The Work

Specialist Report 2005 - Mammal Bone Assemblage (Interpretation & Comparison with other Assemblages)

Posted by steven on 13/02/2006 at 04:55 PM


Carrie Drew - University of Durham

Chapter 8: The High Pasture Cave Bone Assemblage in Context

Section 1: The climatic and environmental issues affecting pig husbandry on Iron Age Skye

Environmental and social factors must both be considered to establish whether the frequency of pig remains discovered at High Pasture Cave is really exceptional or if it reflects what would be expected considering their natural distribution across Iron Age Scotland. From studies of archaeobotanical evidence and reconstructions of the climate and forestation of Scotland an attempt has been made to identify the conditions at the time the Context 001 pig-rich assemblage was being deposited in High Pasture Cave.

Pigs exist in a wide variety of environments across Europe (Groves, 1985:21), but they do have specific habitat requirements which may have limited their distribution across Scotland. In Europe the most common locations for pigs are in the deciduous forested areas of Northern Europe (Ross, 1983:100), very different to the largely treeless landscape of Iron Age Skye (Gordon and Sutherland, 1993:76, Finlay, 1984:18). Reconstructions of past climates and habitats across Scotland in the Iron Age (Birks, 1973; Gordon and Sutherland, 1993) indicate that pigs would have thrived in the lowlands of Scotland but were likely to have had problems surviving in large numbers in the Highlands (Ross, 1983:101) and similarly would have had problems in the Scottish Islands (Halliday, 1993:67). The altitude and snow cover of the Scottish uplands would have inhibited their range (Groves, 1985:21) and the high winds typical of both the Highlands and Islands would also not have been condusive to pigs (Pearson et al, 2004:19, Armit, 1996:19, 23), being of such a strength and persistency to cause problems even for domestic pig-keeping in the Iron Age (Armit, 1998:35). The tree cover on Skye, as well as other Hebridean Islands, is believed to have been very limited during the late prehistoric and early historic periods (Armit, 1996:24-25), with some hypothesising that the Hebrides lacked any woodland at all (Birks and Marsden, 1979 in Armit, 1992:6, Bell, 1996:9). Pigs also prefer tree covered environments and with the Scottish Islands largely treeless (see figure 50) the environment and their normal food supplies would have been sufficiently difficult for pigs to have needed their fodder to be provided or at least supplemented by humans (Smith, 2000:708). This could explain why pig numbers are normally relatively low here (3-4% on sites in these areas).

Within the context of these climatic conditions the large number of pigs in the assemblage at Pasture Cave is not easy to explain. The pigs would have needed to be heavily supported to keep so many alive, confirming that the remains are almost certainly from domesticated animals and providing one motive for the predominantly Winter kill, when resources would have been severely limited.

Section 2: A consideration of how High Pasture Cave fits into the context of Iron Age Scotland

It is important for the interpretation of the High Pasture Cave assemblage to consider the extent to which it is differs from the Scottish norm and whether its “pig-rich” pattern, while unexpected from the known climatic conditions is really unusual or whether it is replicated elsewhere in Scotland.

One of the challenges for any consideration of the overall pattern of Scottish faunal assemblages is the dearth of such evidence from Scotland (Finlay, 1984:1). There is a particular lack of material from the early historic period and identifying examples excavated to modern standards for any period, including the Iron Age, is difficult (Smith, 2000:709, Harding, 2000:29). The sites for which relatively modern faunal reports exist are predominantly situated in the Northern and Western Isles (Armit, 1992:2), with major research work such as the SEARCH project (Sheffield University) being recently carried out in these locations (Pearson and Sharples, 1999:9-10). To establish a meaningful overview of patterns across Scotland other sites from mainland Scotland without such high-quality faunal reports are also being used in this comparison although their limitations are noted.

Scotland had no cohesive identity until around the eleventh century AD (Foster, 1996:11) with many tribes, all with localised customs and cultures, inhabiting the area (Hingley, 1998:9). As different patterns may emerge from different areas it appears even more important to ensure as many areas of Scotland are studied as possible to provide a suitable overview of the context of High Pasture Cave.

Domestic pigs have not been identified from any sites in Scotland until the Neolithic period (Smith, 2000:705) but it is evident from domestic assemblages that pigs were routinely present as a domesticated species, even in island settings, from the early Iron Age onwards (Smith, 2000:708), for example seen at Dun Mor Vaul and Cnip. From this period onwards, across all areas of Scotland, they are identified as the third most common domesticate after cattle and sheep/goat, as illustrated at Howe, Hornish Point and Crosskirk in the Hebrides and reflected across Scotland as a whole (for example at Dundurn fort, Strathern). It is important to recognise that the presence of pigs in the Western and Northern Isles is more significant than that in the “easier” conditions of Southern Scotland. Clearly pigs were of some importance to inhabitants here if they were kept despite the increased resources necessary to supplement their fodder and care relative to other species which can thrive in these conditions (Smith, 2000:708). Pigs provide no secondary products while alive unlike other common domesticates (Nelson, 1998:1) and so in subsistence economies, as Scotland was during this period, they represent a profligate use of resources. This nature of pigs as solely meat-producing has led to them being hypothesised as a particularly suitable animal for ritual or high-status activity because their use may be seen as more extravagant (Hambleton, 1999:67). High Pasture Cave is in an area where the disposal of such a large amount of pigs, potentially in a single event, was without doubt a very wasteful use of resources, especially when the lack of marrow breakage provides evidence that the maximum nutrients were not utilised from the individuals.

