Feasts, excessive drinking & Elves – it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!

Updated: Apr 20, 2018

Christmas is almost upon us and In the run up to all the festive excess (hic!) it's appropriate that Neolithic feasting at Durrington Walls hit the headlines recently with the launch of a new exhibition at Stonehenge. It appears likely that our Neolithic farming ancestors had some sort of midwinter celebration, especially in Orkney: faced with filthy weather, howling gales and 6 hours 20 minutes daylight at midwinter they'd need something to get them through the darkest days the same as we do, only without all the plastic tack 'n tinsel!

There's no definitive evidence for it, but the technology to brew ale was certainly available in Neolithic Orkney – malting ovens, barley, big Grooved Ware pots – and nothing gets you through an Orkney winter better than a couple of drinks (always drink responsibly of course guys – we at Team Swandro wouldn't want to encourage riotous behaviour – we're too old for that these days!). V Gordon Childe had Neolithic ovens at Rinyo, on the other side of Rousay, and we have an Iron Age oven here at Swandro:


Only a couple of hundred yards from the tomb threatened by coastal erosion at Swandro is another Neolithic tomb: the Knowe of Rowiegar (thankfully further inland than Swandro and therefore under no immediate threat of destruction). Recent chemical analyses on the bones of some of the people interred in the chamber have just been published. These were similar to findings from another of Orkney's famous tombs (Isbister, which itself contained the remains of more people than any other in Great Britain). It turns out that the Neolithic people's diet included very little fish. They ate some but not a lot. We find fish bones when we look carefully on settlement excavations, so these chemical findings seem strange. This sort of thing is understandable in landlocked areas and has been widely reported elsewhere but Orkney is an archipelago with relatively little good farming land and even so fish wasn't eaten much.

It also turns out that Neolithic men and women didn't get to eat the same food. Men had more animal protein in their diet than women or children. When women or children had animal protein, it was likely to have come from seafood; men got meat. No sex equality in Neolithic Orkney.

Possibly lots of drink-fuelled family rows though. One analysis found that about 20% of the hand bones had healed fractures of the hand beneath the little finger. This is nowadays most often the result of punches thrown whilst drunk. This is one area where there was sex equality. Statistically, men, women and children were equally likely victims of violent attack.


Skull from Isbister chambered tomb with depressed skull fractures

This skull from Isbister chambered tomb is probably from a middle-aged woman who had had a pretty hard life: she had a total of three depressed skull fractures including the one shown in the photo above, and she had also suffered a badly dislocated jaw. All of these injuries healed and may have been the result of either a sustained assault or a catastrophic accident such as a cliff fall. Since it's the season of goodwill I would prefer to hope that she survived an accident, but given the evidence from other bones from the Isbister tomb I could just be fooling myself on that one!


If you'd like to read much more on Orkney's Neolithic human remains (including details on the Neolithic violence mentioned above) there's a good PhD thesis freely available online from the University of Bradford by our very own Dr Dave Lawrence: Orkney's first farmers: reconstructing biographies from osteological analysis to gain insights into life and society in a Neolithic community on the edge of Atlantic Europe.


Many of Orkney's chambered tombs have evidence of Iron Age use and at Swandro, occupation continued into the Viking period. The Vikings certainly celebrated Yule, sometimes with murderous intent - one of Orkney's Norse earls, Rognvald Brusison, was famously killed at Yule 1046 by Earl Thorfinn the Mighty during a trip to Papa Stronsay to collect malt to brew his yuletide ale – although they were Christian by then there wasn't a great deal of Christmas spirit about! Even peaceful feasts could get out of hand, as happened at the Earl's Bu in Orphir during the Christmas feast of Earl Paul in 1136, when a couple of Sweyns had a tad too much to drink and it all ended in tears and a double murder.

In the middle come the Picts, who may well have celebrated Christmas although we have inadequate records to say so - they were certainly Christian by the time the pagan Vikings arrived to interrupt the Xmas festivities. Here is a picture showing Santa's Pictish elves busy making presents. This is adapted from an artist's reconstruction by Alan Braby, based on Swandro evidence for Picts, not elves.


And on that cheerier note we would like to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas with all good wishes for a happy, safe and prosperous New Year.

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Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust 

Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation No: SC047002 

Patron: His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay

Registered office: Bayview Birsay Orkney KW17 2LR   email: info@swandro.co.uk