Focus on finds – Structure Ten’s sea eagle foundation deposit

“Sea eagles constitute the example of a bird par excellence, being the largest bird in Neolithic Orkney and the bird which is able to fly the highest.”
A. Jones. Where Eagles Dare: landscape, animals and the Neolithic of Orkney. (1998)
White-tailed eagle. (📷 Jacob Spinks, via Wikimedia Commons)
White-tailed eagle. (📷 Jacob Spinks, via Wikimedia Commons)
2019: Andy Boyar excavating the sea eagle bone in Structure Ten. (📷 Ole Thoenies)

In August 2019, the Ness of Brodgar excavation site was buzzing following what appeared to be the discovery of a second human arm bone in Structure Ten.

The bone was one of a number of presumed votive deposits placed under the buttresses added during the second-phase reconstruction of Structure Ten. Others included a carved stone ball, an ornately decorated stone and a human humerus.

However, back in the lab, fully extracted from its midden cocoon and cleaned, it was clear to our human bone specialist, Andy Boyar, that what we had was the wing bone of a very large bird!

Although comparisons with material from the UHI Archaeology Institute’s skeletal reference collection failed to find an exact match, our bird bone expert, Cecily Webster, had no doubt.

The ulna belonged to an adult, female white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla).

2019: Andy Boyar excavating the sea eagle bone in Structure Ten.
2019: A delicate operation. (📷 Ole Thoenies)
“Swooping from their eyries on the Dwarfie Hammers of Hoy, eagles wheeled and circled over the hill-commons, selecting their victims at will. There was no lack of feeding for birds of prey when the flocks wandered unattended over lonely moors.”
Daniel Gorrie. Summers and Winters in the Orkneys. (1868)

Prior to the breed’s re-establishment in 2015, the last pair in Orkney were recorded in Hoy in 1873. [1]

By 1916, sea eagles, as they are also known, had been eradicated across most of Scotland – targeted by landowners, crofters, farmers, fishermen and hunters. [2]

From historical accounts we know these magnificent birds, with their 2.25-metre wingspan, were once common in Orkney. In 1693, Rev James Wallace wrote:  “Eagle or Earns, … are here in plenty, and very harmfull to the young store: Yea they have been found to seise upon young Children, and carry them a good way off…[3]

The archaeological evidence suggests the situation was no different in prehistory.

2019: The sea eagle ulna in situ. (📷 Ole Thoenies)
2019: The sea eagle ulna in situ. (📷 Ole Thoenies)

3d model of the in situ eagle bone.

The deliberate deposition of the wing bone in Structure Ten suggests that the sea eagle held some special significance to our Neolithic ancestors – a subject that has been a topic of discussion for many years.

In Orcadian prehistory they are perhaps best known from the Isbister chambered cairn in South Ronaldsay.

Its excavation produced the remains of numerous birds – the majority of which (641) were identified as white-tailed eagle. These represented at least eight individuals [4], although the actual number has been suggested as being around 23. [5]

The discovery led to Isbister earning the title “Tomb of the Eagles” and, like the Cuween dogs, led to the idea that sea eagles were totem animals to those who built and used the clifftop cairn. [6]  

But more recent research suggests otherwise.

In 2006, new radiocarbon dates from a project looking at animal remains in Scottish chambered cairns, suggested the Isbister birds had nothing to do with the cairn builders. [7]

They died between 2450BC and 2050BC, meaning they were placed in the chamber up to 1,000 years after it was built. [8]

This fits with a pattern noted in 2017, suggesting that the deposition of animal remains in Orkney’s chambered cairns continued long after the inhumation of human remains had ceased. [9]

It also explains the presence of eagle bone at other Orcadian chambered cairns, including the Point of Cott (Westray), Midhowe (Rousay), the Calf of Eday Long and Knowe of Ramsay (Rousay).