It is important to consider whether pigs have “high status” or “ritual” connotations in other Scottish sites to understand the significance of the High Pasture Cave deposit. It is necessary to identify sites representing different statuses in order to compare the composition and treatment of species between them, to determine whether the pig-rich pattern may represent a status rather than a symbolic deposit. While the representation of status has yet to be satisfactorily resolved for Scotland, it is now generally acknowledged that brochs represent high status dwellings, with wheelhouses of lower status (Pearson et al., 2004:84). In a study of the Outer Hebrides the faunal assemblages of brochs (presumed high status) were compared with those at wheelhouses (presumed lower status). Assemblages at brochs were discovered to contain a higher proportion of pigs as well as of younger animals, especially calves and lambs (Pearson, 2004:94). The use of younger animals, in particular, is often recognised to reflect status in deposition as they indicate more luxurious and less utilitarian-consumption. In most low status Scottish domestic assemblages the general age of animals is recognised to be older than that represented within the high-status brochs or in more “unusual” sites (McCormick, not dated:13). The fact that animals either of a species (pig) or age (juvenile) which were not the most appropriate for the best use of resources (Smith, 2000:709) has been used as evidence to confirm that brochs are indeed high status (Pearson et al., 1996:57). This pattern of “high” and “low” status faunal assemblages being differentiated by pig as a species as well as by more juvenile faunal assemblages is corroborated by other sites not examined in Pearson et. al.’s (2004) preliminary study. For example the numbers of pig remains found in the “domestic” layers of the wheelhouses of Sollas and Cnip are visibly lower than in the broch sites of Crosskirk, Howe and Dun Vulan (see appendix 4). It seems apparent that there is some division in society being played out through food, with pigs being the only species through which status is defined. In this context using pigs at High Pasture Cave seems to fit the normal high status pattern.

As well as studying the reflection of status through pig remains, it is important to look at ways in which pigs and other species have been used in “ritual” settings or deposits, to determine whether High Pasture Cave reflects just a high status domestic assemblage or something rather more unusual. “Ritual” deposits appear in the domestic setting within both high and low status sites; for example the high status sites of Dun Vulan, Mingulay, Sandray and Dunsinane Hillfort and the low status sites of A’Cheardach Bheag, Sollas, The Udal and Hornish Point. This suggests that ritual behaviour was not exclusive to the upper echelons of society (Armit, 1992:70). Not all sites have produced evidence of ritual deposition, particularly within the domestic context, for example Crosskirk Broch, Howe Broch and Pierowall Wheelhouse show no evidence of ritual events. Similarly, there are examples of symbolic deposition outside of the domestic settings. For example, there appears to be a pattern of rituals involving the inclusion of pig remains as funerary deposits seen in cists at Lauder and burials at Clisbow, Queenafjold, Longniddry, Gairneybank and Uppermill (see appendix 4). Similar patterns are seen in burials of this period in other areas, for example the Iron Age “Arras” culture of Yorkshire/ Northern England where pig humeri or complete skeletons are often found with funerary remains (Stead,1979:17-18).The exhibition of potential “ritual” at High Pasture Cave comes from a site not seemingly in a domestic setting and the evidence of such assemblages in Scotland is far more limited. The deposition at High Pasture Cave is however on a different scale to the pattern of deposition of individual joints within burials elsewhere and as such is immediately placed apart from these identified “ritual” deposits within the domestic sphere and individual graves. 

It has been noted that the most frequently replicated types of “ritual” deposit across Iron Age Scotland occur in the domestic setting (Finlay, 1984:7), in particular the burials of partial or complete animal parts in pits within dwellings and the creation of specific placement of “arcs” of numerous repeated elements of bones or teeth, often centred around hearth settings (for example the arc of cattle metapodials at Bornais- Pearson et al, 2004:114). The burial of parts of animals in pits appears consistently across all areas of Scotland and occurs from the early Iron Age onwards well into the historic period (for example Cladh Hallan, Dun Vulan. The creation of arcs appears to exist solely in the Hebridean Island zone (for example, seen at Dun Bharabhat, A’Cheardach Beargh, Bornais and A’Cheardach Mhor (Mulville et al., 2003:28) and seems to be a specific trend in the middle Iron Age away from the deposition of animal bones in pits (Pearson et al., 2004:114). It is impossible to determine how the animals were deposited within High Pasture Cave because of recent post-depositional disturbance by cavers, but it appears that the bones were placed in specific places in the cave (in particular the individual cow deposits), although without any evidence of particular alignment of parts.

