Dave Lawrence's PhD thesis

Dave completed his PhD research with the University of Bradford in 2012, his thesis is entitled: Orkney's first farmers. Reconstructing biographies from osteological analysis to gain insights into life and society in a Neolithic community on the edge of Atlantic Europe. Dave's thesis may be downloaded free of charge from the University of Bradford.



There has been historical failure to exploit skeletal data in archaeological syntheses of the Neolithic, compounded by poor or cursory osteological reports. This project aimed to discover what Neolithic Orcadian life was like, arguing from skeletal evidence.


Orkney's exceptional site preservation and large skeletal collections present opportunities for detailed analysis. The Orkney environment presented identifiable constraints to Neolithic lifeways. Isbister chambered cairn produced the largest assemblage of human remains from any single British Neolithic site. This was examined alongside other Neolithic collections to discover evidence for, and develop models of Neolithic life.


The demographic structure indicates that twice as many adult males were deposited as females. Few young infants were in the assemblage but disproportionately many older children and young adults. Stable light isotope analysis suggested age and sex-related dietary differences with a predominantly terrestrial protein source. Pathological conditions included scurvy, multiple myeloma and osteoarthritis. Trauma and non-specific lesions were common and affected all age and sex groups.


Prevalences of pathological conditions seemed high and may reflect a group selected for some reason related to disability or deformity. The interred individuals probably held some special status within their society. The chambered cairns' commingled bones do not indicate an egalitarian society or contemporary ancestor veneration but suggest monumental tombs had some special role possibly related to violent death or supernatural liminality.