Week 10: Animal totems

As mentioned in the post of week 6, there are two type of tombs: Orkney-Cromarty and Maeshowe. In both types of tombs, along with human remains, animal bones were also recovered. The animal bones were of domestic animals mostly which included cattle, sheep and small horses. The animals could have been ceremonial offerings or remains of ritual feasts. However, some species of animal bones were found to be offered at particular tombs and not commonly found in the other tombs like the domestic animals’. Some examples of such animals are, burial of complete carcasses of sea-eagles in the Isbister tomb, 36 red deer bones in Knowe of Yarso tomb, 24 dog skulls in Cuween Hill Cairn and otter bones in the tomb of the otters (Wickham-Jones, C.,2013). It is evident from this that during the Neolithic period certain animals were regarded as totem animals and may have represented certain tribes in that period.


Odyssey adventures in archaeology (2012). Megalithic tombs of Orkney. Available from http://www.odysseyadventures.ca/articles/orkney-tombs/orctombs.htm

Wickham-Jones, C. (2013). Orkney A Historical Guide. 4th ed. Edinburgh: Birlinn limited.

Week 9

By analysing non-metrical data from the two tribes, Bacon has suggested absence of any kind of family relationship between the two tribes. Bacon has taken the lower part of the tibia of the bones from the Isbister, Quanterness and also present day adult amputaions, and compare them with one another. This comparison allowed them to get an idea about how the lifestyle in the Neolithic is different to the modern days which is mentioned in the previous post. Figure 1 in the article “The dependence of human bone texture on life style” by Bacon, G.E. shows the difference in tibia in between the two tribes and also present day humans. He has looked at the radial distance of the tibia from which he studied the ability of the bones to withstand stress in the chosen direction for the 12 individuals in total.


They were also able to estimate the life expectancy during the Neolithic era as around 28 years which now, in the modern day is above 80 years of age for healthy individuals.


Bacon, G.E. (1990). The dependence of human bone texture on life style. Great Britain, 240, 363-370. Available from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.westminster.ac.uk/stable/49517?sid=primo&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents



Week 8: Comparison of bones of Isbister and Quanterness

In 1989 Bacon,G. E. compared two neolithic tribes using human bones from the Isbister tomb and the Quanterness tomb. He used Neutron diffraction method, application of neutron scattering to determine the atomic and magnetic structure of a material.  This technique was used to determine the orientation of the hydroxyapatite crystals at the lower front edge of the tibia in this study (Bacon, 1990). Hydroxyapatite crystals are inorganic mineral which includes calcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, calcium fluoride, calcium hydroxide and citrate and makes up about 70% of the bone (Petchey, no date).

According to Bacon, a  macroscopic study carried out by Chesterman, J.T. in 1981 suggested that people from the isbister tribe were muscular (both sexes), ankle joints had suffered much hard work carrying, pushing or pulling loads uphill. In the study, 57 out of 88 tibia from the isbister tomb showed ‘Squatting facet’ which indicated muscular effort and increased mobility of the joint. Depression of skull bones were also found which could have been due to bearing weight from a strap or rope over the head.

Unlike the Isbister tomb, the bones in the Quanterness showed no muscular development and only 1 squatting facet on an adult tibia was found. No skull depressions were found in the skulls from Quanterness.

The differences could be due to the geographical area the two tribes lived in. Isbister is located in the hilly area thus pulling of loads, climbing of hills resulted in more muscular work. Whereas the Quanterness is at ground level sloping gently to the sea.

I will provide more information of the conclusion and methods used for comparison and study of the bones from the tombs in next few weeks. I will also try to find articles that I can access as most of the articles were not accessible.


Bacon, G.E. (1990). The dependence of human bone texture on life style. Great Britain, 240, 363-370. Available from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.westminster.ac.uk/stable/49517?sid=primo&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Petchey, F. (no date). Bone. Available from http://www.c14dating.com/bone.html

Week 7: Quanterness (Maeshowe tomb)

Quanterness was opened and investigated in the 1800s by George Barry and reinvestigated by Colin Renfrew in 1972. The Maeshowe type tomb is located on the lower slope of Wideford Hill. The tomb measures 1.8 X 6.4 meters north-south.  As it can be seen in the picture, there are six side chambers and out of the six only four of them have the roofs intact.

This picture shows the plan of the tomb. out of the 6 side chambers 2 are collapsed. source: http://www.odysseyadventures.ca/articles/orkney-tombs/maeshowe_tombs-quanterness.htm

During the reinvestigation by Renfrew, southern chamber was excavated and contained a crouched skeleton covered by slabs while in the central chamber similar burial was found but placed in a stone-lined cist. The pits were covered by 3 layers of deposit containing about 90% of the human bones recovered from this tomb. The scattered bones belonged to about 157 individuals and represented both genders and all age group from infants to adults. Along with the human remains animal bones were also recovered, mostly of domestic animals like sheep and cattle. Artefacts like grooved ware sherds, an antler hammer and domestic tools were also found in this tomb. The domestic animal bones suggests that foods were offered and grave good as a part of rituals. In this tomb there were evidences of both excarnation as well as direct interment (Crouched skeleton). According to Odyssey, there were some evidence of burning the dead in the later periods.

I will try to more collect articles (peer reviewed) on dating of the bones and artefacts of this tomb.


Odessy adventures in archeology (2012). Available from http://www.odysseyadventures.ca/articles/orkney-tombs/maeshowe_tombs-quanterness.htm

Renfrew, C., Harkness, D. and Switsur, R. (1976). Quanterness, radiocarbon and the Orkney cairns. Antiquity, 50, pp 194-204. Available from http://journals.cambridge.org/action/loginShibb?jid=AQY