Despite the variation in the forms of ritual deposition the vast majority of deposits contain domestic animals, especially cattle and sheep. There does not appear to be a specific species most commonly used for ritual purposes and the pattern of animals used does not vary significantly across Scotland. While some “ritual” deposits include the remains of pigs, such as at Baleshare and Sollas, and in some sites pigs are treated differently to other species (for example Sollas in contrast to the cattle and sheep bones the pig remains were always cremated and placed exclusively in the hearth area (Campbell, 1991:145)) it appears that only in rare instances have pigs been used exclusively or as the main ritual species. When only one animal is used it is far more common for that species to be cattle, sheep or deer, for example Dun Bharabat, Dunan Ruadh, Bornais. Only at High Pasture Cave and Dun Vulan are pigs used exclusively in overtly ritual deposition. At Dun Vulan, neo-natal piglets were deposited within a domestic structure and so the ritual deposition is very different from the evidence at High Pasture Cave.  At Longniddry, Gairneybank, Uppermill and Dalenun pigs were deposited in a funerary setting as pork joints (particularly shoulder joints in graves), and it may be to these patterns that High Pasture Cave most closely relates. 

Across Scotland from the assemblages examined it is not pig but deer which appears as the species to most consistently exhibit obvious “ritual” connotations, being completely excluded from any of the below floor ritual deposition (pits) despite their known prevalence in the domestic sphere. It is hypothesised that their very absence from these settings indicates that they held some special status within society (Harding, 2000:29). This supposition is strengthened by deer being the only species to have been directly represented in pottery (discovered in the Hebrides (Pearson, 1996:59)). They are also particularly prevalent in Pictish pictorial representations which has again been used to suggest a heightened symbolism surrounding them (Foster, 1996:74-5). Deer have certainly been used in many ritual settings across Scotland, for example at Cnip, Duntroon, Bostadh, A’Cheadhach Bheag and Queenafjold, and have also been identified as special because of their exceptionally high frequencies at Northton and Tiree (Pearson et al., 1999:21).

Although faunal assemblages are the focus of this study it must be remembered that ritual deposits are not only comprised of faunal remains. Human and animal bones are often accompanied by other types of deliberate deposit, such as smashed pots, broken querns and artefacts (Mulville et al., 2003:28). Metalwork in particular was often placed into wetlands, rivers and caves in large numbers in presumed ritual deposition (Armit, 1996:101) such as at Carlingwarch Loch, Blackburn Mill and Eckford (Hingley, 1998:51). At High Pasture Cave evidence of metalworking has been discovered in the form of slag, hammer-scale and artefacts of metal, which may support the suggestion that High Pasture Cave had a ritual depositional function. Quernstones are another common ritual deposit often buried in rituals identified from domestic settings, for example at Aldculne, where numerous quernstones were incorporated into the floors of two houses (Hingley, 1998:49-50). At High Pasture Cave the excavation to uncover the previous entrance to the cave, believed to have been blocked by deliberate in-filling and related to the Context 001 pig-rich faunal assemblage, has uncovered numerous quernstones from the fill of the blocked entrance to the cave and excavations at the surface. The apparent relationship between the faunal assemblage and the deliberate sealing of the cave with unusual items further supports the notion of the High Pasture Cave assemblage having a ritual function.

Figure 51: Quernstone excavated from Trench 2 at the surface end of the blocked cave entrance (Birch, 2005: Unpublished photograph)

While pigs have been shown to be used in ritual settings across Scotland they do not appear to have been used more routinely than other domesticated animals and only in funerary settings are they used exclusively as a species in all examples. So while a “ritual” and in particular a “high status” connotation can certainly be demonstrated for pigs across Scotland, it does not appear that they have a unique status as a ritual animal. At High Pasture Cave the evidence of a major single deposit of numbers of pigs with unusual butchery, deliberate deposition in an extraordinary location and other apparently related significant deposits such as quernstones and metalwork, is clearly unprecedented and has no parallel in known Scottish sites.

In most Scottish Iron Age sites pigs are consistently present from the Iron Age onwards and are the third most common species after cattle and sheep/goat, a result mirroring the situation in England at this time. The presence of pigs in assemblages from Scotland can generally be seen to mirror the limitations of their natural environment, being more restricted on sites from the Scottish Highlands and Islands than in southern Scotland. This suggests that the extra effort to maintain the pig population was deemed worthwhile only in certain locations.

The evidence seems to suggest that pigs had a role as a “ritual” or “status” animal and there is evidence from the Iron Age of the use of pigs as a status indicator, with their increased frequency at broch sites hypothesised to show that they were consumed in greater numbers by the people at the upper end of the social strata (Smith, 2000:720). Pigs appear the only species used to reflect status in this way. The use of pigs in “ritual” also appears clear, deposition of pork joints in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age being a particular pattern (Smith, 2000:720). It is also apparent that across the whole of Scotland pigs were used in a range of different ritual contexts such as feasting (Borness Cave), funerary deposition (Longniddry, Gairneybank, Duntroon burials) and ritual deposition in domestic contexts alongside other animals (for example Sollas). Pigs do not appear to have been singled out as an indicator of ritual as they were for status, red deer being used far more often in this role. High Pasture Cave is unprecedented in the concentration of pigs deposited. Where pigs had been used in rituals at other Scottish sites it was often alongside significant deposits of other species and at no other sites have pigs been singled out as the major “ritual” animal.

While the lack of available sites for comparison is an inhibition, the placement of High Pasture into a Scottish context emphasises the importance of this assemblage and its potential to provide information about a type of behaviour unidentified elsewhere. There appears to be no evidence of directly similar deposits within other locations in Scotland and the comparison serves to highlight the unique nature of the assemblage within the domestic and ritual deposits of other Scottish sites.

