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Musings in honour of World 'Save the Frogs' Day

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

Listening somewhat blearily to BBC Scotland's 'Out of Doors' this morning (usually broadcast from the BBC car park in Aberdeen complete with bacon cooked over the campfire but now as with everything else coming from the presenter's homes) when my ears pricked up at the news that today is World Save the Frogs Day.

This rang a bell as I recently spent a Saturday distracting myself from the current situation (including as you might have guessed, the cancellation of this year's Swandro excavation, along with just about everything else), thinking about amphibians or to be more precise frogs and toads. This all started with an email from she-who-must-be-obeyed aka Dr Julie Bond, co-director of the Swandro dig, asking for a fact check favour. Julie is in the process of writing the 2019 dig's Data Structure Report (DSR - working from home obviously) and had just received the preliminary animal bone assessment, which mentioned that we had frogs and toad bones from the middens. She wanted to check on other Orkney references to said amphibians, but due to the lockdown had a bit of a problem as all her books were locked in her office at the University of Bradford, and apparently looking up frogs got missed off the approved government list of essential journeys for some reason. Hence the email to us, as here at Swandro HQ we have a fairly comprehensive collection of books, even if they are currently under lockdown themselves due to an 8-month-old German Shepherd cross puppy with a bit of a book fetish:

I had a vague thought that frogs and toads were an introduced species, and certainly couldn't remember ever reading any reports on amphibian bones, since most excavation reports concentrate on the edible domestic and wild animals, and when I'm reading old histories of Orkney I'm generally taking more notice of the archaeology than the flora and fauna, so I promptly took down the anti-puppy defences and got to work. (The references are at the bottom, feel free to ignore them but they're there if you want to check, and yes I do know that referencing the entire Birsay Bay volume rather than the individual specialist reports is sloppy, but there's loads of them and whilst I'm bored in lockdown I'm not that bored).

Anyway, amphibians do get mentioned in the various histories, I must've just not been paying attention. The earliest reference I could find is a bit of a negative, since Jo Ben's Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum in 1592 mentions the absence of frogs and toads in North Ronaldsay and Damsay (Mitchell & Clark 1908, 314 & 318) which seems to imply there were plenty elsewhere. There are a few problems with Jo Ben, not least that no-one knows who he was or really when the manuscript was written, 1592 seems reasonable but it was before 1657 (Johnston 1907 & 1915, 59; MacDonald 1936).

Common frog

The next report was published in 1693, by the Rev. James Wallace: 'Frogs are seen but seldom, yet there are some toads' (Small 1883, 16). Wallace's A Description of the Isles of Orkney is a wonderful little book and better yet the Small edition is freely available online

George Low, writing in 1776, recorded that Rana aquatica or Common Frog was 'Found in vast numbers in a small loch near Stromness where they deposit their spawn in the spring' together with toads as 'This species is often found in the evenings in gardens crawling in search of food no doubt' (Low 1813, 153 - 4). He goes on to say that people are scared of toads and kill them whenever they find them, apparently believing them to be poisonous. Seems a bit unfair, I quite like toads myself and you do still see them about in odd places, often randomly sitting in the middle of the road for some reason.

Common toad

This is all very well, but what about archaeological frogs and toads I hear you ask? Well, amphibian bones are tiny and delicate and so in the general course of excavation, particularly in claggy midden conditions, you'd be pretty unlikely to recover them by hand, you would need to be sieving and/or flotting to get any. This is borne out by a quick trawl of site reports, where broadly frog and sometimes toad bones turn up widely when there has been sieving, but not elsewhere.

From what I can see we've had frogs since at least the Neolithic, as they were certainly present in the Neolithic deposits at Isbister chambered tomb, where 200kg of main tomb floor were wet sieved (Hedges 1983, 31, Table 1; Sutherland 1983). Similarly Neolithic frog bones were 'present in quantity' at the Knap of Howar in Papay (Noddle 1983, 93).

Frog and toad bones also turn up in the Early/Middle Bronze Age deposits at the Point of Buckquoy and Brough Road, Birsay, and there was a single frog bone from one of the Brough Road Viking period middens (Morris 1989), whilst the Pictish and Norse farmsteads at the nearby Point of Buckquoy had toad bones (Noddle 1977).

