Holm of Papa Westray North
06 Aug 2008
The Society helped to fund the analysis of fishbone from this well-known Neolithic chambered tomb in Orkney. Jennifer Harland and Rachel Parks present their results from the analysis.
The fish assemblage from the Holm of Papa Westray North provides an interesting and unusual insight into the archaeology of a chambered tomb. This collection has been recovered by both sieving and exceptionally precise hand collection, and thus can provide a variety of information about the species of fish exploited, their sizes, and association information regarding their provenance, including fishing methods. Analysis is still ongoing but it is already apparent that the assemblage is the result of different accumulation processes.
The fish bones can be split into two taphonomic groups. The first comprises species that were most likely deliberately targeted for their food value by humans. Large cod family fish, including cod, saithe, pollack and ling have been recovered, some of which are considerable in size and would have been caught from deep, offshore waters, most likely using a hook and line. Large conger eels, megrim and various wrasse species are also found in this category. Some of the larger ling and cod vertebrae have pierced vertebral centres; these are from large fish, sometimes of greater than one metre in length, and have been found in different contexts across the site. Parallels from Skara Brae (Jones unpublished report) were interpreted as the result of chewing and digestion. While chewing action by carnivores can cause distinctive puncture marks, the precise positioning and selection of larger vertebrae from cod family species suggests these were caused by deliberate, human action. Although the human isotopic record for the Scottish Neolithic generally suggests very low levels of marine protein were being consumed, the evidence from the fishbones suggests a deliberate and routine exploitation of fish species. These were likely consumed in small quantities, perhaps seasonally or sporadically (which would account for the apparently low consumption of marine protein) as well as being used for ornamental purposes. The second group of fish recovered from the site is very different. The bones are from small fish, the majority of which are less than 30cm in length, and include rocklings, saithe, butterfish and eel. Some of the specimens show signs of having been chewed and they are from contexts typically dominated by fish, with small mammal and shellfish remains also present. Given these characteristics, it is likely that much of this material is otter spraint. Otters consume large quantities of small, inshore fish species, and they prefer to live in 'holts', secure tunnel systems near the coast. They will readily reuse buildings and other human-constructed sites, and will continue to use them over several generations. Their spraint (distinctive droppings) is deposited within their holts, as well as outside, and again sprainting sites will continue in use over a long time period. Otters will also scavenge carrion, including the remains of larger fish, but the distinctive crushing marks made by otters were mostly absent from the remains of larger fish attributed to anthropogenic origin, making it possible to separate the two taphonomic groups. However, one fish-rich deposit is notably different, both in the amount of material (9kg) and because of the presence of small stones. The material may be the result of human activity but at this stage of analysis it is unclear if repeated sprainting can be ruled out.
The issue of human versus animal deposition is not restricted to the Holm of Papa Westray North. Despite large quantities of fish bone from other chambered tombs on Orkney, such as Isbister and Quanterness, there is little unambiguous evidence of human fishing activity from these sites. Indeed, from Scotland as a whole the evidence for fishing in the Neolithic is relatively scarce. The fish bone assemblage from the Holm of Papa Westray North therefore makes a valuable contribution not only to our understanding of the role of fish at chambered tombs but also of fishing practices in the wider Neolithic as a whole.