Isotopic analysis of skeletons excavated from a graveyard in the Scottish Highlands has revealed a story of changing diets among the Pictish and medieval communities at Portmahomack.

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers measuring a skull
Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers assessing a skull from one of the skeletons. [Image: Shirley Curtis-Summers, University of Bradford]
A photo of a skeleton, excavated but still in the ground
A Pictish monk buried under Tarbat Old Parish Church. [Image: ©Tarbat Discovery Programme]

Carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios were analysed in samples taken from 137 individuals who had been buried under Tarbat Old Parish Church, at Portmahomack, Easter Ross. The burials span hundreds of years and include two periods of Pictish occupation in the area: a farming community from the 6th century AD and the monastic community that replaced it in the 8th century, as well as later medieval and post-medieval burials that represent a lay parish church community.

The study was carried out by archaeologists from the University of Bradford, the University of Liverpool, and the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory to reconstruct the diets of the cemetery population. Their findings (recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102303) demonstrate that the small Pictish community living in Portmahomack c.AD 550-700 had a diet based on a mixture of farming and small-scale hunting, consisting of plants like barley, with some animal protein such as beef, lamb, and pork. It also appears that men were eating more meat than women, perhaps reflecting different societal gender roles.

Interestingly, there is no evidence that this community ate any marine or freshwater fish, despite the fact that it would have been readily available
in their coastal location. Archaeological evidence of naval bases, depictions of boats and sea beasts on Pictish stones, and references in literature demonstrate that Pictish communities had a relationship with the sea and would have been able to fish. However, images of salmon in Pictish carvings could indicate that fish had some symbolic importance, and it has been suggested that the consumption of all fish was deliberately avoided, or reserved for a select few.

The Picts who lived in the monastery that was built on the site c.AD 700 appear to have had a similar diet to their predecessors, although they may have consumed more meat. Additionally, a small quantity of fish bones was found, indicating that, although it was rare, fish was occasionally consumed by the monks. One burial, a middle-aged man, stood out from the others as having a much higher carbon-isotope ratio than the others, suggesting that he may have been a higher-status individual, perhaps the head of the monastery, who had privileged rights to eat fish.

The monastery declined after a Viking raid c.AD 800 (see CA 205 and 321), and it appears that the local lay population in the mid to late medieval period ate much more fish, possibly as a result of changing religious and cultural practices that allowed for the replacement of meat with fish during fasting, in addition to an increase in the fishing trade in Britain.

A photo of the church
Old Tarbat Church. [Image: ©Tarbat Discovery Programme]

This study reflects the importance of bioarchaeological studies to enhance our understanding of the past, and particularly of Pictish communities, which have often been archaeologically elusive (see CA 364). It reveals a story of changing diets and socio-economic situations among the people buried under Tarbat parish church, with earlier communities choosing not to exploit nearby aquatic resources, in contrast with later medieval parishioners.


This news article appears in issue 365 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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