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Characterising life in settlements and structures: incorporating faecal biomarkers within a multiproxy case study of a wetland village

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Helen Mackay, Professor Andrew HendersonORCiD



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


Roundhouses are ubiquitous features of Iron Age landscapes across North West Europe, yet the way they were used internally is not well understood. We demonstrate how spatial analyses of steroid lipid biomarkers advances our understanding of household activities, living conditions and animal management associated with a well-preserved 5th century BCE roundhouse from Scotland’s first Iron Age wetland village, Black Loch of Myrton, especially when combined with more traditional archaeological approaches. Faecal steroids (5β-stanols and bile acids) are well preserved within the wetland roundhouse floor deposits. Diffuse faecal inputs are identified within these deposits, limiting the resolution of faecal source discrimination compared with studies of concentrated faecal remains. However, analysis of both 5β-stanols and bile acids enables discrimination between ruminant (sheep, goat and cattle), pig and horse/human faecal remains. By integrating faunal data and entomological dung indicators we are able to characterise the on-site presence of animals associated with these archaeological structures. Steroids indicate short-lived and/or temporary pulses of dung deposition within the Iron Age roundhouse case study structure, which can be very difficult to determine using other archaeological proxies. Furthermore, our multiproxy results demonstrate the molecular preservation of steroids within deposits that have been subjected to regular floor cleaning, which is associated with the removal macrofossil proxies. Comparisons of multiproxy faecal signatures of the inner and outer sections of the structure show temporal and spatial heterogeneity in usage and living conditions. The faecal signature points to temporary sheltering of animals within the inner section of the structure. The multi-use and division of different activities within the roundhouse, determined by steroids, marks an important contribution to broader archaeological debates surrounding structures, their functions and re-use.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Mackay H, Davies KL, Robertson J, Roy L, Bull ID, Whitehouse NJ, Crone A, Cavers G, McCormick F, Brown AG, Henderson ACG

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Archaeological Science

Year: 2020

Volume: 121

Print publication date: 01/09/2020

Online publication date: 25/07/2020

Acceptance date: 08/07/2020

Date deposited: 28/07/2020

ISSN (print): 0305-4403

ISSN (electronic): 1095-9238

Publisher: Elsevier


DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2020.105202


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Funder referenceFunder name
AH/M005259/1Arts & Humanities Research Council-AHRC (formerly AHRB)