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Durham University

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A re-appraisal of the Early Neolithic Inhabitants of Shetland

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


This project involves an osteological and isotopic investigation of the co-mingled and fragmentary remains of approximately 20 individuals recovered in 1977 under rescue conditions at the airport on Sumburgh Head, Mainland Shetland. The project is investigating the diets and origins of these, the earliest human remains to have been found in the Shetland Isles. In conjunction with the West Voe excavation directed by Dr. Nigel Melton, it is providing an unique opportunity to examine Early Neolithic subsistence strategies in a remote island community. 

The osteological and palaeopthological re-apppraisal (Walsh et al., 2012) was funded by Historic Scotland and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. It has provided a slightly increased figure for the number of individuals interred in the cist and identified pathology present. Study of fracture morphology and patination present has amended the earlier interpretation that the remains had been subject to excarnation prior to burial.

High resolution incremental isotope analysis of dentine (Montgomery et al. 2013) has shown that the individuals buried at Sumburgh were eating varied diets: some ate a wholly terrestrial diet; some had sporadic periods of high marine consumption at different times in childhood returning to terrestrial foods; and three of the children died whilst consuming a marine protein diet. Together with the archaeological evidence from the nearby sites of West Voe and Jarshof, this suggests that the early Neolithic inhabitants of Shetland, where there was no safety net of indigenous terrestrial fauna or freshwater fish to turn to in times of crop failure, were resorting to marine foods as a survival strategy. This work has not only demonstrated how high-resolution isotope analysis can bring the individual lives and experiences of ancient people into far sharper focus than hitherto possible, but suggests an explanation for the paradox between previous bone isotope studies which found no marine protein consumption in Neolithic inhabitants of the British Isles and the evidence for marine foods in the archaeological record. Further isotopic work is in progress.

The project is directed by Dr. Nigel Melton and Dr. Janet Montgomery at Durham University in collaboration with: Dr. Mandy Jay (Durham University); Dr. Julia Beaumont, Dr. Steve Dockrill and Mr. Andrew Gledhill (University of Bradford); Prof. Jane Evans (NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, Keyworth); Prof. Gordon Cook (SUERC); and Prof. Christopher Knüsel, University of Bordeaux. The osteological re-apppraisal was funded by Historic Scotland and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the radiocarbon dates and isotope analyses by Historic Scotland, University of Bradford, SUERC and the NERC. The work has been supported throughout by Carol Christiansen and the late Tommy Watt at the Shetland Museum, Lerwick.

This research was presented at the Historic Scotland/RCHAMS Heritage Research Showcase in Edinburgh and the presentation can be viewed here.

Published Results

Working Paper

  • Montgomery, J., Beaumont, J., Jay, A., Keefe, K., Gledhill, A., Cook, G., Dockrill, Stephen J. & Melton, N.D. (2013). Strategic and sporadic marine consumption at the onset of the Neolithic: increasing temporal resolution in the isotope evidence. Antiquity 87(338): 1060-1072.


  • Melton, N.D. & Montgomery, J. (2009). Combined isotope analyses of Early Neolithic individuals from a multiple burial cist at Sumburgh, Shetland. Archaeology Scotland.


From the Department of Archaeology

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