At the Point of Cott, for example, the large number of sea eagle bones post-date the human remains by centuries and were deposited in the Bronze Age, long after structure had been substantially damaged. The excavation evidence led to the suggestion that the birds were using the remains of the abandoned cairn as a nesting site. [10]

The Midhowe eagle bone was found in collapse debris in the site’s upper layers, perhaps suggesting natural intrusion. However, an unknown quantity was also recorded in one of the chamber’s compartments, this time apparently in the same context as the Neolithic human remains. [11]

In 1937, something similar was noted in the Calf of Eday Long, where a single coracoid bone was found in one of the compartments. From the excavation report, however, it is difficult to tell whether this represents deliberate deposition. [12]

Another sea eagle coracoid bone was the only evidence of bird remains in a cell at the Knowe of Ramsay. [13]

But although the Isbister and Point of Cott eagles were clearly later additions, there is no doubt that the Structure Ten wing bone was deliberately placed around 2800BC. 

Its inclusion under the buttresses, along with the other artefacts, bears the hallmarks of a foundation deposit – objects that were perhaps placed to sanctify, purify or protect the building and ensure its longevity.

An intriguing element is what, if anything, connected the human bone to the avian one?

Why were they both selected for deposition? Was the bone a tool, charm or amulet? A hunting trophy? Was the life or death of the humerus owner linked to the bird? If so, did the other artefacts also belong to, or represent, that single individual? Or were they simply unrelated components of a prescribed foundation “ritual”?

We will never know.

“[B]ut [the pastures] are much infested by a small species of Eagle or Erne, which carries off the lambs, and that to the distance of three or four miles, for it is with the greatest truth observable that the Eagle never preys near her own nest, an observation long ago made and confirmed by daily experience.”
George Low. Tour through the islands of Orkney and Schetland in 1774.
White-tailed eagle. (📷 Jacob Spinks, via Wikimedia Commons)

Across the world, the eagle is found in myths and traditions of people throughout history. In some the bird represented gods or divine messengers, while others saw eagles as shepherding or carrying the souls of the dead to the next. [14]

Obviously, we have no way of knowing what the eagle represented to Neolithic Orcadians, but going on more recent traditions and folklore, it is not unreasonable to assume it had some place in their stories or beliefs.

Throughout history farming communities regarded the huge birds as a threat to young livestock – something that persisted and led to sea eagles’ extinction in Orkney in the late 19th century.

In historic times, the scale of this perceived danger was such that belief in “spells” to force hunting eagles to drop their prey (including the apocryphal accounts of child abduction) endured until at least the 18th century. [15]

“In the [loch] a couple of Sea Eagles had fixed their residence for ages, on a small rock or holm, but the country people, wearied with their devastations, had fallen upon a method of dislodging them by swimming to the holm on floats and destroying their young ones.”
George Low. Tour through the islands of Orkney and Schetland in 1774.

To hunt a sea-eagle in prehistory would not have been a particularly easy task. The birds generally nest on high cliffs and rocky outcrops, so eagle hunts – for whatever reason – would have been risky undertakings.

But with that risk came the reward. That may simply have been glory, but success may also have conferred a special status on the hunter(s) and the bird’s remains, the fruit of dangerous activities [16], also taking on a special significance.

While the feathers could have been used for arrow-fletching, they were perhaps also prized for personal adornment and decoration. At the Ness of Brodgar, for example, the grandeur of the buildings and artefacts must surely have been matched by the personal attire.

Garments and jewellery embellished with the bones, talons and feathers of an eagle must have stood out! And perhaps marked the wearer as someone particularly exceptional.

The huge, ornately decorated stone placed underneath one of the the Structure Ten buttresses.

Taken together, the nature of the elaborate Structure Ten deposit and archaeological evidence from other sites does suggest sea eagles had a special place in Neolithic life – in Orkney and beyond.

At Coneybury Henge, in Wiltshire, England, for example, the primary fill of the southern ditch contained 13 sea eagle bones from a context dating to around 2900-2600BC. These were bones from a left wing, with some vertebrae, probably from the same individual. [17]

The presence of this coastal bird so far inland led to suggestions that the remains were deliberately carried to the site.