So what were all these frogs and toads doing in archaeological contexts? Well they do tend to wander about quite widely so could quite easily have ambled into a site and got themselves accidentally incorporated into the archaeology, or been dropped by a passing predator such as an overflying bird. I don’t think dogs would carry them into a site, but this is just based on many years of experience of taking various creatures off a large number of dogs, and none of them have been amphibians – vague memory that they taste or smell funny? At least funny enough that even a Labrador won’t eat them, which is saying something.

Were they eating frog's legs? Doesn't seem too likely, but then nobody ever thought that they were eating Orkney voles in the Neolithic until they did the research at Skara Brae (Rodents: food or pests in Neolithic Orkney

Maybe collecting frogspawn just for the fun of seeing it hatch out and grow up into frogs is something that children have been doing for thousands of years? We did it as a school project many years ago and I think they still do, as long as you make sure to return the little frogs back to their original pond it's environmentally friendly.

Frogs busy spawning in a pond in Stenness, Orkney
Frogs busy spawning in a pond in Stenness, Orkney

Just realised this has turned into a bit of a longer ramble than I intended, probably because the next item on the agenda is getting back to sorting the residue from the environmental flotation process which is not the most interesting of activities, even with a bit of help.

It does need to be done and we do have a backlog of about 100 or so boxes from the 2019 excavation to sort, and there's really no excuse not to do it at the moment, apart from the mind-numbing tedium of course.

Progress is also being made on the 2019 DSR, and if you are in the need of some light reading the 2018 DSR can now be found on our website for your delectation and delight:

Although everyone is of course devastated that we can't dig in 2020 we are consoling ourselves with looking forward to the 2021 season when hopefully we'll all be back bigger and better than ever, and this will all be a distant memory. Maybe even the midges will relent and have the summer off, unlike last year when we got eaten alive and the midge nets came out for the first time:

Meantime stay safe, and we're thinking of you wherever you are, and hope that you can come and visit us in happier times.

Finally here are the promised references, all of the Proc Soc Antiq Scots are online at:

Graham-Campbell, J 2004 ‘ this Country’: discovering the Vikings in Scotland Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 134, 201 – 39

Johnston, A W 1907 Replies: Jo Ben (including note by R. St Clair & comment by Johnston on R St. Clair’s note) Viking Society for Northern Research: Old Lore Miscellany of Orkney Shetland Caithness and Sutherland 1, 300 – 3

Low, G 1813 Fauna Orcadensis or The Natural History of the Quadrupeds, Birds, Reptiles and Fishes of Orkney and Shetland Edinburgh: Archibald Constable & Co.

Macdonald, G 1936 Note on ‘Jo Ben’ and the Dwarfie Stane pp 230 – 6 in Calder, C S T The Dwarfie Stane of Hoy, Orkney: its Period and Purpose Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 70, 217 – 236

Mitchell, A & Clark, J T (eds) 1908 Geographical Collections Relating to Scotland made by Walter Macfarlane Vol III Edinburgh: University Press (Publications of the Scottish History Society Vol LIII)

Morris, C D 1989 The Birsay Bay Project: coastal sites beside the Brough Road, Birsay, Orkney: excavations 1976-1982, Volume 1, Durham: University of Durham, Dept of Archaeology, Monograph Series 1

Noddle, B 1977 The Animal Bones from Buckquoy, Orkney pp 201 – 9 in Ritchie, A Excavation of Pictish and Viking-age farmsteads at Buckquoy, Orkney, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 108, 174 – 227

Noddle, B 1983 Appendix 4: Animal Bone from Knap of Howar pp92 – 100 in Ritchie, A Excavation of a Neolithic farmstead at Knap of Howar, Papa Westray, Orkney Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 113, 40 – 121

Small, J (ed) 1883 A Description of the Isles of Orkney by The Rev. James Wallace, Minister of Kirkwall reprinted from the Original Edition of 1693, with Illustrative Notes, from an interleaved copy in the Library of the University of Edinburgh, formerly the property of Malcolm Laing, the Scottish Historian, together with the additions made by the Author’s Son, in the Edition of 1700 Edinburgh: William Brown

Sutherland, S 1983 Microfauna identified in the sieve residue from the floor of ST3 pp149 – 50 in Hedges, J W 1983a Isbister A Chambered Tomb in Orkney Oxford: British Archaeological Report British Series 115



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