5.3.1 Bone, antler, marine ivory and shell

The record for the use of these materials is wholly skewed towards Late Neolithic Orkney, where large assemblages have been excavated at Skara Brae and the Links of Noltland, and smaller assemblages at Pool, Toft’s Ness, Rinyo, Knap of Howar and Ness of Brodgar (inter alia). Small assemblages are also known from elsewhere in Scotland, mainly in the Hebrides and notably at Northton, where a crown antler mace head had been found (Simpson et al. 2006, 74, fig. 2.34.15). This object will be considered further below.

Some idea of the amount of material found at the Orcadian sites is provided by Andrew Foxon’s doctoral research (1991; available online from Glasgow University: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/1157/) into the assemblage excavated at Skara Brae by Gordon Childe in the 1920s and 1930: this comprised some 6270 individual items. Several thousand more were excavated by David Clarke during his 1972–3 and 1977 excavations (Clarke in prep.).

The Skara Brae material and the other Scottish Neolithic assemblages demonstrate that bone, antler, marine ivory and shell were used extensively, skilfully, and in a varied manner: as with other resources, Neolithic people were well versed in making the best use of the materials available to them. (For example, many piercing tools were made using cattle and sheep metapodials, whose solid exterior could easily be shaped into strong points.) In the case of Orkney (and the Hebrides), the shortage of wood meant that some objects that are likely to have been made of wood elsewhere (e.g. cups and containers) were made of whale bone, or of other materials. Bone and antler would indeed have been ‘the plastic of prehistory’.

As regards the procurement of the raw materials, bones from cattle, sheep and other domestic species would have been available through normal slaughtering for food. Antler appears to have been both collected as shed antler and obtained through butchery; non-shed antler and deer bone could have been obtained by hunting (although it has been suggested that Orcadian Neolithic deer were probably a semi-domesticated species; and see Sharples 2000 on the special role of deer in Orcadian Neolithic society). Boar’s tusks would have been obtained through hunting. Bones and ivory from marine creatures would probably have been obtained in an opportunistic manner, as they became washed up; there is no evidence for the deliberate hunting of such creatures. The use of walrus ivory, killer whale tooth ivory and sperm whale tooth ivory is attested. Fish would, however, have been obtained through fishing, and the large size of some of the Neolithic fish at Skara Brae suggests deep-water long-line fishing. Shellfish/shells would have been gathered from the shore. The working of these materials on site is attested by the abundant evidence for bead- and pendant manufacture at both Skara Brae and the Links of Noltland.

The range of objects made of these materials, at Skara Brae and the Links of Noltland, can be summarised as follows:

Table 3: Range of objects made of materials at Skara Brae and the Links of Noltland.

Domestic mammal bone Antler Deer bone Boar’s tusk Marine ivory Whale-bone Fish bone Sea shell Other
Structural (eg roofing) X
Scapula shovel X
Mattock X
Adze X
Adze sleeve/ other socket/haft X Walrus OS penis
Slice/knife/chisel X
Pick X
Whistle X
Polisher/ smoother X
Spatulae X X
Fabricators (for working lithics) X X
Container (cup, bowl etc) X X X
Awl/borer/point X Bird bone
Needle X
Pin X X X Bird bone
Bead X X X X X X X Domestic animal tooth
Pendant X X X X
‘dice’ X
other/indet X X

Clearly, then, bone and the other materials played an important part in several aspects of everyday life, providing the raw material for tools, containers, structures and items of personal adornment (including the large pins, used to fasten garments, some of which have perforations or bulbs to help prevent them from slipping). Regarding the latter, containers made from scallop shell – like their counterparts in bone and stone – were used as dishes for grinding ochre, a colourant. The huge number of beads found at Skara Brae contrasts markedly with Grooved Ware contexts outside of Orkney, where beads are extremely rare..

The antler ‘mace head’ from Northton – if indeed it had been used as a ceremonial object, rather than as a hammer (for which there is no clear evidence) – represents a type of object that is widespread in Middle to Late Neolithic Britain. Initially reviewed by Derek Simpson in 1996 (and found to comprise 58 examples from Britain, most (41) coming from the Thames and its tributaries), this class of objects was subjected to a radiocarbon dating programme during the early 2000s (Loveday et al. 2007) and found to date mostly to between 3300 and 2900 BC; the Northton example was not directly dated, but had come from the same general level as the bulk sample of animal bone that produced a C14 date of 4411±79 BP (3350-2890 cal BC at 2σ, BM-705).

The principal outstanding research question is:

  1. To what extent is the evidence from the Northern and Western isles atypical, vis-à-vis the use of these resources in Neolithic Scotland? Presumably the marine resources would not have been used inland, and in areas rich in wood, some object types (e.g. containers) would have been made of wood.

In order to answer this question, there needs to be excavation of well-preserved organic material, and this cannot generally be planned (although the waterlogged levels at Eilean Domhnuill, Loch Olabhat, North Uist) might shed further light on the use of these materials in the Hebrides.

Other research questions are more specific, and include:

  1. What is the full range of species used in Late Neolithic Orkney? A recent re-examination of some of the Skara Brae jewellery suggests that the range may be wider than previously suspected.

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