Revisiting Quanterness: new AMS dates and stable isotope data from an Orcadian chamber tomb

Rick Schulting (Author)

Alison Sheridan (Author)

Rebecca Crozier (Author)

Eileen Murphy (Author)

Bayesian Model, Monument, Human Bone, Chamber Tomb, Burial


A total of 20 new AMS radiocarbon determinations on human bone have been obtained for the Neolithic chamber tomb of Quanterness, Orkney. The results show poor agreement with the recorded stratigraphy, suggesting extensive mixing of the chamber deposits. A Bayesian model treating all of the determinations as deriving from a single phase of activity provides a start date in the range 3510 – 3220 cal BC (most probably falling after 3450 cal BC), with the main phase of burial activity ending in the range 2850–2790 cal BC (95.4% probability). This presents a tighter range than previously available, but nevertheless appears to confirm the longevity of burial activity at the monument. Osteologically, there is no convincing evidence for excarnation, and the representation of the small bones of the hands and feet, together with the absence of sub-aerial weathering, make it unlikely that the bulk of the human bone assemblage was brought in from elsewhere, as had previously been suggested. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope measurements average –20.5 ± 0.4‰ and 11.1 ± 0.6‰ respectively, indicating no appreciable consumption of marine protein despite the site’s location less than 1km from the coast. There are tentative but intriguing diachronic trends in both isotopes, with δ13C values decreasing, and δ15N values increasing through time; this could suggest changing farming practices, though the details remain unclear. The dating and the palaeodietary findings are discussed within the context of Middle/Late Neolithic Orkney, emphasising the former’s relevance to debates concerning the origin of Maes Howe-type passage tombs and the appearance of Grooved Ware. The radiocarbon dates support the view that Grooved Ware emerged as a novel pottery tradition in Orkney between c 3300/3200 and c 3100 BC.


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How to Cite
Schulting, R., Sheridan, A., Crozier, R., & Murphy, E. (2011). Revisiting Quanterness: new AMS dates and stable isotope data from an Orcadian chamber tomb. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 140, 1–50.

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