Whale Burials at Cata Sand

The team encountered a big surprise during the 2017 excavation of the Neolithic house at Cata Sand when it became apparent that the scattered whale bones that we have seen on the beach surface came from two huge pits that had been dug through the corner of the Neolithic house and set at right angles to one another. Long lines of exposed rib and back bones could be seen helping us to identify that the bodies of many whales had been buried, and these can clearly be seen in the photo below:

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We undertook the painstaking task of excavating fully one of the pits, and recording in 3D detail the location of all the bones; we felt that the whales deserved to be treated with respect and care. We recovered the bodies, but no heads, of more than 12 whales from this pit, and genetic analysis has since proven them to be the remains of pilot whales. This analysis was undertaken by the team led by Vicki Szabo ‘Assessing the Distribution and Variability of Marine Mammals through Archaeology, Ancient DNA, and History in the North Atlantic’ (funded by National Science Foundation, USA).

The whale remains are probably the result of the historical practice of ‘ca’ing’ the whales, that is driving them onto shallow sandy beaches for the purpose of obtaining blubber. At times too numbers of whales would beach themselves. However it is possible that these whales are the ones referred to in an account by John Sinclair in the 19th century (John Sinclair, Sketches of Old Times and Distant Places, 1875) who reports that more than eighty ‘bottle nose’ (pilot) whales were driven onto the sands, and comments on the offensive smell deriving from the carcasses, which may well then have been removed into pits.

The photo below shows the whale bones at the left of the picture, with the open sea behind, with the narrow entrance into the shallow bay providing ideal conditions to such a hunt:

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From a modern perspective this seems to us a somewhat barbaric practice, but up until the early 20th century such deliberately or accidentally stranded whales represented a valuable resource in the Northern Isles and were welcomed as an occasional addition to a fragile subsistence economy. John Tudor, writing in 1883, illustrates the importance attached by the islanders to this windfall with the story of the Westray man, newly widowed, who, on hearing the cry of ‘whales in the bay’ left off making his wife’s coffin and joined the hunt. The Laird, on being greeted cheerfully by the new widower, expressed his surprise at seeing him at such a time – the reply was ‘Well, you see, Laird, I could na afford to lose baith wife and whales the same day’.  

From an archaeological perspective, whalebone has been found at prehistoric sites in Orkney, including at Tofts Ness and Pool Bay, both in Sanday; at the Knap of Howar, Papa Westray; Skara Brae, Sandwick; Rinyo in Rousay, and of course at the Knowe of Swandro in Rousay. Further analysis of the Cata Sand whales could tell us about the diet of whales, and radiocarbon dating would help identify whether they are from an historic ‘ca’ing’ rather than being of any earlier period. This will take place in the post-excavation stage of the site, following the final season of excavation in summer 2019.