Dental analysis gives hints about Iron Age woman's diet

Dental analysis gives hints about Iron Age woman’s diet

Posted on October 25, 2022

Researchers studying the teeth of an elderly woman who lived 2,000 years ago mapped her diet from infancy to before her death.

The remaining “sheikh” teeth. Credit: UHI Institute of Archeology

The work, carried out at the British Geological Survey’s isotope facility by researchers at the University of York, has provided further insight into the lifestyle of Iron Age people, showing evidence of a diet that included fish.

Although fish is expected to be part of the diet of humans who live near the sea, it was not generally eaten by people in Britain for thousands of years between the beginning of agriculture and the medieval period.

The woman’s lower jaw, often referred to as “the oldest” due to her age – estimated to be around 50 or older – was enclosed in a ritual deposit inside a whalebone bowl, along with three newly born lambs in the Iron Age settlement, Cairns, south of Ronaldsay, Orkney.

brooch tower

Found outside the brooch tower – circular carousel with Double crystal stone walls – the whalebone bowl was also set alongside two large red antlers and a saddle – a large stone hollowed out for grinding grains into flour.

Professor Ian Armitt of York University Department of archaeologyHe said, “Isotopic analysis of this woman’s jawbone has previously shown evidence of marine protein consumption. This was just a small snapshot of her life before her death, and it wasn’t clear whether fish was a constant component of her diet, or just a necessity in her later years.”

“She only had three teeth left that were particularly worn out and diseased, but one tooth was enough for us to analyze it and go back in time, from her infant years at about three years old, to her early adulthood to understand more about her diet at different stages of her life.” .

sea ​​food

The study showed that fish were routinely consumed throughout their lives, suggesting that Iron Age people in Orkney took advantage of the surrounding seas.

Site Manager cairns Martin Carruthers, Lecturer in Archeology at the Institute of Archeology at Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, said: “It is fascinating to be able to look at the early formative years of this older woman’s life and create something in her biographical details.

“We can now see that the marine food items that she ate were after all a normal part of Iron Age life, at least for her, and this allows us to proceed with further investigation into the diets of Iron Age society.”


The Cairns excavation is one of several sites included in the University of York’s COMMIOS Project, an ERC-funded program that investigates DNA and isotope analysis methods to improve understanding of Iron Age societies in Britain and Europe.

Members of the public can visit “The Elder,” and learn more about her life and times, in the Cairns Fossil exhibition: “The Cairns: Living in the Landscape,” on view at the Stromness Museum until October 30.

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