Wild things? Further research on the prehistory of red deer in Orkney

Deer cranium/antlers from Moaness, Rousay (Kath Page)
Deer cranium/antlers from Moaness, Rousay (📷 Kath Page)

By Kath Page

Back in 2016, a joint research project explored the origins of red deer translocation to the Western and Northern Isles by investigating the DNA of deer remains at prehistoric sites, including the Ness of Brodgar.

Kath Page examining the deer remains from Skaill, Orkney.
Kath Page examining the deer remains from Skaill, Orkney.

As with most research projects, even when completed, more questions than answers remain. One question, in particular, which required further exploration was the unique genetic make up of the Ness of Brodgar red deer.

Where did these deer originate from? And when were they introduced to Orkney?

Understanding when and how red deer were moved to the Atlantic fringes of Scotland has recently become the subject of much debate.  Due to uncontrolled herd numbers, hybridisation and concerns around the transmission of tick-borne Lyme’s disease and TB to cattle, red deer herds in South Uist and Caithness have been considered for enforced culls under the Deer (Scotland) Act (1996).

In October 2022, I was awarded funding from the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities to explore the relationship between people and red deer across prehistory and across Scotland.

Using a case study approach, the aim is to better understand the nature of the economic and symbolic value of red deer in the past and how this informs the modern day.

The project will explore the faunal assemblages from the Ness of Brodgar and The Cairns, and revisit the assemblages from past excavations – such as the Knowes of Yarso and Ramsay – to answer new questions on whether prehistoric response to climate crises can inform us on human responses to our modern climate emergency.

Professors Ingrid Mainland and Jaqui Mulville at Ness HQ. (Kath Page)
Professors Ingrid Mainland and Jacqui Mulville at Ness HQ examining deer remains from Structure Ten. (📷 Kath Page)

My research will also be contributing to a new project, funded by the British Academy, which will bring together archaeologists, zooarchaeologists and geneticists from UHI Archaeology Institute, Cardiff University, Dublin Trinity College and Purdue College, West Lafayette, Indiana, to further explore distinctive and sustainable ways of living with wild animals.

This project will explore how, and when, red deer were introduced to the islands and how people interacted with them.

As part of this project, Professor Jacqui Mulville, from Cardiff University, visited the Archaeology Institute to meet with Professor Ingrid Mainland, Dr Julia Cussans and myself to plan the project and to select red deer remains from the Ness of Brodgar’s Structure Ten for analysis.

Petrous bone. (Kath Page)
Petrous bone. (📷 Kath Page)

Due to the exceptional preservation of the deer assemblage from the Ness, long bones – such as the femur, humerus, ulna, radius, and metatarsals – will be measured to better understand the size, age and health of the population.

Also, petrous bone was selected from the assemblage for DNA analysis. The petrous is a small, dense bone located behind the ear in the internal cavity of the skull.

Its location and size mean that these bones survive very well and are therefore well suited for ancient DNA extraction. This will give further data on where the Orkney deer came from.

These projects are both in the early stages and updates will be forthcoming but are further examples of the national and international importance of the Ness of Brodgar and the archaeology of Orkney.

Petrous bones. (Kath Page)
Petrous bones. (📷 Kath Page)

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