Chapter 9: A Consideration of the Theoretical Understanding of ‘Unusual’ Faunal Deposits

From the faunal analysis and comparison to other known sites in Scotland (see chapter 8) it is apparent that the High Pasture Cave assemblage has features setting it apart from the normal domestic deposits of the Scottish Iron Age. It is important to consider whether these features provide enough evidence to determine the assemblage as ritual or symbolic rather than just atypical. Ritual deposition is acknowledged to be a difficult phenomenon to identify and interpret, as ritual itself is a very complex idea, varying widely across times and societies. Archaeology has recently made an overt move away from a focus on “economy” to rectify the previous neglect of symbolic dimensions in human behaviour and thus in material culture (Demoule, 2001:279), recognising that rituals are a significant and valid aspect of social life. Ritual events can serve as social markers to differentiate or integrate groups of people (O’Day et al., 2004:xii) and can be considered as an equally valid possibility to economy and equally important to investigate.

Many archaeologists use a “when there is no other explanation” approach to ritual identification to prevent errors in interpretation. Luff, for example, when examining the faunal remains at Tell el-Armana, methodically eradicated all other explanations (such as taphonomy) which may have caused patterns, in order to confidently conclude that the remains were created by ritual means (Luff, 1996:1). This approach has been adopted in the examination of the remains at High Pasture Cave and it has been clearly demonstrated that the assemblage defies any mundane explanation for its composition. To enable a view to be taken on the intentions behind High Pasture Cave we need to examine the formation of the assemblage, both in terms of its deposition, which appears more structured than domestic deposition and in its composition, which does not appear to represent the normal composition of a domestic assemblage. As well as examining the theoretical reasons behind such patterns an examination of sites with similar attributes may provide an indication of the sorts of evidence needed to confer ritual intent on deposits.

Section 1: High Pasture Cave as a ritual assemblage?

In order to investigate the potential for High Pasture Cave to be a ritual or symbolic assemblage it is important to look at how ritual is defined and recognised in archaeology. Currently there is a debate about how to confidently identify normal domestic materials such as faunal remains, which often represent domestic consumption, as being part of any type of ritual or symbolic event (O’Day et al., 2004). It is becoming increasingly apparent that archaeologists need to at least consider the possibility of ritual purpose when examining such assemblages and to begin to understand where ritual fits into the society and culture of the past and to explore the variety of forms it can take in different times and places (Dietler and Hayden, 2001:2).

“Ritual deposition” is a term used to cover a wide range of cultural practices (Dietler and Hayden, 2001:3) and for faunal assemblages this is clearly visible when considering the spectra of forms of “ritual deposits” discovered in Scotland both in domestic and funerary settings, for example species distribution, placement and working (see appendix 5 for the variety of patterns identified as ritual). Archaeologists generally agree that ritual deposition can be defined as an event differing from the norm although one not necessarily of infrequent occurrence. Indeed, some argue that ritual by necessity involves “formalised repeated actions” (Hill, 1996:21) and that a pattern of repetition of specific patterns is itself a key indicator of ritual events. The assemblage from High Pasture Cave can not be confirmed as a single event or even multiple events at the same time of year from the faunal evidence, although the season of death analysis does strongly suggest the possibility of a single, or pattern of, Winter deposition. Despite no evidence of “formalised repeated actions” High Pasture Cave does differ from the norm within the context of other Scottish sites and under this definition can be defined as a potential ritual site.

Section 2: High Pasture Cave assemblage - a feasting deposit?

Ritual events are known to take many forms, even within a small geographic area, from faunal deposits encompassing single sacrificial events (for example Baleshare, North Uist) to deliberate deposition of parts over many years (for example The Udal, North Uist) and in many locations, from domestic (for example Sollas, North Uist), to specific deliniated areas (Cuween, Orkney). Feasting is often seen as a particular form where the ritualisation of consumption distinguishes it from everyday meals (Dietler and Hayden, 2001:3).

High Pasture Cave shows a concentration of pigs, most killed within the Winter months and of an unusually juvenile composition, with no processing for marrow consumption. While each of these elements on their own may not suggest feasting, together they support such an feasting interpretation, with the lack of marrow consumption indicating a surplus of food and no attempt to utilise all available resources. The specific choice of species and ages of the animals also suggests some purpose behind the consumption, as may be true of a feast. 

A similar site where the faunal assemblage has indicated feasting is Durrington Walls, a Neolithic circular henge enclosure in Wiltshire, dating to around 2800-2400 BC (Albarella and Serjeantson, 2002:33). This assemblage has some marked similarities to that at High Pasture Cave and may strengthen the argument that the assemblage at High Pasture Cave is the product of a feasting event. At Durrington Walls the discovery of large quantities of animal bones dominated by pig has been considered to reflect ceremonial and feasting waste (Albarella and Serjeantson, 2002:33). Pigs at Durrington Walls were killed predominantly between one and three years of age which is argued to suggest feasting as they would have been mature enough to produce substantial amounts of meat but would still have been tender (Albarella and Serjeantson, 2002:33). This mirrors the age range of the pigs at High Pasture Cave. The bones at Durrington Walls like High Pasture Cave were mostly complete and show evidence of swift burial without intensive butchery or working, a feature which was used as evidence to distinguish Durrington Walls from more “utilitarian” consumption sites (Klein and Cruz-Uribe 1984:4). The large amounts of meat produced in short periods of time reflecting feasting could also apply at High Pasture Cave, given the similarity of the assemblage composition.

