A hollowed-out whale vertebra that contained a human jaw bone and two newborn lambs is the latest in a series of bones that are being DNA tested to help better understand Iron Age life.

The vertebra was probably used as a casket or some kind of vessel, says Dr Martin Carruthers from the UHI archaeology institute at Orkney College. It was unearthed near an Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure known as a broch at South Ronaldsay. It is one of more than 100 pieces of whale bone found at The Cairns on the Orkney Island.

DNA testing has proven that the bone came from a giant fin whale, the second largest species of whale on the planet.

“it’s amazing this object has come from a whale of that magnitude, and you’ve got to imagine what this must have meant for a local community, if this is beached”, said Dr Carruthers.

He told BBC Radio Orkney there was an active debate among archaeologists about whether Iron Age people would have been able to hunt creatures as big as a giant fin whale, or if they had to rely on harvesting animals that had stranded in the shallows.

A new investigation now underway, and involving scientists from St Mary’s University Nova Scotia and Western Carolina University, might help to answer some of those questions. The researchers are investigating the use of whale bone in Western Atlantic society over the last 1000 years. The Cairns excavation is of interest because it has produced so many pieces of bone from whales and other smaller cetaceans, making it one of the largest collections of prehistoric whale bones in the world.

“There’s sperm whale, and there appears to be minke whale”, Dr Carruthers says. “There are smaller species as well: dolphin and porpoise. So, there’s a wide range. That’s what you’d expect, I suppose, if you saw them as being quite opportunistic in terms of what came across their path.”

However, the Iron Age inhabitants appear to have preferences for certain types. That may indicate that they were a bit more discerning and particular.

The latest DNA techniques are managing to identify the individual animals, which means it should be possible to identify any relationships that may exist between the different whales. It will also help match bones found in different parts of the dig that have come from the same animal. In this way, it will be much easier to say precisely which finds come from the same time, much more accurately than is possible with other techniques such as radio carbon dating.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of really interesting stories to come out this”, said Dr Carruthers.

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