DNA analysis sheds light on whalebone use in Iron Age Orkney

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Recent DNA analysis of whalebone artefacts found at The Cairns, Orkney, has shed light on the relationship between these marine mammals and the site’s Iron Age community, as well as hinting why the large local broch may have been demolished in the 2nd century AD.

Aerial view of the site
The Cairns broch, looking across to the North Sea. [Image: Andrew Hollingrake / UHI Archaeology Institute]

Excavations at The Cairns, near Winwick Bay on South Ronaldsay, Orkney, have been carried out by the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) since 2006. These investigations have uncovered the remains of an Iron Age stone tower, or broch, which was deliberately dismantled (see CA 275) as well as later Iron Age structures. The site has also yielded a variety of artefacts, more than 30 of which were made of whalebone – this included a large vessel that had been carved from a whale vertebra (see CA 323), found just outside the broch’s entrance and containing the lower jawbone of an older man who died c.AD 120–240.

The 33 whalebone artefacts from the site have now been analysed by Dr Vicki Szabo (Western Carolina University) and Dr Brenna Frasier (Saint Mary’s University), in collaboration with Martin Carruthers (UHI Archaeological Institute), as part of an international project, funded by the National Science Foundation, investigating the past use of whales in North Atlantic society. This genetic research revealed that 20 of the objects came from bones of the fin whale species, and that all but one of these came from the same animal – suggesting that a single large fin whale had been utilised by the site’s occupants at around the time the broch was decommissioned.

A piece of fin whale bone
One of the large pieces of fin whale bone from the period of The Cairns broch’s demolition. [Image: Andrew Hollingrake / UHI Archaeology Institute]

The fin whale is the second largest species on the planet (after the blue whale), reaching sizes of up to 27m long. They are also very fast and able to dive to extreme depths; in modern history they were rarely hunted before the invention of the explosive harpoon. It is therefore believed that the Iron Age example at The Cairns had not been hunted but had become stranded on the beach. Such an event would have presented a considerable contribution to the community’s resources, offering a plentiful supply of food, oil, and bone.

The broch at The Cairns is not the only such structure to have been dismantled in the 2nd century AD. It has been suggested that the beaching of the fin whale at this site, and the security that the additional supplies it offered the local community, may have influenced the decision to demolish the tower. This would have been a physically challenging and time-consuming process that would have drawn many of the inhabitants away from important everyday tasks. It is also possible that a natural event of this sort may have been interpreted as an omen, possibly providing a final motivation for this major change to the settlement, the research team suggests.

This news article appears in issue 363 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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