Posted by: henrymcghie | June 9, 2014

‘Rediscovering’ bird bones from archaeological sites in Orkney in Manchester Museum


I was on holiday in Orkney recently, so was really surprised to find bird bones from Orkney in the Museum collection- today- among the collection of the late Derek Yalden. Derek had many interests, one of which the development of the bird and mammal fauna of Britain. He had an enormous skeleton collection, including some material from archaeological sites; this collection was donated to the Museum in 2013 and is now part of the zoology collections. Among this is a box of material from Skara Brae, a Neolithic village, and from the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray.

Skara Brae and nearby monuments are a World Heritage Site, described by Historic Scotland in the following terms:

“The monuments at the heart of Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae proclaim the triumphs of the human spirit in early ages and isolated places. They were approximately contemporary with the mastabas of the archaic period of Egypt (first and second dynasties), the brick temples of Sumeria, and the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a century or two earlier than the Golden Age of China. Unusually fine for their early date, and with a remarkably rich survival of evidence, these sites stand as a visible symbol of the achievements of early peoples away from the traditional centres of civilisation.”

Among the bones in the Museum are those of many birds still found in Orkney: Short-eared Owl (which flies by day), Skua, Puffin and Gannet. There are also others that have gone from Orkney- several bones of eagles (probably White-tailed Eagle), extinguished as a British bird in the early 20th century before being reintroduced in the late 20th century.

These kinds of collection help my imagination run away with itself, about what kinds of relationships people had with birds, how they thought of their seasonal appearances and disappearances, and what stories they told about them. Fierce-eyed owls, ferocious Skuas and skydiving Gannets are impressive to look at today, and probably were to people thousands of years ago.




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