Another site with similar attributes to High Pasture Cave is that of Dun Ailinne, Ireland, an Iron Age ceremonial site. Dun Ailinne like Durrington Walls has also been identified as positive evidence of feasting, with pig comprising 35.5% of the assemblage at this location. The Winter season of death of these faunal remains (November-March) has been argued to fit the pattern of feasting, with a large amount of perishable food for consumption being made available in this season to utilise those animals not wanted for the next year.  The location of the animal bones within a ceremonial Iron Age henge monument and laid deliberately onto rough paving, has also been used as evidence to hypothesise a feasting event here and potentially one of symbolic value. High Pasture Cave also represents a Winter kill with placement of bones in an unusual location further suggesting that High Pasture Cave contains enough evidence to support the contention that the assemblage represents feasting. Winter traditionally is a time for culling and this tradition has later been absorbed into Celtic feasts such as Samhain (Pearson and Sharples, 1999:35) where Winter is seen as a time of rebirth and renewal. The availability of large amounts of food due to culling means that it is no surprise that if High Pasture Cave represents a feast it occurred in this Winter period and may tie into these traditions of Winter rituals.

Feasting representing a “de facto” ritual event is however debated and evidence of feasting can not automatically be concluded to be evidence of ritual. It may be argued that any occasion of a large communal meal could be recognised as feasting (Jones, 2002:132), whereas the purpose may be social rather than with any overt symbolic or ritual aspect (Dietler and Hayden, 2001:4). It is important to consider what such food would have meant to people in the past in order to examine what a possible feast at High Pasture Cave may signify. Archaeologists believe that diet and significance are linked by the fact that food is both sustenance and symbol (Milner and Miracle 2002:17, Pearson, 1999:39). The amount of meat being deposited at High Pasture Cave, potentially in one sitting, is too much for one individual to consume and may indicate the use of the pigs to engage sharing and the relationships this creates (McCormick, 2002:25). In other societies, such as Papua New Guinea when large animals or large numbers of animals are slaughtered there is always too much perishable food for one person to eat before it spoils, causing the whole of society to become involved in its consumption and disposal, thereby creating relationships through food (McCormick, 2002:25).

“They [Food remains] carry multiple symbolic meanings that may be purposely created, manipulated and deployed by dynamic actors”
(Milner and Miracle, 2002:1)

A common use of dietary remains to indicate status or to influence social relations rather than for overtly ritual purposes is shown through the consumption of luxury items. Luxury foods are those which are not necessary for individual survival, but are desired by many and attained by only few (Van Der Veen, 2003:409).

“A luxury good is a widely desired (because not yet widely attained) good that is believed to be “pleasing” and the general desirability of which is explained by it being a specific refinement, or qualitative aspect of some universal generic need”.
(Berry, 1994:41)

The domestication of pigs on Skye and the evidence from High Pasture Cave of large numbers being consumed without accessing all their nutrients is inexplicable and perhaps indicates their status as luxury, particularly when taken with the evidence of their greater utilisation in high status sites (see chapter 8).  The consumption of such a luxury, without maximising its food potential, together with the use of young animals may hint at an assemblage representing the remains of a feast event through which status was being denoted. The location of the assemblage within the cave is the strongest evidence that it may also be of a ritual nature, perhaps linked with the sealing of the cave. The use of such “luxury” food and the likelihood of it being for a large group of people may have allowed the “ritual” of the cave closure to enhance or establish social relationships (Dietler, 1996:87, Van der Veen, 2003:413 and Boone, 2000:87).

Section 3: High Pasture Cave assemblage - ritual deposition?

It is difficult to determine the intention of those who dispose of faunal remains, even when the pattern appears to represent a specific event type. Muir and Driver (2004:131) summarise this dilemma when they identify three major groups of “intention” behind the disposal of refuse, with Hill (1996:27) also identifying another category of deposition.

• Common refuse: The deposition of daily refuse- “ordinary” domestic rubbish.

• Ritual refuse: The deposition of refuse used in rituals but deposited in a
normal fashion as if it were ordinary refuse. An example of this
deposition can be seen at Tell el-Armana, where faunal
remains from temple ceremonies were depositied in normal
rubbish pits within the village (Kemp, 1994:134).

• Ritual Internment: The deposition of particular remains in specific locations/
fashions. The easiest to identify from the faunal record as
ritual deposition.

• Ritual deposition: The deposition of any refuse in a specific location/ pattern. 
Ritual deposition could be created from domestic rubbish,
with the deposition itself (specific location/ way deposited)
rather than the contents of the disposal being significant.
Particularly problematic to identify as zooarchaeologists
usually only have the assemblage to study.

Summary of identified intentions behind ritual of disposal, as identified by Muir and Driber (2004:131) and Hill (1996:27).

