DNA from whale bones has revealed new clues about Iron Age life on Orkney and just how important cetaceans were for ancient islanders.

Preliminary results of genetic research into the whalebones from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research site at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, show that some very large whale species were sourced for tools, vessels and equipment during the period.

In the early summer, doctors Vicki Szabo, of the Western Carolina University, and Brenna Frasier, from St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia, collaborated with Dr Ingrid Mainland and Martin Carruthers at the UHI Archaeology Institute to examine the collection of whalebone artefacts recovered from The Cairns and Mine Howe excavations.

The aim of the research was to obtain genetic information in order to provide an assessment of what types of whalebone, or cetacean, were actually present at the sites.

The research is part of a large project which is investigating the use of whale bone in western Atlantic society over the last 1,000 years.

Dr Frasier and Dr Szabo are also following up on work completed in Orkney during February 2018 when they examined the whales found at Cata Sand and other whalebone artefacts from Orkney Museum.

Dr Carruthers, site director at The Cairns archaeology excavation, said: “Initial results from the study show some of the whale bones that were uncovered at

The Cairns were from very large types of whale including sperm whale and humpback.

“One surprise, though, is the appearance of fin whale. 

“Fin whales are the second largest species on the planet, after the blue whale itself, and can grow to 27 metres
in length.

“In particular, one very significant artefact from the Cairns site, is a very large vertebra from a fin whale, and that’s an item that was carved into a vessel or container. At the time of its discovery during the 2016 season it was found to contain a human jawbone and two neonatal lambs.

“The vessel had been placed just outside the broch wall, very close to the entrance, when the broch was put out of use around the mid-Second Century AD. As well as the whalebone vessel and jawbone, two red deer antlers had been propped against the vessel and a very large saddle quern, a grinding stone, had been positioned against the vessel to pin it firmly in place against the broch wall. All this treatment appears to have been part of the measures employed to perform an act of closure of the broch.”

There are several more fin whale items from the site so it should be possible to identify relationships between animals and also match bones across the area to the same animal.

Beyond the vessel, there is also a particular concentration of bone in the broch and scientists say it will be interesting to see what this research can reveal about the use of whalebone in this monumental Iron Age structure.

Fin whales are also among the fastest whales in the sea, capable of bursts of
45 km/h when hunting, or threatened, and they can dive fast and very deeply.
Indeed, in the modern era, the fin whale was only really hunted in large numbers once the explosive harpoon was invented and so it is unlikely to have been pursued in the Iron Age.

That does not mean 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 whalebone and species recognition from sites like The Cairns may shed light on this.