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12 - Isotope Zooarchaeology in Viking Scotland: Previous Research, Possibilities and Future Directions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2023

Tom Horne
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Elizabeth Pierce
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
Rachel Barrowman
Affiliation:
University of Glasgow
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Summary

Over the last twenty years there have been huge advances in stable isotope archaeology, allowing the exploration of bone assemblages on a biomolecular level (Britton 2017). Specifically, isotope zooarchaeology has revolutionised our understanding of animal management and wider economies in a way that was not possible using solely traditional zooarchaeological methods (Makarewicz 2016). Stable isotope zooarchaeology can inform on changing land use strategies, control over the landscape, birth seasonality and the use of unusual fodder (Towers et al. 2011; Jones and Mulville 2016), all of which are central to understanding Viking interactions with the environment that they encountered during their diaspora to Scotland.

On arrival in Scotland, the Vikings needed to adapt to new and often quite challenging conditions. Many key Scottish Norse settlement sites are found in the insular locations of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, representing a range of site types including farmsteads (for example, Bornais and Cille Pheadair [both South Uist], Quoygrew [Orkney]), Earl’s palaces (like Earl’s Bu, Orkney) and settlements (such as the Brough of Birsay, Orkney). Such insular locations can present unique challenges in terms of agriculture and pastoralism due to the fragile soils, saline conditions and geographical constraints. Regarding domestic stock, providing sufficient fodder for overwintering and locating fruitful pastures would have presented challenges to the populations inhabiting these insular locations. Populations settling in these regions would have been required to quickly adapt in order to survive and then thrive as Norse populations.

Successful economic strategies in Scotland during the Norse period were fundamental for several reasons. Firstly, large increases in populations in Scottish insular and coastal locations (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998) meant that sufficient resources were needed to feed these larger volumes of people. Secondly, commensality and feasting were fundamental aspects of shaping identities, demonstrating power and asserting authority within the Norse Earldoms (Mainland and Batey 2018), and required production of surplus resources and specialist products. Finally, the ability to contribute to emergent market economies was also fundamental to success in Norse Scotland, amid a changing world of centralised authorities, power and control (Barrett et al. 2000; Barrett et al. 2001).

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The Viking Age in Scotland
Studies in Scottish Scandinavian Archaeology
, pp. 155 - 169
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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