The Cairns Broch and a Fin Whale – The End of Two Giants

“This research helps us to recognise the significant role that the treatment of the fin whale had in the dramatic procedures of deliberately ending of the monumental broch.” – Martin Carruthers

The Cairns B Bell

The Cairns Photo B Bell

Results of DNA investigations undertaken on a large collection of whale bone from the archaeological dig at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay are revealing a glimpse into Orkney’s pre-historical past.

The Iron Age Broch – The Cairns

The excavations of the Iron  Age site, The Cairns,  are being conducted by  the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

The findings are revealing a glimpse into the complex relationship of Iron Age communities with whales. The identification of multiple whale bones as belonging to a single large fin whale shows how its carcass was ceremonially used and deposited during the ending of the monumental broch.

The Cairns fin whale vessel

The fin whale vessel just outside the broch entrance. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

Examining Whale Bones

In the early Summer of 2019, Dr Vicki Szabo (Western Carolina University, North Carolina) and Dr Brenna Frasier (Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia) collaborated with Martin Carruthers (University of the Highlands & Islands Archaeology Institute), to examine the collection of whale bone artefacts recovered from The Cairns excavations.

The Cairns whalebone Photo UHI Archaeology

Dr Vicki Szabo preparing one of the larger whalebone artefacts from The Cairns excavation Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

The aim of the research was to obtain genetic information in order to provide an assessment of what species of whale were present at the sites.

The archaeology team unearthed a large volume of whale bone from the broch site, but were especially surprised at the volume of bone belonging to fin whale species.

Fin whale The Cairns

One of the large pieces of fin whale bone from the period at the end of The Cairns Broch Photo Andrew Hollingrake

Fin whales are the second largest species on the planet, after the blue whale itself, and can grow to 27 metres in length. Fin whales are  amongst the fastest whales in the sea, capable of bursts of 45kph when hunting, or threatened, and they can dive fast and very deeply.

In the modern era, the fin whale was only really hunted in large numbers once the explosive harpoon was invented.

fin whale

Fin Whale By Aqqa Rosing-Asvid – Visit Greenland (Flickr: Finhval) via Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists think it is unlikely to have been hunted in the Iron Age and that the  example at The Cairns appears to be a stranded individual. That does not mean that other types of whale were not hunted, and the question of whether some whales were pro-actively sourced during the Iron Age remains unanswered. In time, further study of patterns of whale bone and species recognition from sites like The Cairns may shed light on this.

The international team will now go on to examine in detail 33 whale bone items with 20 pieces originating from the fin whale species and remarkably and it is likely that all these fin whale items (except one) are from the same animal. This means that a single, large, fin whale may have been utilised during the last occupation and abandonment of the broch.

Some of the whale bone unearthed at The Cairns broch, Orkney. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

Some of the whale bone unearthed at The Cairns broch, Orkney. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

The bones appear to relate to feasting that took place to mark the end of the broch. Some of the whale bones have chop-marks present showing signs of butchery and perhaps bone-working. Others are slightly singed from being subjected to direct heat.

The fin whale bones were found in a range of contexts across the broch – some of the bones were excavated from the uppermost floor deposits of the broch, while others were stuffed into gaps in its walls and used to infill the broch during the final abandonment.

The Cairns Martin Carruthers FGMartin Carruthers, Site Director of The Cairns and UHI Lecturer in Archaeology said:

“It’s just amazing to be able to say with confidence that so many of these whale bones, including the vessel with the human jawbone, actually belong to the same animal – especially as we’ve recovered them from the site over a number of different seasons, not knowing all along that the spread of bone belonged to one huge beast.

“We had some suspicions that something particularly interesting was going on with the amount of whale bone that was emerging from the end of our broch, but we’d never have managed to get to this level of certainty without the input and collaboration with Brenna and Vicki.

“One of the most important things, from my point of view, is how this research helps us to recognise the significant role that the treatment of the fin whale had in the dramatic procedures of deliberately ending of the monumental broch”.

Whale bone seems to have been a highly important material for Iron Age communities. The appearance of these ocean giants on local beaches, when stranded, must have occasioned opportunities to recover a large volume of meat, oil (fuel for lamps), as well as a substantial resource for making objects.

Whale bone-work included items such as the large vessel found in 2016, but also tool-making and even for architectural purposes such as large ribs used as roof rafters. It is possible that a stranding of a major animal, like a massive fin whale, would have represented a huge contribution to the community’s resources.

Vicki Szabo suggests:

“As a free and scavenged resource, whale provides a large volume of high value protein. Large whales are generally 14+% body weight bone, which means that a fin whale represents a massive quantity of soft tissue, meat and blubber at around 70%”.

This amount of food availability may have served to energise the community living at the broch, providing additional assurance of a successful year for the community. Perhaps a stranding may have permitted projects that might otherwise have been thought risky, making them more manageable.

Whale bone used as a chopping block at The Cairns Broch. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

Whale bone used as a chopping block at The Cairns Broch. Photo UHI Archaeology Institute

The Ending of The Broch

At The Cairns, this whale bonanza could have included support for a major undertaking such as ending the broch itself, a structure that had dominated the local landscape and society for generations. It would have been no minor activity to demolish the upper parts of the massive and complex broch, and it is likely that the work of rendering it down would have had some serious consequences for the settlement, at the heart of which, lay the broch. It would have been a physically arduous and time-consuming process, probably involving many people, taking them away from other important tasks required of this busy farming group.

There is growing evidence that the period around the 2nd Century AD was a time when many brochs were coming to their end, at least in their initial form as high-walled, tower-like buildings. Perhaps it may be argued that the appearance of such a large beast stranded on the foreshore meant more to Iron Age communities than just a resource. In many non-Western societies, and, indeed, many ancient European ones, sudden natural phenomena such as the highly prominent death of a significant type of animal may be seen as a sign, an auspicious, or inauspicious, omen.

Even though stranding may have been more common with a larger population of whales thought to exist in prehistory, it might be that both the practical impact, and the psychological effects of the appearance of a big stranded whale created the critical timing and final motivation for major change.

The Cairns

The Cairns Credit: UHI Institute of Archaeology

2 replies »

  1. Thank you for another piece towards completing the mysteries surrounding our ancient ancestors, well done for this knowledge.

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