close to the entrance. In it were the semi-articulated remains of three newborn lambs and the mandible of an elderly woman. A large saddle quern pinned the vessel against the broch wall, while propped against it were two red deer antlers.

The entire deposit would appear to represent an elaborate act of closure – decommissioning and ritually marking the end of the monumental broch.

The location of the decommissioning deposit outside the wall of the broch.

Radiocarbon dates showed the woman died sometime between AD120 and AD240, in the latter part of what is conventionally termed the Scottish Atlantic Middle Iron Age.  A date of AD89 to AD214 came from one of the lambs. 

These dates put the death of the woman – dubbed the “elder” by the excavators – in the same period as the last occupation of the broch, before it was partly demolished and infilled with rubble.

This suggests she was alive in the last years of the broch’s monumental phase. When she was a girl the broch, and its surrounding settlement, would still have been a prominent landmark and most likely a potent symbol of authority and order. 

It is very tempting to think she was a member of the broch household, and that by the time of her death, was considered an important member of the community.

It may be that her death occasioned the final abandonment and decommissioning of the broch. There are examples in ethnographic literature, from different cultures around the world, where the death of an important person – one who had a significant association with a particular house – resulted in the end of that entire house. 

Perhaps the death of The Cairns elder was the final impetus required to end the broch in a period when its use and integrity had been in decline for a while. 

The mandible belonging to The Cairns ‘elder’.

Examination of the jawbone suggests the woman was a considerable age for the Iron Age period.

She seems to have led an active working life judging by the condition of the teeth – only three were left! The jawbone had grown over most of the missing teeth sockets, showing they had fallen out during her life.

This may have been brought about partly through using the mouth to tightly clamp materials, such as grasses and straw, while working on them with her hands, perhaps making plant-fibre items such as bags and containers. 

The teeth that remained were substantially worn, possibly from a combination of the above and the abrasive grit accidentally included in products made with flour produced on quernstones.

An atypical diet?

What proved particularly surprising, however, was the fact that seafood was major part of her diet throughout her life.

Being someone who lived in Orkney that might not sound particularly strange. But it flies in the face of what we know about Iron Age Britain, where there is very little evidence for the exploitation of marine resources.

Isotope analysis measures the ratios of different chemical isotopes in bones or teeth, which can then be used to investigate an individual’s diet and the environment in which they grew up.

Early isotopic analysis established there was marine protein in the woman’s diet, but this related only to the end of her life. The Elder had very few teeth left and those that remained exhibited extensive, possibly painful, dental caries. This suggested the soft marine food had been consumed out of necessity.

But a new analysis, completed in 2022 as part of a research collaboration between the UHI Archaeology Institute and the University of York’s COMMIOS research project, provided incredible additional details about the old woman’s diet.

The whalebone vessel with the antlers pictured top right and the saddle quern bottom centre. The two right-side antlers propped against the whalebone vessel.

By peering into her diet at different stages in the development of her teeth, the study showed that she was consuming marine protein her entire life.

The dentine of human teeth is laid down incrementally in layers as each tooth grows and develops, providing something of a clock – a little like the formation of growth rings in trees. So dietary isotopes embedded in teeth at known growth points can be related to approximate periods in a person’s life.

In collaboration with the National Environmental Isotope Facility (British Geological Survey) the woman’s tooth was sampled multiple times – when she was estimated to be three, seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, and fifteen years old.

The results showed she was eating seafood in her infancy and teens and it remained at a fairly consistent level throughout her life. The marine portion of her diet was not eaten out of convenience or necessity only in later life but was, in fact, routinely consumed throughout her life.

This may explain a curious aspect of the late occupation of the broch. Unlike the majority of Middle Iron Age buildings, there were fairly substantial amounts of fishbone strewn across one of the uppermost floor horizons. These were interpreted as large quantities of small fish being processed and smoked inside the broch in a final episode of activity.

Is there some connection between the woman, with her marine diet, and these fishbones? While it may be a co-incidence, it does support the suggestion that she was someone strongly associated with the broch.

Further questions: A special role or more frequent Iron Age fish suppers?

The fact that seafood seems to have been avoided throughout the rest of Iron Age Britain opens up a new avenue of investigation. There are relatively few fishbones found in Iron Age middens and the analysis of human remains elsewhere suggests seafood was avoided, despite how ubiquitous and all-encompassing the sea was for communities in Atlantic Scotland.

This led to suggestions that there may have been social restrictions, or taboos, on the consumption of seafood.

The isotope analysis has led the excavation team to question whether “the Elder” had a special role or status within society at The Cairns – one which might explain why her remains were singled-out for the special deposition that occurred towards the end of the broch’s life.

Or was seafood simply a more regular part of the Iron Age diet than previously thought? The Cairns project aims to contribute to this key Iron Age research question in the very near future.