Life and death in Iron Age Orkney: an osteoarchaeological examination of the human skeletal remains from the burial ground at Knowe of Skea, Westray
Archaeological excavations were conducted by EASE Archaeology at the Knowe of Skea on the island of Westray between 2000 and 2009 and discovered a multi-phase site with evidence for activity dating from the Neolithic through to the Viking era. Excavations revealed that the site had been used as a burial ground for a prolonged period during the Iron Age. Human remains recovered during the first seasons of excavations were radiocarbon dated to the turn of the first millennium BC/AD. These dates highlighted the significance of this burial ground; burial evidence of Iron Age date is sparse in Atlantic Scotland and often overlooked due to the lack of a recognisable, dominant burial rite. Burials of individuals of all ages, including a very high number of infants, were recovered and represent the largest known collection of burials of this date from Scotland. Iron Age research in Atlantic Scotland has traditionally been dominated by study and discussion of the impressive stone-built architecture of domestic buildings and working places of a population about which very little is actually known. Examination of the burials from this site and comparisons with similar sites in the Orkney Islands is building a greater understanding of the treatment of the dead in this region during a period for which so little evidence exists. The burials had been placed in the rubble of earlier collapsed buildings which appears to be a common feature of many Iron Age burials in the Orkney Islands and north-eastern Scotland. Site records, photographs and views of excavators were consulted and combined with the results of the osteological analysis to determine burial patterns at the site according to age, sex or burial location. The large volume of infant remains recovered from the site created the possibility to investigate such high infant mortality and the general health of infants and children. High numbers of infant burials can often lead to suggestions of infanticide; the likelihood of this is also discussed. The results of basic stable isotope analysis (13C and 15N) were examined to interpret breastfeeding and weaning practice. The evidence provided in the results of isotopic analysis was also used to interpret the diet of this population and compared with archaeological evidence of diet from excavation of domestic sites across Atlantic Scotland. Of particular interest was the extent to which the population of the islands may have exploited marine and other wild resources when compared with similar dietary studies in the rest of Scotland and Britain. Results of osteoarchaeological analysis of the human skeletal remains from the Knowe of Skea allowed a deeper understanding of the lifestyle and health of a population for which there has been little evidence to date.