Living on the edge: a sequential multi-isotopic approach to understanding Norse cattle husbandry practices in the Western Isles of Scotland

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Domestic cattle held a prominent role within the Norse subsistence economy at Mounds 2 and 2a, Bornais; a multi-period site on the island of South Uist, Scotland. Inhabitation of this site was constrained by its liminal environment and as such, the determination of how the Norse managed and utilised their cattle is an important element of understanding how they subsisted and survived. This study performed sequential multi-isotopic analysis on the dentine and enamel of the first and second molars of five cattle individ-uals taken from the Norse phases of the site. The aim was to recreate an oxygen, carbon and nitrogen isotopic biography of the early life of these cattle; oxygen biography from in utero through the first twelve/thirteen months of life and a nitrogen and carbon biography of the first twenty-four to twenty-five months. The results patterned isotopic values against ascending age, revealing ratio changes intrinsic with human-mediated interactions and provided evidence for husbandry practices previously unobservable. Practices included; autumn birthing rhythms in the Middle Norse period, human-mediated early weaning, seasonal transhumance during the spring/summer to in-land pastures and the supplementation of fodder during the winter, which was collected off-site. It also provides evidence suggesting that domestic cattle of that time may have lactated for longer periods than first presumed. The study therefore concludes that the cattle husbandry practices of the Norse occupants centred on the environment in order to maximise yield from their herd.
Period10 Sep 2021
Event titleEuropean Association of Archaeologists
Event typeConference