Death and life at a broch: New radiocarbon dates at The Cairns site shed more light on rituals of Living and dying during the Iron Age.

Newly acquired C-14 dates and a dietary assessment for a remarkable deposit of human remains discovered at The Cairns, an Iron Age broch site under excavation in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, have given new insights into the life and death of the individual who is considered likely to be one of the occupants of the broch.

In July 2016, excavations at the site unearthed a surprise discovery: a disarticulated human jaw placed in a very large, carved whalebone vessel made from a  whale vertebra.  The vessel was resting against the outer wall-face of the broch near to its main entrance.  Also present within the whalebone container were remains of three new-born lambs, and other animal bones.  Propped against the side of the whalebone vessel/container were two red deer antlers  as well as a large saddle-quern.

Whalebone vessel from above. Copyright: University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.
Whalebone vessel from above. Copyright: University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

The Death and Life of the Individual

The new radiocarbon dates show that the man died sometime between AD120 and AD240 in the latter part of what is conventionally termed the Scottish Atlantic Middle Iron Age.  A preliminary assessment of the human remains suggests that the jaw belongs to an individual aged around 50, but he may have been much older.

The individual is thought to be male, but it can be difficult to be certain of this given the basis of just a single bone. The jawbone had grown over most of the sockets of the missing teeth showing they had been lost during life leaving only two teeth at death.

Human Jaw Unearthed at The Cairns. Copyright: University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
Human Jaw Unearthed at The Cairns. Copyright: University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute

The analysis of the jaw also revealed an unusual aspect of the dead man’s diet, with isotopic chemistry showing they had consumed a surprisingly high quantity of marine-derived protein.  Isotopic studies of human remains from the Middle Iron Age tend to show low levels of fish proteins in the human diet.

This might seem surprising considering the island nature of Iron Age Orkney, however, this lack of fish is reinforced by examination of middens from the period, which very rarely contain much in the way of fish at all.

Perhaps this feature of his diet is something that marks him as special, a particular category of person, whose life is mirrored in a particular diet.

A curious aspect of the late occupation deposits excavated from inside the broch is that, unlike the majority of Middle Iron Age buildings, they did contain fairly substantial amounts of fish bone strewn across one of the uppermost floor horizons, in a manner suggestive that lots of small fish being smoked inside the broch in a final episode of activity.

It seems likely, then, that the man from The Cairns actually lived within the last 50 years of the main monumental phase of the broch.  When he was a young man, the broch, and its surrounding settlement would still have been paramount in the landscape and was most likely a potent symbol of authority and order.

Martin Carruthers, Site Director, The Cairns and Masters Programme Leader at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute suggests that, “It may not be pushing this line of consideration too far to suggest the possibility that it was his death that occasioned the final abandonment and decommissioning of the broch.  There are plenty of examples from different cultures around the world, where the death of an important person, who had a significant association with a particular house, resulted in the end of that entire house as well.”

 

 

The site of The Cairns; the remarkable deposit of human remains and the whalebone vessel/deer antler deposit, will shortly feature in the Archaeology TV series: Digging for Britain.  The programme will be screened on Tuesday the 13th of December, at 9 pm, on BBC Four.

Martin Carruthers would like to thank Orkney Archaeology Society for funding the new radiocarbon dates.

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