The Cairns broch, looking across to the North Sea.
[Image: Andrew Hollingrake / UHI Archaeology Institute]
Recent DNA analysis of whalebone artefacts found at The Cairns, Orkney, has shed light on the relationship between these marine mammals and the site’s Iron Age community, as well as hinting why the large local broch may have been demolished in the 2nd century AD.
Excavations at The Cairns, near Winwick Bay on South Ronaldsay, Orkney, have been carried out by the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) since 2006. These investigations have uncovered the remains of an Iron Age stone tower, or broch, which was deliberately dismantled (see CA 275) as well as later Iron Age structures. The site has also yielded a variety of artefacts, more than 30 of which were made of whalebone – this included a large vessel that had been carved from a whale vertebra (see CA 323), found just outside the broch’s entrance and containing the lower jawbone of an older man who died c.AD 120–240.
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