Deposition may encompass a “domain of practices” (Dietler and Hayden, 2001:4) all of which may have ritual aspects but which are reflected in different ways and it needs to be judged whether High Pasture Cave represents ritual deposition or just the disposal of waste following a feasting event, no matter how significant the event itself was. Considering the definitions of Muir and Driver, High Pasture Cave appears to reflect “ritual internment”, as it is a deposit of unusual character with its concentration of pig bones, two whole cow deposits and unusual butchery techniques.

Particular attributes of the archaeological record have been defined as strong indicators in the definition of ritual deposits and may aid the review of whether the High Pasture Cave “special” contexts represent this form. For faunal assemblages especially, criteria have been created to examine the patterns in faunal assemblages which may reflect ritual deposition (Whitchner Kanser and Campbell, 2004:2), arguing that ritual deposits contain distinct characteristics which make the assemblage stand out from usual domestic refuse on any individual site (see table 22).

• The presence of whole unbutchered animals/ articulated portions of animals
• The presence of very young/ very old animals
• The selection of specific parts of animals
• The abundance of one sex
• The abundance of a particular taxa
• The presence of rare taxa
• An association with human remains
• An association with grave goods

Table summarising the criteria identified by Whitchner Kanser and Campbell (2004) as reflecting ritual deposition in faunal assemblages.

Many supposed ritual sites in Britain have faunal assemblages identified as ritual which do not exhibit all the patterns suggested as highlighting ritual behaviour. For example, a series of Iron age pit deposits in Southern Britain identified as ritual due to unusual deposition of joints and whole animals are located within a domestic setting and often mixed with identified “domestic” refuse (Maltby, 1996:17).  In contrast High Pasture Cave exhibits a high number of the required criteria; for example, the presence of young animals, the abundance of pig and the presence of complete animals and so High Pasture Cave appears, on examination, to better fit the “ritual deposition” definition detailed by Whitchner. The location of High Pasture Cave is also an indicator of ritual, an aspect not considered by Whitchner Kanser and Campbell (2004), although often used to support evidence for an assemblage being of a ritual nature for example the deposits from Tas-Silg Malta were identified as ritual not from their composition but because they were within a ritual sanctuary (Corrado, 2004:21). At Dun Ailinne the location of the deposits in a ceremonial henge site, as well as atypical patterns of species and age distribution contributed to their identification as ritual deposition (Crabtree, 2004). As previously discussed there have been few discoveries of faunal assemblages in caves in Britain. However some sites, such as the Iron-Age caves at Oban and Duntroon, do show evidence of human burial (Ritchie, 1997:91), being interpreted as signifying the importance of such watery and underworld locations and so support the premise that such locations are “special”. 

The location of High Pasture Cave within an area long noted for its concentration of ritual monuments, i.e. Kilbride (Birch, 2003:15), also helps justify the suggestion of a ritual deposit as it appears that the landscape of this area was traditionally seen as a place of significance. In the Scottish Iron Age examples of “ritual” faunal deposits have almost exclusively been recognised from deposits excavated from pits within the domestic setting, being identified by their variance from “normal” patterns of domestic refuse on these sites rather than because of their location (for example, Hornish Point and Sollas).  The location of the faunal deposits in High Pasture Cave automatically lends an air of the “different” about the assemblage, with very few deposits having been either found or examined from similar locations.

A consideration of the other items deposited with the faunal assemblages may also aid the identification of any deposit as ritual (Jones, 2002:135). For example items such as chalk blocks and quartz stones discovered in some of the southern British Iron Age pits were used to provide additional evidence for the argument that these pits represent ritual deposition (Grant, 1984:224). At High Pasture Cave, other artefacts were also deposited alongside the faunal assemblage, in particular numerous quernstones, hammerstones, bone and antler artefacts.

There is a long history of a relationship between metalworking and ritual across Britain in the Iron Age and in some cases unusual faunal remains appear related to such evidence. For example at Llanmaes in Glamorgan , a metalworking site dating to 800-500BC (Lodwick, 2004: Web Reference 3), a deposition of bronze cauldrons has recently been discovered (Lodwick and Gwilt, Unpubl.:2). Within the midden at this site and covering these unusual deliberate deposits was a large faunal assemblage dominated by 80% pig, which also contains a human skeleton (Lodwick and Gwilt, Unpubl.:3). While the faunal assemblage itself is unusual, with the large concentration of pig remains, the association with deliberate metal deposits and skeleton has aided the interpretation of the site as representing ritual deposition. The presence of metalworking at High Pasture Cave similarly provides a clear parallel to the types of site where this evidence was used to identify ritual deposition.

Throughout the Iron Age there is also a long tradition of deposition into “watery” places (Merrifield, 1987:23). In particular a large number of valuable weapons, cauldrons and pottery as well as quernstones (Merrifield, 1987:33) have been discovered placed into bogs, rivers and wells across Britain and interpreted as representing offerings to Gods or the underworld (Merrifield, 1987:24). The location of the faunal assemblage in a cave at High Pasture may also indicate that such “underworld” deposition is occurring here. High Pasture Cave is unlike other examples also in that the assemblage is the last deposit to be placed into the cave before it was deliberately sealed and indeed this placement can be seen as a strong argument for its deposition being both deliberate and ritual.

