Assessment of our huge animal bone assemblage is under way

Animal bone deposit from within the Trench J baulk. (Sigurd Towrie)
A finds tray full of animal bone from a deposit within the Trench J baulk. (Sigurd Towrie)

Over the past few months UHI Archaeology Institute lecturer and freelance archaeozoologist Dr Julia Cussans has begun the not so small task of assessing the animal bone assemblage from the Ness of Brodgar excavation.

Sheep scapula with butchery marks across the neck.  (📷 Julia Cussans)
Sheep scapula with butchery marks across the neck. (📷 Julia Cussans)

Working in collaboration with Professor Ingrid Mainland, lead archaeozoologist for the project, the assessment is looking at the animal remains from each excavated context to determine which species were present, how many, and to get an idea of what further information can be gleaned through detailed analysis.

As part of the assessment Julia is looking for all sorts of points of interest that can further our understanding of the animals and people present at the Neolithic complex.

As well as determining the species and body parts present, she is looking evidence that can tell us about the age of the animals when they died – such as tooth eruption/wear and if the ends of the long bones (epiphyses) were fused (joined on to the shaft) or not.

She is also recording signs of injury, disease (pathology), butchery and other modifications, such as burning.

Examining the bones recovered during the 2022 excavation season, Julia has been able to make some interesting observations. The bone preservation at the site is very variable, with some contexts having nicely preserved bones and others containing only crumbling unidentifiable fragments.

Large mammal (probable cattle) skull fragment with butchery marks.  (📷 Julia Cussans)
Large mammal (probable cattle) skull fragment with butchery marks. (📷 Julia Cussans)

By far the most common species at the site, based on the number of bone fragments, is cattle. Sheep are also fairly numerous.

Pigs are present, but represented by only a tiny number of bones, as are dogs.

A small quantity of vole and bird bone was also present in the 2022 bone assemblage – the only wild animals (although we know from other investigations that red deer are also found in some parts of the site).

Initial investigations of the bird bones indicates that the majority of them likely belong to corvids (crow family).

The bones show that animals of a range of ages were present at the site, including babies or neonates. This suggests breeding on, or near, the site. Calves were the most numerous, but there is also evidence for young sheep and pigs.

High numbers of neonate cattle can be an indication of dairying practice, but much more detailed analysis will be be required to find out if this was the case at the Ness of Brodgar.

One of the final points of interest noted so far is the lovely butchery marks seen on some of the bones (see photos). Detailed analysis of these will show what sort of butchery techniques and tools were used and how the animal carcasses were divided and utilised.

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