8.4.2 Demography and Health

Overall Diet

Human remains have the potential to provide information about diet, disease and mobility. While some burials have been analysed for this data, mainly at Portmahomack (Case Study Portmahomack), there is undoubtedly more that could be done. There is a need for this type of analysis to be done regionally, allowing comparison with other areas (ScARF Medieval section 4.5.1). Shirley Curtis-Summers’ work (Case Study Dietary Isotope Analysis at Portmahomack; Curtis-Summers forthcoming) focussing on evidence from Portmahomack children is a valuable insight into an age group rarely discussed. Kate Britton and colleagues at University of Aberdeen have also undertaken isotope analysis on a number of human remains from the Highlands, with results awaiting publication.

The archaeological and palaeoenvironmental evidence from the monastery at Portmahomack shows changes in subsistence. In the pre- and post- monastic phases there is evidence of cultivation and animal husbandry, whereas in the monastic period, there is less evidence of cultivation, and far more evidence of a carnivorous diet. Portmahomack provides the best indication of what people were actually eating in the early medieval period. Five burials from the pre-monastic period, 13 from the monastic period and four from the post-monastic (9th & 10th century) were analysed for isotopic data. All were similar, showing a diet of animal protein and terrestrial plants, and with one exception, little consumption of fish. In the monastic period, the results of isotopic analysis indicated two of the males had been eating barley, and oats or wheat (Carver et al 2016, 84, 222ff; Curtis-Summers 2016).

The brutally killed male buried in the Learnie 2B cave near Rosemarkie appears to have had an unusual diet that was high in protein, probably pig (Steven Birch pers comm). This is a further indication of the unique character of this burial. Other aDNA and isotopic analyses of human bone from this period has been undertaken on remains found at Crosskirk Broch, Lower Dounreay, Keiss long cist, and long cist burials from Balintore (Sheridan et al 2018), and the results of the analysis are awaited to integrate into this emerging picture.

Isotope analysis of the two human teeth (the only surviving parts of the body) from the Ardnamurchan Viking boat burial, revealed a largely terrestrial diet up to the age of 15, with a period of increased marine diet when between the ages three and five (Harris et al 2017, 199). The young male buried at Balnakeil also had a mixed diet (Batey and Paterson 2012, 655; Case Study Balnakeil Viking Burial). A comparison of Viking and Pictish burials in Orkney suggested that the Vikings ate more marine protein than the Pictish communities (Barrett et al 2001, 152). This may be the case in the Highlands too, but the sample size is very small, and without new excavation material will remain so.


Although there is more burial data than settlement evidence, there is still insufficient data to give an idea of population density. The burial evidence that is present is suggestive of high-status or important burials, so others must have been buried in a different way. The best evidence is from Portmahomack, but this cemetery was arguably for special burials, high-status even before the monastery. For the monastic and post-monastic period the burials are almost entirely of males, an unsurprising finding for a monastery.

Isotope analysis has shown that many people were incomers to Portmahomack. This is not surprising for the monastic period but interestingly also occurs in the pre-monastic burials, including the presence of one individual from the west. Interestingly, in the monastic period, two of the individuals buried at Portmahomack may have come from Scandinavia (Carver et al 2016, 78, 120; Chapter 8.7).

Human Health and trauma

The evidence from Portmahomack again provides a good indication of disease and health, even at a site where the individuals presumably had a good diet. In the pre-monastic period, only five of the 19 analysed human remains showed evidence of disease, though preservation of material was an issue. One elderly male with a blade wound was in poor health when he died; his remains showed evidence of osteoarthritis, degenerative joint disease, dental issues, sinusitis, and Schmorl’s nodes reflecting heavy lifting. Another male also had Schmorl’s nodes and a female had osteoarthritis. A middle-aged male had spina biffida occulata (Carver et al 2016, 78–9). In the monastic period a range of diseases were also noted, including one man with scurvy. Osteoarthritis was fairly common. A few of the males has collapsed vertabrae, that would have caused them to be hunchbacked. In the period after the monastery (9th/10th century) similar diseases occur. Almost a quarter of individuals in Periods 2 and 3 had evidence of fractures or more severe damage, a few from blades but most probably from accidents rather than intentional violence. Some had healed well; others did not (Carver et al 2016, 114ff). Taken together this data suggests that even these privileged individuals led lives that included manual labour where there were debilitating consequences of accidents.


Case Study: Portmahomack


Case Study: Balnakeil Viking Burial


Case Study: Dietary Isotope Analysis at Portmahomack


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