The significance of cattle at the Ness Neolithic complex

A herd of modern-day beef cattle in Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)
A herd of modern-day beef cattle in Orkney. (πŸ“· Sigurd Towrie)

Well over 175,000 fragments of animal bone have been recovered from the Ness of Brodgar site, 85 per cent of which belonged to cattle.

The dominance of cattle at the Ness is in contrast with the picture elsewhere in Orkney, where sheep were most common. That cattle were considered significant by Neolithic farmers is clear from bone deposits that reflected the special treatment given to selected remains.

A tray full of cattle teeth. Given their position in a surviving section of Structure Eleven, these were likely to have been attached to the animal's mandible, which has not survived. (Sigurd Towrie)
A tray full of cattle teeth. Given their position in a surviving section of Structure Eleven, these were likely to have been attached to the animal’s mandible, which has not survived. (πŸ“· Sigurd Towrie)

Cattle bone is found in deposits in buildings and chambered cairns.

At Westray’s Links of Noltland, for example, 28 cattle skulls formed a foundation deposit of a structure while at Toftsness and Pool, in Sanday, cattle remains were also carefully placed. Here at the Ness of Brodgar cattle bone deposits have been found in various contexts, but most significantly around Structure Ten.

These bones suggest the Ness cattle were, like those elsewhere in Orkney at that time, long-horned.

These were large animals β€” they were also slightly larger than those elsewhere in the British Isles at this time β€” standing c.1.3-1.5 m at the shoulder. This is similar in height to modern Charolais (creamy white) and Simmentals (brown) and considerably larger than cattle found in later prehistoric periods.

At both the Links of Noltland and the Ness of Brodgar there are examples of very large individuals which overlap in size with female aurochs – wild cattle which are known to have been present in Mainland Scotland during the Neolithic.

Rosaline, Sarah and Gary relocate our model bull to his daily location on site in 2022. (Jo Bourne)
2022: Rosalind, Sara and Gary relocate our model Neolithic bull to his daily location on site. (πŸ“· Jo Bourne)

DNA analysis suggested the browns and whites used in the colouring of our model bull – created by Jan Blatchford, Cecily Webster and Alfred Flett Ltd – whose size was based on information from the bone assemblage at the Ness.  Imagine a landscape grazed by these animals, herded by children and dogs, kept away from crops, brought to water several times a day.

Cattle held a special place at the centre of farming, producing manure, milk and beef, not to mention hides, bones, hooves – every scrap was used.

The evidence from the Ness suggests there were two main slaughter ages for cattle:

  • 1 to 8 months – probably relating to the slaughter of calves to get milk from their mothers and/or to use their skins for clothing etc.
  • 30 to 36 months – the optimum age for beef production.

The emphasis on prime beef animals, the huge quantities of recovered bone and the numbers of animals this represents, suggests feasting was important – using meat, marrow and perhaps milk as favoured elements of these communal events. 

Dr Ingrid Mainland working on the bone spread around Structure Ten. (ORCA)
Professor Ingrid Mainland working on the cattle bone spread around Structure Ten. (πŸ“· ORCA)

The extraordinary scale of the consumption is implied by the volume of cattle bone surrounding Structure Ten.

While this is remarkable enough, it is all the more so because of the care taken in the selection and arrangement of skulls and split tibiae around the perimeter of the monumental building, which, by this time, had been turned into a massive cairn.

In that setting it may be useful to think of consumption being linked to commemorative events in which importance was attached to the prior history of Structure Ten itself.

That said, the fact that the building was subsequently robbed for the systematic retrieval of building stone may also indicate that the feeding of large numbers was as much associated with new projects as with the remembrance of what had gone before.

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