NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland

Archaeologists exploring the secrets of Sanday whales

Archaeologist excavates whale bones
Image caption Pits containing the whale bones were dug across the neolithic site archaeologists excavated this summer

Archaeologists based in Orkney are investigating a number of 19th century whale skeletons recovered during a dig at a neolithic site.

The bones were buried in pits cut into the site at Cata Sand, in Sanday.

There are description in the historical records of a pod being stranded at the site, and buried when local people complained of the smell.

It is thought whales and other cataceans have been exploited for as long as people have lived at the site.

But it is not yet clear if these animals were deliberately forced onto the shore, or had been stranded accidentally.

Image caption Sections of whale backbone could be seen sticking up above the sand around the dig site
Image caption Painstaking work revealed the skeletons below the sand
Image caption The bones have been removed and are now in the bone laboratory at Orkney College

Claire MacKay, who is investigating the bones, told BBC Radio Orkney: "There is evidence for groups using natural features to drive whales into shallows, and things like that.

"With these whales we aren't quite sure (if that was done"). That's one thing that various researchers are looking into.

"There is evidence for both active hunting and strandings but also passive, when we scavenge. So, this is an on-going tradition. It's not clear which we have here."

But there is no doubt that - however they came ashore - whale carcasses would have been exploited, in neolithic times and right up until more recent history.

"Whales and other cetaceans were a huge bounty", Clair MacKay said, "for fuel, meat, architecture - such as using whale ribs for building supports and roofing material - and also for artefacts, which continue to be found throughout Scotland, other areas of the UK, and across the north Atlantic.

Image caption Part of the site lies protected behind giant sand dunes
Image caption Vertebrae like these might have been hollowed out to make storage vessels
Image caption Two complete whale flippers reassembled in the lab (with pen for scale)

So, what sorts of things were we making from whale remains?

"There is evidence of using the vertebrae, hollowing out the middle, and using them as a storage vessel. There's also evidence of using the big jaw bones of certain whales to make tools, because it's easy to work with."

As yet there is no definite identification of the species of whales recovered from Cata Sand but Claire MacKay says they could be long-finned pilot whales.

That could be confirmed when some DNA recovered from the bones is sent away for analysis.

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