OPPOSITE Overlooking the Links of Noltland, on Westray, Orkney. Rescue excavations are working to record the remains of Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements beneath the eroding dunes and a cemetery associated with the latter period of occupation has shed revealing and surprising light on the population’s make-up, thanks to recent genetic research.

Prehistoric pioneers: how female migrants changed the face of Bronze Age Orkney

Analysis of human remains from the Links of Noltland, Westray, has revealed the first concrete evidence of a major influx of non-local people into Orkney during the Bronze Age – and, uniquely for the period, it appears that this movement of migrants was dominated by women. Carly Hilts reports.


Neolithic Orkney was a truly special place. Today, the remains of its imposing stone structures and ceremonial monuments speak of an importance and influence that reached a peak c.3200 BC. It was also a place of innovation, producing artistic motifs and a distinctive form of pottery known as Grooved ware that spread throughout prehistoric Britain and Ireland. As the archipelago entered the Bronze Age (2500-800 BC), though, its star appears to have waned. Orkney’s inhabitants seem to have lost interest in building impressive architecture and, unlike in mainland Britain at this time, the ‘Beaker phenomenon’ – a wave of migrants from Continental Europe bringing new ideas including metalworking and a particular kind of bell-shaped pottery that gives the movement its name – does not seem to have made much headway. Were Orcadians consciously rejecting these changes, protecting their exceptionalism (albeit in a rather anticlimactic way compared to their Neolithic heights), or had these once-influential islands become a Bronze Age backwater?

Overlooking the Links of Noltland, on Westray, Orkney. Rescue excavations are working to record the remains of Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements beneath the eroding dunes and a cemetery associated with the latter period of occupation has shed revealing and surprising light on the population’s make-up, thanks to recent genetic research.

For some time, this was the traditional view of Bronze Age Orkney – but now ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis led by the University of Huddersfield, examining human remains excavated by EASE Archaeology, has completely changed the picture. The study’s findings, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and in Antiquity journal (see ‘Further reading’), demonstrate that Bronze Age Orkney was much less insular than previously thought – and that the Beaker people or their descendants had in fact travelled there in large numbers, but had left a very different archaeological signature.

The dune systems have preserved the remains of prehistoric structures for centuries.

At the heart of the research is the Links of Noltland on Westray, Orkney’s most north-westerly island. There, EASE Archaeology excavations – led by Dr Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore, and funded by Historic Environment Scotland – have been exploring a prehistoric settlement extending over 5ha (see CA 275) beneath the dunes. Until recently, its Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology had been deeply buried, preserving structures and artefacts alike to an impressive extent; local soil conditions are also ideally suited to the survival of bone and other organic finds. With around 35 buildings excavated to-date, as well as extensive middens and field systems, and a cemetery that will form the focus of this feature, the Links of Noltland represents a prehistoric time-capsule spanning at least 3300 BC until 550 BC. However, the dune erosion that brought the site to light once more is now threatening its fragile remains, and archaeologists have been engaged in a race against time to record as much as possible before it is destroyed by wind and weather.

This plan shows the layout of the Links of Noltland finds, and the location of the various periods of settlement evidence.

Settlement and cemetery

The Links of Noltland is particularly valuable for understanding the differences between Neolithic and Bronze Age Orkney because it contains the remains of settlements from both these periods. The earlier occupation evidence includes structures contemporary with, and comparable to, those seen at Skara Brae, while the Bronze Age settlement (dating to c.2500-1200 BC) is the most extensive of this period yet found in Orkney. It comprises at least 12 buildings, which are thought to represent three households spaced about 50m apart. These clusters contain domestic and ancillary buildings made of curving stone and earth banks, which are generally arranged in pairs facing each other across areas of paving. The settlement also contains middens, a burnt mound complex, and structures possibly associated with crop-drying and -processing. Roughly equidistant between two of the household clusters lies the cemetery. Although their precise sequence is yet to be fully pinned down using Bayesian statistical analysis of the dating evidence, these spaces, dedicated to the living and the dead, are thought to have been in use at the same time.

This plan shows the layout of the Bronze Age cemetery, with its three loose groupings of burials.

So far, EASE Archaeology has excavated 56 graves in the cemetery, recovering the remains of around 105 individuals of both sexes and all ages, from newborns to mature adults. Both cremations and inhumations appear throughout the cemetery’s use, but the graves seem to be arranged in three loose groupings, each of which followed slightly different burial practices. The south-east cluster contains mainly inhumations; the north-west cluster has a large cist containing the remains of many individuals (of which, more below); and the southern cluster is almost entirely cremations. All three groups are thought to be contemporary, rather than representing an evolution of ritual practices: could it be that the three ‘households’ within the settlement each maintained their own burial plot and funerary traditions?

