Aurochs were much larger than most modern domestic cattle, having a shoulder height of around two metres and weighing in at 1,000 kilograms. On the Scottish mainland, aurochs were probably extinct by the Bronze Age, but in Europe survived until the 17th century.
However, the Westray aurochs — the first genetically verified identification of the animals in Orkney — were not native to the isles and had to have been brought in.
Hazel Moore, from Ease Archaeology, explained: “We have also been pursuing a parallel investigation into the genetic origins of the earliest domesticated animals, with a view to tracing not only the origins of the human population, but also the origin of their ‘farming package’, which might prove not to come from the same place.
A team from Basel and the University of Edinburgh analysed a group of 28 cattle skulls recovered from the ongoing Westray excavation. These skulls have been radiocarbon dated to between 3000BC and 2500BC.
Fierce and unbiddable creatures, Hazel suggested that the aurochs may have been imported to breed particular characteristics into domestic herds. Aside from the more practical aspects, they may also have had an important symbolic role, with their remains used in votive contexts, such as inverted skulls placed in a ring within the foundation of Structure Nine at the Links of Notland.
“It looks as though the Noltland herd was a mixture — aurochs, domesticated cattle and cross-breeds between the two. This is indicated by the findings of genetic analysis carried out on the skulls in the house foundations.
“It is interesting that most of the animals were older adults, coming towards the end of their productive lives, but still ‘good to eat’. The individual skulls were radiocarbon dated and, while further statistical work is yet to be carried out on the dating results, it looks as though they were not all killed at the same time, but sequentially over many years.
“This probably means that they were culled as part of the usual herd maintenance. Their meat would likely have provided a feast for the community and then some of their body parts, skulls mainly, were kept — possibly displayed — before being buried much later.”
Hazel added: “Given the age of these animals at the time of their death, it is likely that they would have been well known and possibly significant individuals, with long histories and numerous offspring – perhaps seen as ‘ancestral’ animals.”