Section 4: High Pasture Cave assemblage - ritual working?

As already explored (See chapter 6) the deliberate division into sides exhibited at High Pasture Cave in the unusual pig and cow deposits is unprecedented from Iron Age Scotland, although there is some evidence from Europe of similar practices within pig deposits in cemeteries and graves (Green, 1992:57). From the precision of the division, through the centre of vertebrae and skulls it is apparent that this working is deliberate, and may suggest some formal intention behind the butchery with no obvious explanation for it. Additionally, from some sites elsewhere in Scotland, particularly within the Bronze Age graves of Longniddry, Gairneybank and Uppermill a prevalence of left-side joint elements suggests that the division of carcasses had some symbolic significance.

Section 5: High Pasture Cave assemblage- overall conclusion about its ritual nature.

It is evident that the deposits at High pasture Cave differ markedly from those of other Scottish Iron Age sites, which must suggest a difference in significance or purpose behind their deposition. The repetition of behaviour with regard to three “separate” deposits, that of the two individual cows and the pig-rich layer, together with the location, is a good indicator of ritual behaviour. The fact that the provenance for the assemblage is a cave cannot automatically be taken to indicate that it is a ritual assemblage as the inhabitants may have been merely using it as a convenient place of disposal and/or storage. However the atypical attributes of the assemblage, both in composition and working and the possible links between the deposits and the closure of the cave does appear to indicate significant or symbolic deposition as well as the potential location of some sort of feasting event. While no directly comparable sites in Scotland have been identified, sites with similar attributes do exist and these have all been interpreted as indicating ritual or symbolic purpose creating the assemblage, either through deposition or feasting.  Associated unusual depositions of quernstones and metalworking reinforce this impression of “ritual” or “symbolic” to the remains. It is the culmination of these patterns within the assemblage and its obvious difference to normal domestic refuse which allow us to conclude that the nature of the assemblage is symbolic (Crabtree, 2004:63).

“While any one of these characteristics can often be attributed to non-ritual behaviour, the coincidence of a number of these characteristics taken together may point to some kind of activity that can be seen as out of the ordinary, in particular useful if repetition of the deposition pattern can be identified”

(Renfrew 1985 in Luff, 1996:1)

While the precise intention behind the deposition of the bones can never be determined all of the evidence supports the interpretation of High Pasture Cave as, at the least, a deliberate and structured deposit of a faunal assemblage of specific character. The evidence for the structured butchery of the assemblage, in a way which is far more purposeful than that required for normal consumption, as well as the unusual location of the deposit, further indicate that something out of the ordinary is occurring here and invites an interpretation of symbolic or ritual intent. The assemblage is at odds both with normal domestic refuse and usual use of species and sites in the Scottish Iron Age and is one which exhibits characteristics that would be clearly identified as ritual elsewhere. From this examination it is also evident that High Pasture Cave appears to fit into an Iron Age tradition of unusual deposits associated with symbolic places and other deposits such as metalworking and quernstones, with the use of pig while not the predominant species associated with ritual for Iron Age Scotland, is not unique. In particular, patterns with pig used as high-status and also within the funerary context are apparent, and it may be into these traditions that the High Pasture Cave faunal assemblage is fitting.

Chapter 10: Summary, Conclusion and Proposal for Future Work


The assemblage is mainly consists of pig bones, potentially comprising of one major deposit which appears to be the last placed in the cave prior to deliberate sealing. Whether the cave closure and bone deposit are contemporary can not however be definitively determined. There are also two individual deposits of complete cows. Both were deliberately placed into the cave confirming that the cave was specifically entered to place faunal remains although whether the cows deposition was contiguous to that of the pig-rich remains is unclear. The butchery evidence from these deposits is atypical when compared to the “normal” domestic butchery of these species. While the cows were accessed for marrow the pig bones are complete which is unusual considering the subsistence level of the economy at this time and this provides some evidence to support an interpretation of a feasting event.

The working of the assemblage demonstrates the unusual practice of deliberate division into left and right sides, so apparently important to the process that all pig vertebrae were divided. No obvious reason for this division is apparent and it is tempting to consider some symbolic causation behind it. There is a predominance of pig skulls compared to post-cranial elements in the assemblage and in this context suggests that the assemblage does not represent domestic food waste. The pigs were domesticated and deposition appears to have largely occurred in Winter.  The Trench 1 deposits appear to represent a far more normal domestic assemblage providing a good comparison and emphasising the different nature of Context 001.

A comparison with other Scottish sites has highlighted the unique nature both in composition and location of High Pasture Cave. The dominance of pigs within the assemblage is unparalleled and suggests that they were being utilised beyond their economic value. Pigs can be seen as part of the ritual tradition in Scotland, but only part, with no other sites demonstrating such a pattern. A comparison to assemblages with similar attributes suggests that it may represent evidence of a single feasting event with the pigs being utilised as a “luxury” item and that this event is likely to have been related to the closure of the cave entrance.


