Analysis of Cata Sand Shells And Whalebone Under Way

By Sigurd Towrie

Analysis of the whalebone and shells recovered during the excavations at Cata Sand, Sanday, Orkney, is under way at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

A joint project between the UHI Archaeology Institute and the University of Central Lancashire, the excavations, in 2017 and 2018, produced a number of artefactual and environmental finds.

Most of the Cata Sand archaeological material dates to the Neolithic, and the remains of a Neolithic house was found eroding out of the sand. The conditions allow for good survival of mammal, fish and bird bone, as well as marine shell. Surprisingly, the excavators also found the remains of about a dozen post-medieval whales buried in two long pits dug into the top of the Neolithic settlement.

Post-excavation processing is now under way to sort the finds and environmental material – firstly to select mammal bone for radiocarbon dating, and secondly to start asking questions about how people were using animals in the past.

UHI Archaeology Institute student Lucy Morris is researching the post-medieval whales for her Masters dissertation.

Lucy is currently compiling a complete catalogue of the remains – counting and documenting all of the bones, including measuring and photographing them.

The whales, which probably date from the 18th or 19th century, are missing their heads, which could relate to the historical practices of dividing up the carcasses between the hunters, the landowners and the local representatives of the Crown.

Lucy is looking carefully for any evidence of butchery or processing. Samples taken for genetic testing indicate that these were long-finned pilot whales, Globicephala melas, a member of the dolphin family (samples were kindly processed by Vicki Szabo, funded by the National Science Foundation, Arctic Social Sciences Program).

These are social animals who live in pods, and who were traditionally hunted in the North Atlantic for their meat and blubber. Were these a deliberate catch, or were they the result of natural stranding? These are some of the questions that Lucy is exploring.

She will also be spending time in the Orkney and Shetland Archives, researching the post-medieval use of whales in the Northern Isles.

Work on the marine shells has also started. This large shell assemblage comprises a variety of species, including limpets, whelks and oysters.

Holly Young, who is about to start her PhD looking at marine shells in the Scottish Iron Age, is analysing the assemblage.

Other Neolithic sites in Orkney have produced shells, but some iconic sites, like the Ness of Brodgar, have very poor shell preservation.

The thousands of shells recovered from Sanday will allow us to investigate how people were using the inshore region and the inter-tidal zone in the Neolithic.

Many thanks to Sigurd Towrie for permission to republish his article and to Bernie Bell for sending it into The Orkney News

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