What Prompted the Shellfish Extravaganza at an Iron Age Feast Site, Orkney?
Archaeologists in the far north of Scotland have unearthed thousands of seashells from the remains of an Iron Age feast dating back to around the 5 th century AD, including 18,630 sea snail shells. This was more than enough to have fed an entire Iron Age community and the scale of the ancient celebration unearthed in Orkney suggests it was a feastof great importance. Could the shellfish extravaganza have marked an initiation, a marriage or a funerary feast? Adding another layer of intrigue to this mystery meal, archaeologists have discovered that after they were eaten, the thousands of shells were returned to the pit in which they were cooked.
The archaeologists discovered thousands of sea shells during excavations. Analysis of these shellfish remains were all cooked for one massive Iron Age feast on South Ronaldsay Island in the Orkney Islands. (Martin Carruthers / Archaeology Orkney )
Community Wide Iron Age Feast of Great Importance
At the turn of the 20th century, amateur archaeologists reported finding a souterrain (underground passageway) dating to the Iron Age at Windwick, on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. Then in 2003 Dr. Martin Carruthers, a lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands' ( UHI) Archaeology Institute based at Orkney College, began exploring the site. Excavations at The Cairns archaeological site began in 2006 when according to Orkney Archaeology “a broch, or Atlantic Roundhouse, was discovered.”
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Dating to the Iron Age and Norse periods, The Cairns was established between 400 AD and 500 AD. Measuring 21.5 meters (70.53 ft) in overall diameter, the broch walls are 5 meters (16.4 ft) thick in places, the structure has an internal diameter of around 11 meters (36.08 ft). The broch currently stands 2 meters (6.56 ft) in height at some points, but originally it was more than five times that height.
Now, a team of scientists from the UHI Archaeology Institute recently determined that a vast collection of shellfish, mostly limpets and periwinkles, “were all cooked for one massive dinner, then tossed back into the hole during cleanup.” The researchers believe that “such an immense amount of food” is evidence of a community-wide celebration of great importance.
Detail of the cooking pit discovered during excavations of The Cairns archaeological site where the shellfish was discovered. (Martin Carruthers / Archaeology Orkney )
An Initiation, a Wedding or a Funeral?
Orkney was first inhabited by Mesolithic hunters around 6,000 BC. Then Neolithic tribes terraformed the island around 3,500 BC, before Pictish tribes emerged from about 300 to 900 AD. The results of radiocarbon-dating from the shell pits at The Cairn suggests that the “hundreds of pounds of shellfish” was all cooked for consumption during one meal, and “not over a long period of time.” The vast majority of the 18,630 shells were limpets and periwinkles and according to the University of Cambridge's Animal Alphabet , “limpets were eaten mainly at periods when other foods were scarce.”
The archaeologists think the sea snails were probably harvested in the winter and eaten with other seasonal food, such as hazelnuts. Carruthers told the Daily Mail that the shells were prepared in a deep “single-use cooking-pit.” Assuming that each person ate a whopping portion of 100 limpets, “that's more than 180 portions,” explained Carruthers. The archaeologist concluded that this “represents a fairly large community for the Later Iron Age/Pictish period,” suggesting that they were maybe marking “an initiation, wedding or funeral.”
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Alongside excavating the broch, the UHI archaeologists plan to conduct isotopic tests on human remains that were discovered at the site. The goal is to “peer even more closely into issues of food and identity” in order to reveal how the ancient Picts survived at this outpost of Caledonia, the name used by the Romans to describe Scotland at the time of this shellfish feast.
According to the article in the Daily Mail it is already known that the shellfish cooking pit was used at the same time as a nearby souterrain, which is a type of underground structure associated mainly with the European Atlantic Iron Age. However, Martin Carruthers told The Herald that this “extraordinary contemporary feast” is adding to the researchers understanding of how souterrains may have been “very special places involving social and ritual practices, in addition to whatever other roles they may have had in food production or storage.”
Top image: Work on The Cairns archaeological site in Orkney began in 2006. Now archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an Iron Age feast that includes thousands of shells. Source: Martin Carruthers / Archaeology Orkney
By Ashley Cowie