A calf for all seasons: the potential of stable isotope analysis to investigate past husbandry practices

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

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69 Citations (Scopus)


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, 508e515.]. 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1858-1868
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • stable isotope analysis
  • tooth enamel
  • bone collagen
  • intra-tooth sampling
  • cattle husbandry
  • dairying


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