Back in Orkney, the Ness eagle bone marked the foundation of a building. At the “Grobust House” at Westray’s Links of Noltland, however, the body of a sea eagle formed part of its closing deposit. After going out of use, the building was partially dismantled and the eagle carcass placed alongside two cattle skulls on the rubble infill. [18]

Why was the bird used to mark the “death” of a building?

In has been suggested that, in the Neolithic, the sea eagle was considered a liminal creature because it could move between land, sky and sea? If, as has been speculated, most Neolithic bodies ended up in the sea, were the diving eagles thought to be travellers to and from the realm of the dead?

An association with the dead could go some way to explain their (and other seabirds) presence in those chambered cairns where their remains cannot be explained as natural intrusions.

Notes

  • [1]Fifty years ago, the Erne, as the white-tailed eagle is called in the Orkneys and Shetland, bred on the Red Head of Eday, Costa Head in Birsay, White Breast, Dwarfie Hamars, the Old Man, Berry Head, and Braebrough in Hoy and in South Ronaldsay…How numerous the eagles must have been [in Orkney] in former times is shown by the numerous references to them in the Old Country Acts.” (Tudor, J. R. The Orkneys and Shetland. 1883)
  • [2]We have a Law that if any kill one of the Eagles or Earns, he is to have a Hen out of every house in the parish, in which it is killed.” wrote Wallace in 1693. In later years a bounty was placed on the heads of birds of prey: “As eagles were numerous, any one slaying an ‘earn’ could claim 8d. from each ‘reik’ in the parish, except in the case of cottars who owned no sheep; and the head of each eagle so slain the bailie had to present at the next court; and for harrying an earn’s nest the destroyer was entitled to 20s.” (Tudor, J. R. The Orkneys and Shetland. 1883).
  • [3] Wallace, J. (1693) A Description of the Isles of Orkney.
  • [4] British Archaeology 86, January/February 2006.
  • [5] Hedges, J.W. (1984) Tomb of the Eagles: A Window on Stone Age Tribal Britain.
  • [6] The quantity of eagle remains also led to the hypothesis that the birds played a role in defleshing the corpses of those interred within the chamber. The idea of excarnation taking place at Isbister and Quanterness is now considered unlikely following modern reassessment of their skeletal assemblage. More details here and here.
  • [7] By Finbar McCormick, Queens University Belfast, and Alison Sheridan, National Museums of Scotland.
  • [8] British Archaeology 86, January/February 2006.
  • [9] Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of history: the Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), 1171-1188.
  • [10] Barber, J. (1997) The excavation of a stalled cairn at the Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney Edinburgh: Star Monograph I.
  • [11] Callander, J.G. and Grant, W.G. (1934) A long stalled chambered cairn or mausoleum (Rousay type) near Midhowe Rousay, Orkney. With a description of the skeletal remains. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 68, 1933-4.
  • [12] Calder, C. T. (1937) A Neolithic double-chambered cairn of the stalled type and later structures on the Calf of Eday, Orkney. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland Volume 71, 1936-37.
  • [13] Callander and Grant, J.G. and W.G. (1936) A stalled cairn, the Knowe of Ramsey, at Hullion, Rousay, Orkney. (1936) In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 70 (1935-36).
  • [14] Coleman, J.A. (2007) The Dictionary of Mythology. London: Arcturus.
  • [15] Brand, J. (1703) A New description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland-Firth, and Caithness.
  • [16] Jones, A., 1998. Where Eagles Dare: landscape, animals and the Neolithic of Orkney. Journal of material culture, 3(3), pp.301-324.
  • [17] Richards, J. (1990) The Stonehenge Environs Project. London: HBMCE.
  • [18] Clarke, D.V. and Sharples, N. (1985) Settlement and Subsistence. In Renfrew, C. (ed) The Prehistory of Orkney, E.U.P. Edinburgh.

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