An absence of antler and the riddle of the red deer – part one

Red deer deposition at the Ness of Brodgar and beyond
Part 1: An absence of antlers

By Kath Page

Anyone researching the Orcadian Neolithic, will at some point invariably end up studying the Ness of Brodgar. Over the summer of 2021, Anne and Nick very kindly let me get my hands on 78 boxes of animal bone to help with my University of the Highlands and Islands archaeology MLitt dissertation research exploring the significance of red deer during the Orcadian Neolithic.

The result of this research appears to alter what we think we know about the exploitation of red deer during this time. So, what follows is a blog in two parts – the first exploring antler exploitation (or lack of) at the Ness and beyond, and a second that focuses on red deer bodies and the changing depositional practices associated with them.

Zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical evidence suggests that red deer (Cervus elaphus) are not indigenous to Orkney, meaning they were purposefully brought here.

The translocation of animals of this size implies a degree of domestication as it is likely these animals were brought over as young juveniles and reared until an independent herd could be established, a time- and resource-intensive undertaking (Zeder 2012:288, Mysterud 2010:920). However, if this outlay is repaid over time with meat, skins, bones, and antler, then it is an investment worth making.

Red deer and sheep remains - Structure Ten

Excavation of Structure Ten at the Ness of Brodgar uncovered the remains of a decommissioning feasting deposit dating to around 2400BC, comprising mainly cattle tibiae, but lying on top of this deposit were the remains of red deer.

The animal bone assemblages recovered from across the Ness, particularly those associated with Structure Ten, are changing how we understand human-animal relationships during the Orcadian Neolithic and the economic importance of domesticates during prehistory.

The economy of the Neolithic was predominantly based on cattle and sheep, and pigs in the south of England (Albarella and Payne 2005:590), but the economic value of wild animals is often overlooked. Faunal data reports don’t always record the presence of none domesticates such as foxes, birds and seals for instance in the same way that sheep, cattle and pigs are, so their importance is undervalued not because they are not present at Neolithic sites, but because their data has not been recorded in the same way.  

Antler recovered from Structure Eight in 2018. (Sigurd Towrie)

Red deer though have had a better time of it and their economic and cultural significance (which will be discussed in part two) to prehistoric societies has been better recorded as they are not just a reliable food source, but because they are also important for secondary resources such as antler, bone and skins (Elliott 2019:81).

The Trench T antler revealed.

Antler fragments from Trench T. (Sigurd Towrie)

Antler appears to have held crucial importance for Neolithic societies, particularly in the South of Britain (Legge 1981:100). Caches of antler, predominantly in the form of picks, have been uncovered at sites such as at Lambourn Long barrow in Berkshire (Shulting 2000:25), Grimes Graves in Norfolk and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire (Simpson 1996:294). The deposition of antler picks in these locations has led to the suggestion that there is an association between antler and flint (Teather 2019:37).

A study by Worley and Serjeantson (2015:120) has also suggested that there is an association between antler and henge construction, leading them to hypothesise that antler deposition was ritual as well as functional.

Intriguingly though, excavation of the henges associated with the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness revealed the presence of animal bones from dog, sheep and cattle, but no red deer or antler (Card 2002:88). This is interesting because there appears to be very little antler associated with burial and mortuary monuments or at settlement sites across Orkney. Therefore, very little is known about antler exploitation and tool use during the Orcadian Neolithic.

As part of my research, I analysed the faunal reports for both mortuary and settlement sites.

The data showed that very little antler had been recovered from any of the sites, except at the Holm of Papay North – a chambered cairn on the island of Papay Westray – where 557 pieces of antler were discovered (recorded as Number of Identified Species – NISP). The combined total antler NISP from the mortuary sites used in my dissertation, minus the Holm of Papay North, was just 19!

The distribution of red deer antler at the Ness of Brodgar.

The distribution of red deer antler at the Ness of Brodgar.

Similarly at settlement sites the combined antler NISP was higher at 72, but this is still very low.  An antler NISP of 30 had been recorded for the Ness, which had been recovered from four areas: Structure Ten, Structure Eight, Structure One, and Trench T.

As the Ness is an ongoing excavation I wanted to see if any more had been discovered or if there was evidence for antler caching.

An examination of the bags of bone in the 78 boxes uncovered a further 34 pieces of antler, 26 of these were from the Neolithic phases (eight from the Iron Age context of Trench T). Although the size of the fragments and the distribution suggests a limited or restricted distribution of red deer across the site (Mainland et al 2020:268), there was no evidence of any purposeful deposition or caching of antler at the Ness, which was the same for all the other Neolithic sites I investigated.

The lack of antler is intriguing, and frustrating given how long Neolithic sites here were inhabited.

Ness of Brodgar antler finds

One explanation for the lack of antler could be preservation, except that settlement sites at Toftsness (Sanday), Pool (Sanday) and Skara Brae are machair sites with good levels of organic preservation. Maybe antler wasn’t recorded in antiquarian reports? Certainly, there are gaps in how faunal data was recorded prior to the 1920s, but excavations at the Ness and at the Links of Noltland, in Westray, are ongoing, and all other settlement sites have been excavated since 1920 using standardised methods of recording, so that is unlikely too.

The lack of naturally occurring flint in Orkney may be a factor. Why use an antler pick when a cattle shoulder blade will work better in the type of soils we have here? But why does Holm of Papay North have so much antler compared with other sites? Although they are fragmented, Harman (2009:52) suggests the 557 pieces equal 18 antlers, could this be evidence for caching? If so, why here and nowhere else?

The Holm of Papay North aside, it appears, therefore, that a lack of antler exploitation is the most likely explanation, especially when the antler NISPs are compared with later periods of deposition.

Antler exploitation over time

To explore this further I investigated the antler remains from multi-period sites such as Pool, Howe and the Point of Buckquoy (Birsay) which had continuous habitation from the Neolithic to the Norse period. The results show how the exploitation of antler increased dramatically after the Neolithic, reaching a peak during the late Iron Age – early Norse period, when antler comb production was at its height. The hunting and over utilisation of red deer for antler unfortunately led to their eventual extinction from the islands during the Norse period (Mulville 2015:291).

So, if antler exploitation wasn’t why red deer were translocated to Orkney, why were they so significant to Neolithic communities, and why were they specifically deposited in mortuary and settlement sites across the islands? The red deer remains deposited on top of the cattle tibiae in Structure Ten may help answer this and will be explored further in part two.


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