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

Red deer skull. Skaill, Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)
Red deer skull excavated at the Bay of Skaill, Orkney, in 2021. The skull and antler (the second antler had been recovered by a member of the public previously) lay approximately a mile to the north of Skara Brae. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Red deer deposition at the Ness of Brodgar and beyond
Part 2: The riddle of the red deer

By Kath Page

The second part of my University of the Highlands and Islands archaeology MLitt dissertation explored the purposeful deposition of animal remains in archaeological settings.

The second antler from the deer skull recovered from the Bay of Skaill in 2021. (Kath Page)
The second antler from the deer skull recovered from the Bay of Skaill in 2021. (📷 Kath Page)

Animal deposits can give an insight into how societies in the past interacted with them, and as we saw in part one, these remains can also provide information about the changing economic significance these animals held (Vigne 2017:70).

Zooarchaeological analysis can also provide a timeline of how and when certain animals were domesticated and changes to the farming, subsistence, and food processing practices associated with them (Madgwick and Mulville 2015:629).

As discussed previously, there is often a bias in archaeology towards domesticated animals and the importance that wild animals have on our wider understanding of the past can be overlooked (Schulting and Richards 2002:148).

Red deer often buck this trend (!) and their significance to people in prehistory has been subject to much debate.

Recent studies have focused on when red deer colonised the outer islands of Britain and the importance of their exploitation for meat, skins and antler. The significance held by red deer in prehistory, however, appears to be more than just resource exploitation (Conneller 2004:37), and that certainly seems to be the case at the Ness.

The themes associated with red deer in prehistory have long been assumed to relate to fertility and wildness (Overton and Taylor 2018:389, Sharples 2000:114), but my research suggests red deer also held a symbolic value that was of greater importance, associated with cultural identity (Orton 2010:196), something that the red deer found in Structure Ten can shed more light on.

Excavation of tombs and settlement sites across Orkney have uncovered the remains of many animals, including red deer. Intriguingly though, my analysis of the faunal reports from the Neolithic tombs across Orkney has revealed that:

  • Red deer remains within tombs are fragmented
  • Red deer are only found in stalled cairns or Maeshowe-type tombs
  • Red deer remains are commonly associated with immature lambs
  • There is little evidence for consumption associated with these remains.

But in settlement sites something very different is happening.

Red deer remains excavated at the Bay of Skaill, west of Skara Brae, in the 1990s. (📷 PSAS)

At the Links of Noltland (Westray) and at the Bay of Skaill (beside Skara Brae), red deer were deposited whole and unprocessed, and a review of the reports from the Point of Buckquoy (Birsay), suggests this may have been the case here too. Certainly, at Buckquoy and at the Ness of Brodgar portions of red deer were purposefully placed around the sites, mostly from the lower limbs.

In contrast however, at Toftsness and Pool (both in Sanday) there is nothing to suggest anything unusual about the deposition of red deer. Intriguingly, at these Sanday sites, there is also clear evidence that red deer were being consumed, evidence which is absent at the other settlement sites.

This may suggest that there were rules governing where and when red deer could be consumed, which supports the theory by Sharples (2000:107) and Reynolds (2012:179) of food taboos during the Neolithic.

To explore this further a review of radiocarbon dates was undertaken, and the results were surprising. What they showed was that the earliest red deer remains in mortuary settings were dated to after 3500BC, which supports the suggestion by Ritchie (2009:33) that red deer did not appear on the islands until 3000BC.

Radiocarbon dates
Radiocarbon dates

However, red deer do not appear in settlement contexts until after 2500BC and no longer appear in tombs after this date. At the Ness of Brodgar, the red deer in Structure Ten were deposited sometime around 2290–2125 cal BC, years after the cattle remains were placed around the structure.

Radiocarbon dates for Links of Noltland and Ness of Brodgar for red deer (RD), ovicaprids (SG) and cattle (Bos)
Radiocarbon dates for Links of Noltland and Ness of Brodgar for red deer (RD), ovicaprids (SG) and cattle (Bos)

These results suggest three things:

  • that red deer were specifically translocated to Orkney later in the Neolithic period and not for resource exploitation, but for their cultural value.
  • The time at which red deer were brought to Orkney coincides with a period of political and social change, when communities were moving from farmsteads to “big house” village settlements such as Skara Brae and the Links of Noltland.
  • The practice of depositing red deer in tombs stopped around 2500BC and red deer were deposited, whole, in some cases, at settlement sites. This date coincides with another time of social change, when villages began to be abandoned and burial practices changed, seemingly associated with the introduction of Beaker ware to Orkney (Clarke et al 2016:77)
Dr Julia Cussans, of the UHI Archaeology Institute, excavating the deer remains at the Bay of Skaill in November 2021. (Sigurd Towrie)
Dr Julia Cussans, of the UHI Archaeology Institute, excavating the deer remains at the Bay of Skaill in November 2021. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Interestingly, red deer were also translocated to many island communities across Europe during the later Neolithic and early Bronze Age, including Ireland, Crete and Cyprus, when similar societal change occurred (Carden et al 2012:74, Harris 2014:95, Vigne et al 2016:854). This may suggest that red deer held a significance aligned with their cultural value, associated with identity and status at a time of an emerging elite within prehistoric societies.

Deer skull/antler. Bay of Skaill. 2021. (Sigurd Towrie)
Deer skull/antler. Bay of Skaill. 2021. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

The move to depositing red deer in settlement sites, such as at Structure Ten, suggests that during this time of political and societal change, focus shifted away from the ancestors and the significance of red deer was now tied to the identity of this new elite, and may have come to represent endings or even new beginnings.

Generally, the economy of cattle and sheep have thought to have been of primary concern to people in the Neolithic and the importance of wild resources often overlooked.

However, this study has shown that none domesticated animals may have held cultural and economic importance in prehistory that we have not fully appreciated.

The recent discoveries of red deer deposits eroding out of the Bay of Skaill (pictured), close to Skara Brae, and at other sites across the archipelago, such as Moaness in Rousay, may further our understanding on cultural practices during the Orcadian Neolithic, such as food taboos and embargos on the consumption of venison.

However, in the meantime, we still need to better understand the role red deer played in the Orcadian Neolithic, so, just for now, the riddle of the red deer continues…


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