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A calf for all seasons? The potential of stable isotope analysis to investigate prehistoric husbandry practices

Towers, Jacqueline; Jay, Mandy; Mainland, Ingrid; Nehlich, Olaf; Montgomery, Janet

A calf for all seasons? The potential of stable isotope analysis to investigate prehistoric husbandry practices Thumbnail


Jacqueline Towers

Mandy Jay

Ingrid Mainland

Olaf Nehlich


The Early Bronze Age barrows at Irthlingborough and Gayhurst in central England are notable for the large number of cattle (Bos taurus) remains associated with their human Beaker burials. Previous work using strontium isotope analysis has indicated that most of the cattle analysed, and one aurochs (Bos primigenius), were of local origin [Towers, J., Montgomery, J., Evans, J., Jay, M., Parker Pearson, M., 2010. An investigation of the origins of cattle and aurochs deposited in the Early Bronze Age barrows at Gayhurst and Irthlingborough. Journal of Archaeological Science 37,508-515.]. In this study, stable isotope analysis of enamel and bone was carried out to investigate whether the mature cattle had experienced similar husbandry practices, climate and environment. Bulk carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotope analysis of collagen suggested most were consuming similar sources of plant protein from environments probably local to the sites and this was supported by high resolution intra-enamel carbon isotope profiles. Oxygen isotope profiles indicated the aurochs and most of the cattle experienced similar climatic regimes: the only exception being an animal with a non-local strontium isotope ratio. However, a comparison of seasonality profiles of the local animals using estimated tooth formation times showed that there was no consistency in season of birth: the animals appeared to have been born throughout the year. Cattle can breed throughout the year but it requires considerable human effort and intervention to successfully overwinter young stock; it is therefore unlikely to have been carried out without good reason and benefit if winters were harsh. One reason is to ensure a continuous supply of milk. Measuring oxygen isotope profiles to identify year-round calving may thus be a potential indicator of dairying economies.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Aug 1, 2011
Deposit Date Mar 6, 2012
Publicly Available Date Jan 22, 2014
Journal Journal of Archaeological Science
Print ISSN 0305-4403
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 38
Issue 8
Pages 1858-1868
Keywords Stable isotope analysis, Tooth enamel, Bone collagen, Intra-tooth sampling, Cattle husbandry, Dairying.
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Accepted Journal Article (584 Kb)

Copyright Statement
NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Journal of archaeological science. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Journal of archaeological science, 38(8), 2011, 10.1016/j.jas.2011.03.030

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