As for the graves’ occupants, most had been laid to rest curled up on their (usually, right) side. Some were so tightly crouched as to suggest that they may have been bound or wrapped before burial. This was not a uniform practice, however: two were lying on their left side, and four stretched supine – nor was there any clear link between an individual’s age or sex and how they had been placed in the ground. Equally enigmatically, some of the human remains showed signs of post-mortem manipulation, with single bones being inserted into the graves of other individuals in some cases, and parts of other skeletons apparently being taken away, perhaps as mementos (see CA 368 for more research into Bronze Age curation of the dead). Grave goods were present too, though these were scarce and simple in nature, mostly comprising sherds of poorly fired pottery, quartz pebbles, shells, and animal bone.

The Bronze Age structures at the site are generally arranged in pairs facing each other across areas of paving.

All three groups of graves contained both single and multiple burials; in the latter category, 15 cremation deposits were found to contain the remains of between two and four people, while six inhumations held the skeletons of between two and 22 individuals. This last figure comes from a single large cist that appears to have been periodically reopened to receive the remains of numerous individuals (both adults and babies), represented by nine complete or near-complete skeletons, and a quantity of disarticulated bone, almost like a kind of family mausoleum. This process took place over a long time, beginning c.1660-1565 BC, with the cist receiving its final occupants c.995-885 BC.

Both cremations and inhumations were practised at the cemetery, and its population included people of both sexes and all ages.

The diversity of burial practices seen within the cemetery is intriguing in its own right, but now an international team of genetic researchers – led by Professor Martin Richards and Dr Ceiridwen Edwards of the University of Huddersfield – has carried out aDNA analysis of some of the human remains from the site, with illuminating results.

Revolutionary results

Some 25 samples of petrous bone and teeth from the Links of Noltland cemetery were subjected to aDNA analysis during the study: 23 were successfully sequenced, and are thought to represent at least 22 people (two infant samples are perhaps from the same person). It was possible to determine the sex of 20 of the individuals, revealing nine females and 11 males. These results were compared to data for three Iron Age burials from the Knowe of Skea, also on Westray; 21 Neolithic burials from across Orkney; seven more from prehistoric Scotland, including from the Hebrides, Shetland, and the mainland; and eight from northern England.

Multiple burials were found across the cemetery, the largest being this cist containing the remains of 22 people in three layers.

The results of this research are revolutionary for our understanding of Orkney’s prehistoric population. In mainland Britain, the Beaker period heralded large-scale genetic turnover, suggesting that its Neolithic population was essentially replaced by Continental incomers (see CA 338). Given the relative scarcity of artefactual evidence for contact with the Beaker culture in Orkney, though, it had been thought that the archipelago had remained aloof from such changes. The picture provided by this new study could not be more different, however. Although the cemetery can only offer a snapshot of the settlement’s population (as the cremated remains, which make up around 50% of the burials, could not be subjected to aDNA analysis), we now have the first concrete evidence of non-local people in Orkney during the Bronze Age, demonstrating that there was indeed a substantial replacement of the islands’ population between the late Neolithic and the Beaker period.

Like in mainland Britain, the genetic ancestry of these newcomers derived in part from the pastoralist peoples of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, to the north of the Black Sea. The make-up of the Orkney migrants is strikingly different to that seen elsewhere, however. Across most of Europe, genetic analysis attests, these waves of Bronze Age migration were led by men, who then partnered with women from local populations. In Orkney, though, it was the opposite – the Bronze Age incomers were predominantly women, and they were partnering with local men, with Neolithic male lineages surviving for at least another 1,000 years – something not seen anywhere else in Britain.

One of the burials from the cemetery: most individuals had been laid to rest lying in a crouched position on their side.

What does this mean? The patterns identified through the aDNA analysis point to a patrilineal and strongly hierarchical society operating at the Links of Noltland, the researchers suggest, with household and land rights being passed down through the male line. The longevity of Neolithic male lineages also testifies to the stability of this settlement, they add. As Martin and Ceiridwen explain, ‘it may be that the heads of farming households in the Bronze Age were sufficiently socially entrenched to be able to manage and control what looks like substantial immigration over that period.’ 

As for how these women came to the Links of Noltland, we cannot know whether Orcadian men were deliberately seeking partners from the mainland, or if the newcomers were travelling under their own agency. Deliberate exogamous ‘wife-taking’ would explain the absence of Beaker men within the cemetery – but if immigration was being led from the mainland, why were only women coming to Orkney? It is possible that men were travelling with them, but were blocked from having children on the islands, Martin and Ceiridwen suggest – and perhaps they were then cremated or buried elsewhere, hence their DNA did not show up in the genetic study. ‘On the other hand,’ they argue, ‘the persistence of male lineages from the Neolithic implies the persistence of a marriage system, and perhaps that implies that Orcadian men travelled to the mainland to find partners.’

Some 25 samples from the Links of Noltland cemetery have been subjected to aDNA analysis, producing results representing at least 22 people.

