Mammals in Late Neolithic Orkney (with reference to mammal bone recovered from Links of Noltland, Westray)
Fraser, Sheena Mary
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Excavation of thirty skulls, twenty-eight cattle and two sheep from the foundation course of a Late Neolithic structure at Links of Noltland (LON), Structure 9, is the starting point for this thesis, which investigates the economic and socio-cultural relationships of cattle and other mammals on Orkney communities between 3000 and 2500 BC. The LON settlement was located on a machair plain in Westray, the most N-W island within the Orkney archipelago (HY 428 493). Male and female cattle skulls were inter-mixed within the LON foundation course so a “bull cult” is not represented. The sequence from living skulls to skulls “animating the building is (i) breed/acquire (ii) nurture (iii) cull/butcher (iv) consume (v) transform to object (vi) curate (vii) deposit. A skull deposit infilling an internal passageway from another LON, Structure 18, is compared and contrasted with the Structure 9 foundation deposit. Special treatment of cattle skulls from a wide range of European and Near-East sites is also reviewed to emphasise the widespread use of this symbol during the Neolithic period. Orkney was separated from mainland Scotland prior to the establishment of the LON settlement so consideration is given to modes of arrival for mammals and their impact on this depauperate archipelago. Cattle and sheep dominated the domestic mammal remains examined, pig and dog were rare and goat and horse absent. The most abundant non-domestic mammals were red deer and Orkney voles, but otters and sea mammals were also present in low numbers. Genetic studies indicate that one cattle skull carried genetic material from aurochs, wild cattle. To date there is sparse evidence of interbreeding between wild aurochs and Neolithic domesticated cattle in Europe and none in Britain. The alterative explanation that aurochs were already present on Orkney during the Neolithic is explored. Articulated red deer deposits from LON were also examined. Although previous publications explored the possibility that these deposits are “ritual” other possible explanations for these deposits are outlined. No parallels were noted between the cattle skull and articulated red deer deposits, but the importance of antler for practical and symbolic use in Neolithic Orkney may be under-estimated. Stature of cattle remained relatively stable during the Mid to Late Neolithic in Orkney but underwent diminution by the Iron Age. A similar, but less marked reduction was also noted for sheep, but red deer already had small stature compared with early Holocene mainland Scotland red deer. The thesis concludes that cattle, sheep and red deer were of fundamental importance to the Neolithic society of Orkney, providing surplus food, tools and possibly traction, to support an increasingly sophisticated Neolithic society undertaking construction of complex structures and monuments. In addition, cattle fulfilled an important role in their cultural and spiritual life.