ECR Case Study: Zooarchaeological Analysis and the significance of Red Deer during the Orcadian Neolithic

Kath Page, University of Highlands and Islands (Archaeology Institute)

Figure 1: ScARF bursary supported student Kath Page with red deer skull and antler recovered from Skaill Bay, Orkney. ©️Kath Page

Research Overview

My MLitt dissertation research aimed to explore the significant and enduring relationship between people and red deer (Cervus elaphus) during the Orcadian Neolithic. Archaeological evidence from across the Highland and Islands region suggests that these animals held economic significance for prehistoric societies, not just as a reliable food source, but also for secondary resources such as antler, bone and skins (Elliot 2019, 81). However, evidence appears to suggest that the relationship between communities and red deer on Orkney was based on the cultural, rather than the economic, value these animals held. My research investigated the deposition of red deer in both mortuary and settlement sites and evidenced how this practice reflected the changing cultural identities of communities during the Orcadian Neolithic.

Figure 2: Red deer remains from Structure 10 at the Ness of Brodgar. ©️Kath Page

The significance that red deer held in the past has been the subject of much debate. A study of special deposits containing red deer across the Western and Northern Isles by Morris (2012, 14) suggested that red deer deposition fulfilled a ritualistic function, linked to totemism. A study of Orcadian red deer deposits by Sharples (2000, 108) concluded that red deer inhabited an ambiguous existence that reflected the nature of their being, that they were neither wild nor domesticated. However, Tilley (1996, 63–64) states that due to their behaviour and biology, red deer came to symbolise themes of renewal, transformation, gender and fertility for people in the past.  These theories reinforce our modern ontologies associated with red deer, many of which are based on late medieval romanticism portraying deer as emblems of Scottishness, kingship, wildness and fertility. Red deer are able to symbolise one or all of these concepts at the same time, further emphasising the unique position and status bestowed upon them from the earliest of times.

These associations with red deer may have been evident in the Orcadian Neolithic too. The investment required to translocate them and establish breeding herds suggests red deer fulfilled a role that cattle and ovicaprids could not. Analysis of red deer assemblages by Sharples (2000, 107) and Ingrem and Mulville (2015, 113–114) suggested that consumption of venison was restricted or even taboo across the islands. Similarly, my primary analysis of the assemblage from the Ness of Brodgar and review of excavation reports, showed that antler exploitation on Orkney was relatively low, the entire antler NISP (Number of Identified Species) for both settlement and mortuary sites was 649 and only 12 antler tools could be verified (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Antler Adze from Skara Brae on display at the National Museums of Scotland.
©️Kath Page

To understand whether reasons other than economic exploitation drove the translocation of red deer to Orkney during the Neolithic, a quantitative and contextual analysis of excavation reports on red deer remains in mortuary and settlement sites was undertaken. Distribution analysis (Figure 4) shows that red deer were present in 16 of the 38 tombs and 9 of the 15 settlement sites that have been excavated. Red deer deposits were more commonly associated with Orkney Cromarty (OC) type tombs, in particular stalled cairns, but were not present in Tripartite, Bookan or OC chambered cairns. This apparent restriction of red deer deposition reinforces Sharples’ (2000, 107) theory that prohibitions were placed on these animals during the Neolithic. However, the presence of red deer remains in Maeshowe type chambered tombs such as Wideford Hill and Pierowall Quarry, assumed to be constructed at a later date than OC cairns, may suggest that mortuary ritual and depositional practices associated with red deer changed over time. Quantitative analysis showed red deer remains were also associated with young lambs and wild animal species, reinforcing themes of fertility, renewal and wildness, and evidence for consumption was hard to verify.

Figure 4: GIS distribution map of excavated Neolithic sites across the Orkney Archipelago showing the World Heritage Site (boxed area). ©️Kath Page

Settlement site evidence was overshadowed by the presence of red deer heaps at Skaill Bay, the Links of Noltland and the Point of Buckquoy, each containing up to 15 individual animals. The deposition of these whole and unprocessed animals close to settlement boundaries is suggestive of conspicuous non consumption and regulated distribution. Quantitative analysis also showed that there is also a lack of butchery evidence on red deer across settlement sites, with the exception of Pool and Tofts Ness on Sanday (Nicholson and Davies 2007, 183).

Finally, I reviewed existing radiocarbon dates for red deer deposition. The earliest dates from mortuary sites were 3350–2250 cal BC and came from Ramsay on Rousay , the latest was 2800–2500 cal BC from Vestrafiold on Mainland (Fraser 2015). After this date, red deer remains do not appear in mortuary sites. However, the earliest red deer deposition in settlement sites is 2859–2491 cal BC from the Links of Noltland (Sheridan et al 2016) and the latest is 2205–2025cal BC from the Ness of Brodgar (Ayers 2019). This evidence pushes back the date for red deer introduction on Orkney significantly and shows a distinct change in ritual practice over time.


