About 1,700 years ago, in chilly, rocky Orkney in the Northern Isles of Scotland, some Iron Age humans had a party. It wasn’t just any party: According to archaeologists who have been digging in the highlands since 2006, it featured a huge meat roast (with so many meats!) and gifts of jewelry and involved everyone in the community. But the party, explained The Cairns’ site director in a recent report, is evidence of much more than just a good time.
In a post on Archaeology Orkney, the blog for the University of the Highlands (UHI) and Island Archaeology Institute, Martin Carruthers, Ph.D., the Cairns’ site director and Orkney College UHI archaeologist tells the story of an elaborate world that unfolded when his team discovered a set of jewelry-making molds inside an Iron Age building, which were recently dated to between 240 and 300 CE through radiocarbon dating.
The baubles made in these molds ranged from “simple bronze rings, to distinctive decorated dress pins, called ‘projecting ring-headed pins’, and penannular brooches, which are the lovely open-ring, cloak brooches that are sometimes referred to as ‘Celtic’ brooches,” Carruthers wrote in his post.
These lovely bits of Iron Age bling, his team hypothesizes, were handed out at a “spectacular,” meat-laden feast.
Evidence for this extravagant party came when the archaeologists discovered a “midden” — a pile of trash — near the jewelry-making area. As anyone who’s cleaned up after an all-night rager knows, parties produce a lot of garbage, and Iron Age jewelry jams were no exception. The midden contained about 11,000 bones of every type of meat imaginable: “[Lots] of domesticated animals, including cattle, sheep and pig, especially large cattle long bones. In addition, there were other mammal bones such as red deer, otter, and even a small quantity of horse,” Carruthers wrote. Some pottery vessels found nearby suggested that there was alcohol at this party, too, reported LiveScience on Wednesday.
It’s easy to write off parties as frivolous, no matter what era they took place in, but for archaeologists their remains can be strong indicators of how organized and closely knit a society is. Earlier in March, a different team of archaeologists, digging up artifacts at Stonehenge, some 700 miles south in England, found evidence of a big party (even more roast pig and cow bones) that coincided with the construction of the mysterious monument, suggesting that it was built in the spirit of community and togetherness. In the case of the Cairns’ society, Carruthers writes that the party might be evidence of a stratified community comprising the metal-smiths, the rich folks who funded them (and likely the party), the people who received the jewelry, everyone else.
At one level, perhaps, everyone in the community was involved in the feasting, but only some were ennobled by receiving a pin; a ring, or a brooch. So it may well be that we are looking at the strategies for creating and maintaining the concept of the entire community at the same time as signalling social difference, and hierarchy within the community of this post-broch period.
Near the jewelry site, they found evidence of a large, complex building suggesting that whoever owned it was extremely wealthy. They speculate that it might have belonged to the people who funded the festivities, though future digs at the Cairns will help establish who should be belatedly congratulated for hosting such an epic feast.