This idea of female exogamy is the best fit for the archaeological evidence, Dr Graeme Wilson and Hazel Moore add. However the population replacement came about, it appears to have been a peaceful process, with ‘continuity of settlement and of land-holding, no evidence of warfare, conflict, or defensiveness, and no suggestion of sudden or dramatic change’. Instead, they suggest, the introduction of new people to the community may have had pragmatic intentions. ‘The landscape of Orkney was conducive to early agriculture, and it appears to have been fairly densely settled by the Late Neolithic period. It is likely that there wasn’t much “unoccupied” land available, and perhaps this discouraged large-scale immigration, at least in the early Bronze Age-middle Bronze Age period,’ they explain. ‘The appearance of women with Continental ancestry in Orkney through marriage may have been the main or only way in which “outsiders” were able to come and settle there. It seems likely that they were drawn into Orkney through pre-existing social networks and, as the population of mainland Scotland became more genetically mixed, so too eventually did the population of Orkney.’

Excavating one of the Bronze Age burials. Some of the remains were so tightly crouched as to suggest they had been bound or wrapped before being committed to the ground.

Redefining ‘Beaker’

The discovery of such extensive genetic change in Orkney during the Beaker period is striking because, historically, relatively little archaeological evidence for this culture has been found in the islands. Only a handful of sherds of Beaker pottery have been identified within the archipelago to-date (including some from the Links of Noltland middens, although none was found in any of the houses or burials), though it has been suggested that the appearance of barrow cemeteries on the island known as Mainland might also be linked to this culture. Nonetheless, the presence of people with Continental DNA but who did not leave many traces of the classic ‘Beaker package’ of material goods encourages us to reassess what the concept of a ‘Beaker identity’ means.

Genetic analysis of the inhumed remains revealed major population replacement in the Bronze Age, with incomer women partnering with local men.

‘Few Beaker period/early Bronze Age settlements have yet been excavated anywhere in Scotland and we do not yet have a clear overview of what “Beaker” might look like from place to place and over time,’ Graeme and Hazel say. ‘Although there are significant areas of Britain and Ireland where Beaker ceramics and furnished Beaker burials are absent or uncommon, previous studies have tended to sample “typical” Beaker burials but not contemporary unfurnished ones. This reinforces the link between Continental migrants and a particular material culture package – but perhaps, as at Noltland, migration occured at different speeds and involved a more diverse set of cultural associations than has been appreciated. Finding Continental migrants without Beakers at Noltland provides clear evidence that pots are not always a reliable proxy for the movement of people. In places like Iberia, pots can occur without genetic influx, while here we have people moving without (many) pots.’

Orkney was previously seen as something of a Bronze Age backwater but the genetic findings from the Links of Noltland indicate that it was as much a part of the Beaker world as mainland Britain.

Nor should the ‘atypical’ Beaker burials at Noltland be taken as a reflection of the local population’s resistence to cultural change, they add: ‘The arrival of these people coincides with the adoption of new forms of material culture (e.g. steatite and textiles) as well as radical departures in burial practices, architecture, and farming.’

Could it be religious conservativism at work, then? Martin and Ceiridwen wonder if, even if Orkney men favoured ‘marrying out’ and seeking partners of a different ‘faith tradition’ from the mainland, might they have preserved their own funerary customs for longer than we see elsewhere at this time? Surviving archaeological evidence, at least, does not support this kind of religious continuity, however, and Hazel and Graeme describe how Neolithic chambered cairns and other burial monuments became the focus of (often peripheral) later burials during the Bronze Age. ‘This occurs in Orkney and elsewhere, such as in Ireland – see research [free to download at http://www.sidestone.com/books/the-beaker-phenomenon%5D by Neil Carlin at University College Dublin, for example – and appears to represent a hybrid tradition’, they add.

Ultimately, it seems that the Links of Noltland households had adapted to doing things in a way that best fitted their particular circumstances. ‘This wasn’t a time of stagnation in Orkney: there are major changes at this time,’ Graeme and Hazel say. ‘Women probably played a key role in the dissemination of these new ideas. The societies they were part of were not stuck in the Neolithic or unable to adapt, but neither did they replicate “Beaker” cultural traditions – they instead appear to have turned away from earlier traditions like chambered tombs and large agglomerate settlements, and instead developed new ways of doing things that were better suited to the changing environment and a more diverse population.’

ALL IMAGES: EASE Archaeology, unless otherwise stated.
Further reading
H Moore, G Wilson et al. (2022) ‘Migration and community in Bronze Age Orkney: innovation and continuity at the Links of Noltland’, Antiquity, https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.185.
K Dulias, M G B Foody et al. (2022) ‘Ancient DNA at the edge of the world: continental immigration and the persistence of Neolithic male lineages in Bronze Age Orkney’, PNAS, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2108001119.