The introduction of red deer to the islands after 3500 BC coincides with a time of societal change and the development of “Big House” nucleated villages, such as Skara Brae and Barnhouse (Schulting and Richards 2020, 169–174).  The role of red deer as symbols of identity means that their deposition in burial contexts reflected the need for societal unity and reaffirmation at a time of an emerging elite and potential social crisis. This is reinforced by another change in depositional practice observed after 2800 BC. At this time the focus of red deer deposition moves to domestic settings and red deer deposition no longer occurs at mortuary sites. This change will have had a symbolic and ideological purpose (Richards et al 2015, 114) and may be linked to the societal and climate crisis observed in the archaeological record at this time, associated with the introduction of Beaker ware and the end of monumentality (Clarke et al 2016, 81).

Figure 5: Kath presenting her research at SSASC in February 2022. ©️Kath Page

Future Research:

Since attending the conference I have been awarded SGSAH funding to continue my research into the significance of red deer across Scotland. My PhD thesis aims to answer the following questions

  • What was the nature of human-deer entanglement within Scottish Prehistory? How were red deer perceived, how were they lived with, socialised, utilised and exploited. How did this vary in time and place? 
  • How can these findings be used to better inform a sustainable approach to human-deer entanglement in the present?

This research will be undertaken in collaboration with the UHI Institute of Archaeology, the UHI Centre for Mountain studies, and the National Museums of Scotland, it will commence in October 2022.


I am grateful to ScARF for awarding me a student travel bursary. The award enabled me to attend the Scottish Student Archaeology Society (SSAS) conference in Edinburgh, which offered an excellent opportunity for me to share my research, develop my presentation skills and network with other students across Scotland.


Ayres, J. 2019. Faunal Investigation in Orkney: The Bone Deposit Around Structure 10, The Ness of Brodgar. Master’s Thesis (unpublished).

Clarke, D., Sheridan, A., Shepherd, A., Sharples, N., Armour-Chelu, M., Hamlet, L., Bronk Ramsey, C., Dunbar, E., Reimer, P., Marshall, P. and Whittle, A. 2016. The End of the World, Or Just “Goodbye to All That”? Contextualising the Red Deer Heap from Links of Noltland, Westray, Within Late 3rd-Millennium cal BC Orkney. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 146 (2016-2017), 57-89.

Elliott, B. 2019.  In the Fringes of Twilight: Encountering Deer in the British Mesolithic. In: Walker, J. and Clinnick D. (eds) Wild Things 2: Further Advances in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Research. Oxford: Oxbow, 81-92.

Fraser, S. 2015. Mammals in Late Neolithic Orkney (With Reference to Mammal Bone Recovered from the Links of Noltland, Westray). Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.

Ingrem, C. and Mulville, J. 2015. Faunal Remains. In: Richards, C., Clarke, A., Ingrem, C., Mulville, J. and Mainland, I. (eds) Containment, Closure and Red Deer: A Late Neolithic Butchery Site at Skaill Bay, Mainland Orkney. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 145 (2015-2016), 91-124.

Mainland, I., Card, N., Saunders, M.K., Webster, C., Isaken, L., Downes, J. and Littlewood, M. 2014. GIS Spatial Image showing Location of Red Deer Bone. In: Mainland, I., Card, N., Saunders, M.K., Webster, C., Isaken, L., Downes, J. and Littlewood, M. (eds) “Smart Fauna”: A Microscale GIS Based Multi-Dimensional Approach to Faunal Deposition at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. Journal of Archaeological Science 41 (2014), 868-878.

Morris, J. 2012. Red Deer ‘s Role in Social Expression on the Isles of Scotland. In: Pluskowski, A. (ed) Animal “Ritual” Killing: From Remains to Meaning – The Ritual Killing and Burial of Animals. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Nicholson, R.A. and Davies, G. 2007. Faunal Remains. In: Dockrill, S. (ed). Investigations in Sanday, Orkney, vol 2: Tofts Ness, Sanday: An Island Landscape through 3,000 Years of Prehistory. Kirkwall: The Orcadian Ltd.

Overton, N.J. and Taylor, B. 2018. Humans and Environment: Plants, Animals and Landscape in Mesolithic Britain and Ireland. World Prehistory 31 (2018), 385-402.

Richards, C., Clarke, A., Ingrem, C., Mulville, J. and Mainland, I. 2015. Containment, Closure and Red Deer: A Late Neolithic Butchery Site at Skaill Bay, Mainland Orkney. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 145 (2015-2016), 91-124.

Sharples, N. 2000. Antlers and Orcadian Rituals: An Ambiguous Role for Red Deer in the Neolithic. In: Ritchie, A. (ed) Neolithic Orkney in its European Context. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monograph.

Schulting, R.J. and Richards, M.P. 2002. The Wet, The Wild and The Domesticated: The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition on the West Coast of Scotland. European Journal of Archaeology 142 (5), 147-189.

Sheridan, A., Cook, G., Naysmith, P., Whittle, A., Clarke, D. and Charlton, S. 2016. Radiocarbon Dates Associated with Scottish History and Archaeology Department, National Museum of Scotland 2015/2016. In: Milburn, P. (ed) Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 17, 192-195.

Steele, T.E. 2015. The Contributions of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites: The Past and Future of Zooarchaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science 56, 168-176.