The High Pasture Cave bone assemblage clearly represents a very important deposit of animal bones which is strikingly different to other assemblages of Iron Age Scotland. While it is impossible to confidently determine the motive behind this assemblage, it can be hypothesised that it may represent evidence of Iron Age feasting on pigs, a high-status animal, directly prior to deliberate deposition of the remains, before the sealing of the cave entrance. Before period the cave had been utilised in a far more “usual” fashion, as a place for deposition of domestic refuse and the assemblage marks a clear change in use of the cave.  As well as being evidence of feasting, it is possible to consider that this bone assemblage is so unusual as to suggest ritual deposition of the remains; with the butchery and division into sides, the predominance of a species not economic for the sites and the presence of other “ritual” items such as quernstones and metalworking, all suggesting this may be the case. While many of these conclusions can not be stated with complete confidence, considering the nature of any archaeological assemblage, it is clear that the excellent preservation has allowed this assemblage to give up more of its secrets than most.

Proposal for Future Work

While this investigation has learned much about the High Pasture Cave assemblage, both in terms of its composition and its interpretation, there is significantly more information that can be gathered through further research, with the on-going excavations.

Critical to future investigations will be to obtain more dating evidence to corroborate the date of the deposition of the animal bones and determine how the Context 001 (the only context dated) relates both to the Trench 1 deposits and the surface structures. To establish a chronology of the use of the cave it is crucial to understand whether there is a gap between the “normal” domestic use of the cave, with its deliberately laid paved floor and this last deposit, as well as to determine whether this deposit and the final closure of the cave entrance was contemporary as has been hypothesised.

Similarly, investigation must continue further on assemblages only recently collected from this site. In particular, an examination of the evidence of faunal remains from the surface of the site will be important to consider how it relates to the cave deposits, both the pig-rich layer and Trench 1, and also to evaluate any animal bones discovered in the deliberate infilling of the shaft. The faunal remains recovered from current and future work should be incorporated into the results of this study, to provide a comprehensive view of mammalian remains at High Pasture Cave.

Another potential area for investigation would be to examine the microwear of the teeth of the High Pasture Cave pigs to determine their diet. This is a relatively new area of study and would not only help to confirm the domestic status of the pigs but it would also provide greater information about how the inhabitants of the islands of Iron Age Scotland were caring for their domesticated animals despite the adverse conditions. 

Future investigation into cave deposits across Scotland and indeed further afield is also identified as necessary, both to discover whether there is a tradition of such use of caves and to allow greater understanding about how unique High Pasture Cave is.

Excavation at the High Pasture Cave complex is by no means complete. Trial excavation of the structures immediately above the cave passage is currently underway to provide informed recommendations for the 2006 fieldwork season and to attempt to locate and excavate the former entrance into the Bone passage. This aims to provide evidence to show how and when the entrance was closed and confirm the relation of this closure to context 1. Work is also beginning within the High Pasture Cave to investigate the extent and nature of the paved floor partially uncovered in Trench 1 (Birch, 2005:71). Up-to-date progress on the excavation can be found at


In the past few days, in the continuing surface excavations at High Pasture Cave, a human skeleton (probably female) has been uncovered. (See the site website (Web reference 3) for updates). While the skeleton has not yet been fully excavated it is located close to the blocked former entrance to High Pasture Cave within the proposed corbelling of the entrance and from the nature of the burial is believed to be of Iron Age date. Formal burials of bodies from Iron Age Scotland are very rare and believed to mark sites of significance, with this being the first such burial to be found on Skye (Birch, 2005: Pers. comm). The “ritual” Iron Age site of Mine Howe, Orkney illustrates this ritual use of faunal burials in Iron Age Scotland, where two burials are associated both with a complex underground structure and surface metalworking evidence (Card et al., 2005:1). Mine Howe has been identified as having many similarities as a site to that of High Pasture Cave (Web reference 4), including a heavily corbelled entrance and symbolic deposition of items into the shaft (Birch, 2005: Pers. Comm.).

The presence of a burial at High Pasture is very significant for the faunal analysis, perhaps confirming the unusual and ritual nature of this site. Whether the two are contemporary in date is unclear at this early stage, but potentially the feasting event postulated in this study could relate to the burial of this individual. At the very least the presence of this skeleton confirms the importance of this site and suggests that the site was being used as a focus of symbolic activity, supporting the case for a symbolic interpretation of features of the faunal assemblage.

From an examination of Scottish faunal assemblages the utilisation of pigs in relation to burials across a long period was noted, from the deposition of joints at the Bronze Age Scottish burials of Gairneybank, Longriddy, Dalenun and other burials and also identified elsewhere in Britain, to the Iron Age skeleton associated with the large pig assemblage at Llanmaes. It may be that this tradition of ritual faunal deposits with funerary remains is the one to which the High Pasture Cave is eventually determined as most closely relating, although this interpretation is premature until the skeleton is dated. The discovery of this skeleton highlights the importance of the continuing investigation into the faunal remains of High Pasture Cave as well as reiterating that this is a site with few parallels in Iron Age Scotland.


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Internet References

• Web reference 1. Ceron-Carrasco, R. (2004) Analysis of the fish remains and McLaren, D. and Hunter, F. (2004) Assessment report on small finds. (accessed June 2005).
• Web reference 2: Birch, S. Wildgoose, M. and Kozikowski, G. (2005) www. (accessed September 2005).
• Web reference 3: Lodwick, M. (2004) The Llanmaes Cauldrons. (accessed August 2005).

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