A human jawbone with teeth has been found placed in a massive whalebone vertebra at a prehistoric cairn in Orkney

By Ben Miller | 08 July 2016

Prehistoric Scots put the human jawbone inside a whalebone in a “ritual of foundation or abandonment”

A photo of a section of bone in a prehistoric cairn in Orkney, scotland
This photo shows the burial assemblage of red deer antlers (top left), carved whalebone vertebrae (centre), human jawbone (right) and saddle quern (low centre) found by archaeologists at a prehistoric Orkney cairn© University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
In 1901, a local amateur antiquarian, the Reverend Alexander Goodfellow, made a strange discovery in Orkney.

Writing in a report for a group known as the Viking Club, he told of a “souterrain” – an earth-house, or an underground prehistoric passageway.

In the mid-20th century, the landowner’s father accidentally uncovered a narrow opening towards a large voided chamber. He hastily covered up the entrance on a site previously noted as “a mound of indeterminate nature”, with the exact location never recorded.

A photo of a section of bone in a prehistoric cairn in Orkney, scotland
© University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
Decades later, archaeologist Martin Carruthers and a team of excavators carried out geophysical detective work at the Cairns in an attempt to find out more about mysterious souterrain-style structures on the island of South Ronaldsay.

They found a well-preserved Bronze Age house full of invaluable leftovers at Windwick. But starting with a broch - a kind of prehistoric stone tower - the recent discoveries at The Cairns have been remarkable in their oddness.

“Let me give you some context,” says Carruthers. “Quite low down against the broch wall, a single tooth was discovered – quite worn and suspiciously human-like.

A photo of a section of bone in a prehistoric cairn in Orkney, scotland
© University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
“We were just digesting this fact when we found more human remains. This time we had uncovered a large piece of a human mandible – the lower jawbone.

“It was found about 40 centimetres to the south of the first tooth and the single tooth still present on this mandible appeared to be similarly worn to the first.”

They then noticed a whalebone and a set of full-length deer antlers. “They were laid out snug against each other and the southern side of the whalebone vessel, almost cradling it,” says Carruthers.

A photo of a section of bone in a prehistoric cairn in Orkney, scotland
© University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
“It now looks like the whole event that led to the deposition of the human jaw involved quite a formal laying out of the various objects – the whalebone, the deer antlers, a large saddle quern and stone mortar, as well as portions of a juvenile pig and a juvenile cattle vertebra.”

This extraordinary line-up, understates Carruthers, is “quite an interesting little assemblage”, drawn together “in a moment of reflection” by someone who put them on the ground before abandoning the broch and cramming it with rubble.

There could be more surprises when the team lifts the whalebone, but the human bones were a bit unexpected at a settlement site which had revealed few human parts until this week.

A photo of a section of bone in a prehistoric cairn in Orkney, scotland
© University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
Carruthers had been “constantly” considering the possibility of them appearing. “Iron Age settlement sites of the period do, fairly often, yield pieces of human skeletons,” he explains.

“Often these are only partial remains – an arm bone here, or a partially articulated hip and leg bone there. There are even fairly common occurrences of human heads, in particular, from Iron Age sites.”

The bones are not as ominous as you might think. “There’s nothing apparently sinister in all this. There’s not too much evidence that these are particularly gruesome outcomes of violent activity.

A photo of a section of bone in a prehistoric cairn in Orkney, scotland
© University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
“When you consider the context in which these remains have been found, interesting patterns emerge. Often, they turn up in deposits that are being formed at sites when there is major change under way.

“Frequently, they are found associated with the foundation and construction of major buildings, like broches and roundhouses, or sometimes towards the end of such buildings’ lives – when they’re in the process of decommissioning and abandonment.

“It looks like the deposition of these disarticulated human remains was not part of a funeral ritual. It’s not about dealing with the dead.

“The bones seem to have been used to make an even more significant act of these rituals of foundation or abandonment.”

The body parts could have been pretty old when they were buried, and might have been linked to high-status individuals. “Then the deposition of parts of these renowned persons, in foundations or in the infill of buildings, might have been an appropriate and powerful way of accentuating just how significant the lifecycles of these buildings actually were for the community,” says Carruthers.

“From the very preliminary information that we are able to work from just now, our human jaw  appears to be deposited in the context of the abandonment of the broch and its covering, both inside and out,  with rubble.

The jawbone appears to have been placed in a stone feature built against the broch wall and covered up by the rubble.”

The discovery was “sobering” and “sombre” for the excavators, who had been hugely excited by a perfectly-preserved chamber in the wall of the broch the previous day.

“As the dig came to a halt, everyone was drawn to the hole in the wall of the broch. Looking inside, we could see a wonderful complete and immaculate chamber set within the wall,” says Kevin Kerr, the Finds Supervisor of a job which required a few scrapes and half a bucket of removals to reveal itself.

“You can see the void as a dark patch above the rubble. The roof is still in place and the wall stonework also appears to be intact. We were the first people to see into this space for perhaps 2,000 years.”

Carruthers echoes his sense of incredulity when he describes the jawbone. “It really does pull you up short,” he says. “It reminds you in the most direct terms of the basic humanity of this place.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to find out more about cairns

, Redcar
The Street House Before the Saxons exhibition shows the varied range of sites, with finds demonstrating how people were living in this part of North East Yorkshire thousands of years ago. The excavations have found a Neolithic cairn from 3000 BC, Bronze Age burial sites, the remains of a timber house and two timber circles that date to around 2000 BC.

Maeshowe Chambered Cairn, Orkney
The finest megalithic tomb in the British Isles, with a large mound covering a stone-built passage and a large burial chamber with cells in the walls. Of Neolithic date, it was broken into in Viking times by people who carved extensive runic inscriptions on the walls.

Kilmartin Museum
Kilmartin Glen, in the heart of Mid Argyll, is one of Scotland's richest prehistoric landscapes. Over 800 historic monuments, cairns, standing stones, stone circles and rock art dating back over 5,000 years have been recorded within this area.
Latest comment: >Make a comment
Great insight in to our prehistoric past & roots. Great teamwork and effort by all those that work tirelessly out on the dig there, past and present.
More prehistoric digs should take place all over the UK, to help our better understanding our forefathers.
Thank you and best wishes.
Lady Dawn Hilton-McAlister. Lancashire UK.
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