Archaeologists Detect Cereal-Specific Biomarkers in Neolithic Pottery from Scottish ‘Crannogs’

Archaeologists have focused on the analysis of preserved lipids from 5,600-5,300-year-old vessels recovered from a group of artificial/semi-artificial islands known as ‘crannogs’ in the Outer Hebrides.

An ‘Unstan’ type bowl recovered from the lake bed at Loch Arnish. Image credit: Chris Murray.

An ‘Unstan’ type bowl recovered from the lake bed at Loch Arnish. Image credit: Chris Murray.

“The consumption of domesticated plants and animals first emerged in Britain and Ireland in the centuries around 4000 BCE, and it accompanies other novel traditions, practices and technology,” said Dr. Simon Hammann, a researcher in the Department of Chemistry and Pharmacy at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, and colleagues.

“Recent analysis of ancient DNA confirms the view that migrant farmers from continental Europe were responsible for introducing these new practices and there is widespread evidence for the prevalence of domesticated animals and dairying amongst Britain and Ireland’s first farmers, even at the outermost locations of the archipelago.”

“Archaeobotanical evidence suggests that cereals were also consumed by Britain and Ireland’s first farmers. However, there may have been considerable regional variation in the importance of cereals within different culinary traditions across Britain and Ireland.”

“Cereal grains are consistently present in Neolithic archaeobotanical material from across Britain and Ireland, though often in relatively small numbers (less than 500 grains) and rarely in direct association with pottery vessels or only in ceremonial contexts, precluding the identification of specific culinary practices.”

Earlier analysis of Roman pottery from Vindolanda demonstrated that specific lipid markers for cereals can survive absorbed in archaeological pottery preserved in waterlogged conditions and be detectable through a high-sensitivity approach.

In their new study, Dr. Hammann and co-authors focused on pottery recovered from four crannogs, dating to ca. 3600-3300 BCE, recently discovered on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

“Crannogs are an intriguing and puzzling category of archaeological site,” the researchers said.

“These artificial constructions in lakes, including dwellings, occur throughout prehistory, in many historic periods and across the contemporary world. Such constructions are often domestic but can have other functions.”

“Despite the widespread geographical and temporal distribution of crannogs, the human activities associated with islet sites can be hard to discern.”

“Certainly, many of the more recent sites, such as the Iron Age islet ‘duns’ of the Outer Hebrides, are likely to have been used for defensive purposes.”

“However, a defensive function is not necessarily apparent for many of those sites with prehistoric origins.”

“Some were built in very shallow waters close to the shore, while others appear too small to have housed significant structures that would denote long-term occupation. Consequently, a number of archaeologists have suggested that they may have been built out on the water for symbolic reasons — to express a group’s social separation from the rest of society or to create a special ritual space separate from everyday life.”

During the analysis, the authors detected cereal biomarkers in one third of pots, providing the earliest biomolecular evidence for cereals in absorbed pottery residues in this region.

The findings indicate that wheat was being cooked in pots, despite the fact that the limited evidence from charred plant parts in this region of Atlantic Scotland points mainly to barley.

This could be because wheat is under-represented in charred plant remains as it can be prepared differently (e.g., boiled as part of stews), so not as regularly charred or because of more unusual cooking practices.

Cereal markers were strongly associated with lipid residues for dairy products in pots, suggesting they may have been cooked together as a milk-based gruel.

“It’s very exciting to see that cereal biomarkers in pots can actually survive under favorable conditions in samples from the time when cereals (and pottery) were introduced in Britain,” Dr. Hammann said.

“Our lipid-based molecular method can complement archaeobotanical methods to investigate the introduction and spread of cereal agriculture.”

“This research gives us a window into the culinary traditions of early farmers living at the northwestern edge of Europe, whose lifeways are little understood,” said Dr. Lucy Cramp, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Bristol.

“It gives us the first glimpse of the sorts of practices that were associated with these enigmatic islet locations.”

A paper on the findings is published in the journal Nature Communications.


S. Hammann et al. 2022. Neolithic culinary traditions revealed by cereal, milk and meat lipids in pottery from Scottish crannogs. Nat Commun 13, 5045; doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-32286-0


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