Bringing the Early Iron Age to Life

Sheep Thesis – Rough Outline

Ok, so in an attempt to start getting this monster together, so I can release it out to the wild, I’m going to start with making an outline. My plan for this is that once I get the rough framework in place, and my thoughts sorted out, to write one or two points per topic. Then I will annotate the points. With luck, by approaching this paper in this manner, it will more or less kind of write itself. We’ll have to see how successful I am with that.

So, with that in mind, here goes.

Sheep “Breeds” in the Early Medieval Period Late Iron Age

This topic is a tangent to my interest in learning as much as possible about the people known to us as “the Picts.” My particular area is the islands that are Orkney, and the time period I’m most interested in is the 4th through 7th centuries A.D. In the early stages of my research, I came across references to woolen textile fragments – the Balmaclellan fragment (c. 1st – 2nd cent. A.D.) and the Falkirk “Tartan” (c. mid -3rd cent. A.D.) being two of the more famous ones. The other early woolen textile of note, from closer to my time period – at least closer to my persona’s location, is the Orkney Hood, which has also received a lot of attention.

Both the Orkney hood and the Falkirk tartan have been studied extensively and each has been recreated at least once that I know of. All of this begged the question of what “breed” of sheep was being kept by the early Picts and where did they (the sheep) possibly come from? That question surfaced in my mind some time ago when I first started down this road and seems to have taken on a life of its own. The resulting class, taught at Pennsic 38, and this section of my website are my attempts at sharing what I have learned on this journey. I am by no means an expert in this field, and I acknowledge that my research has really only just begun. I stand on the shoulders of giants in presenting my findings thus far.

This led to me wondering what kinds of sheep would have been available to the “average” Orkney woman of this period. Since most breeds weren’t ‘fixed’ (records kept of which ewe was bred to which ram) until closer to the 11th century – in some of the earliest “flock books”, I use the term “breeds” in the loosest possible manner. In this case, I’m using modern breed names, but hoping to shed some light on the development of the breeds in question by comparing certain shared characteristics in both conformity (body characteristics) and wool types.

  1. Geographic location – North Sea Basin
    • Orkney (main focus)
      • My persona is from Birsay. The Brough of Birsay – a known seaport on the NW coast of Mainland Orkney. The site has been extensively excavated, at least for the Viking Age. Some of the earlier Pictish locations are still relatively unexplored. There is a level of doubt as to whether or not the site was continuously occupied, or if it is the case where the Picts who had lived there (from evidence) eventually left and the Vikings who later ‘moved in’ were simply taking over an existing settlement site. Continuous settlement occupation versus periodic occupation is still openly debated in archaeology today.
    • Scotland
      • In particular, the northern parts of Scotland – north (and slightly west) of the Grampian Mountains in the region known today as Caithness.
      • The Outer Hebreides – as a source for modern feral Soay sheep of St. Kilda.
    • Shetland
      • Shetland is part of the North Sea trade routes that we suspect at least the Vikings to have traveled. If these were established routes by then, I conjecture that the routes were used during the Migration Period that predates the Vikings.
    • Norway – from immigrants/migration
    • Jutland (Denmark)
    • Faeroe – from immigrants/migration
    • Germania/Germany – from immigrants/migration
  2. Settlement/Trade Routes (?)
    • Prevailing winds (by season)
    • Tides
    • Ocean/Sea Currents
  3. The Sheep – Physical Characteristics
    • Dish faced v. Roman nosed
      • Native breeds (Soay, Orkney and other North Sea native breeds) have more dish-shaped (concave) faces
      • Romans introduced white-fleeced sheep to SE Britain around 45 BC
      • A physical characteristic of the sheep was the “Roman nose” a more convex shaping of the skull from the eyes to end of nose.
    • Fluke-shaped tail
      • Short tails
      • Possibly the source of “fat-tail” characteristic.
      • Roman sheep had longer, narrower tails
    • Clean legs (wool-free)
      • The breeds studied here all lack wool extending down the legs
      • Roman based sheep have wool extending down the legs
      • The lack of wool on the legs would make it easier for the sheep to travel in areas of heavy underbrush as well as making it easier to travel in marshlands and bogs.
  4. Wool Characteristics
    • Colouring/Markings – The “mouflon” markings of the original domesticated sheep (Ryder) – Darker on the back with lighter colouring below, although this can vary
    • The primitive breeds are almost all dual-coated – with both an outer coat and an undercoat
      • Outer coat (In the Icelandic breed, referred to as tog possibly of Norwegian origin)
      • Under coat/wool (In the Icelandic breed, referred to as thel possibly of Norwegian origin)
    • Shedding/Rooing – the undercoat is shed in the more primitive, ‘undeveloped’ breeds of sheep – a perfect example is the Soay breed
    • Roman breeds and cross-breeds are single-coated and as such require the help of a shepherd to remove the wool coat through shearing
  5. Sheep Breeds Under Consideration
    • Soay (Bronze Age) -The Soay sheep are today found on St. Kilda and are believed to be the feral descendants of the original native sheep of Scotland. While we cannot be one hundred percent sure that this particular breed is representative of a Bronze Age sheep, current information shows that it does exhibit many traits associated with very primitive breeds of sheep – the main characteristic being that it sheds its undercoat, which is finer and softer than the outer, hairy coat. Ryder refers to this as a kempy breed. The outer layer sharing characteristics closer to hair than true wool.
    • Orkney/North Ronaldsay (Iron Age)
    • Mouflon – The original sheep that was domesticated about 9,000 years ago
    • Shetland (Possibly OOP for my purposes)
    • Icelandic (Viking Age – OOP for my purposes?)
  6. Norwegian Parent Breeds – These are some of the possible parent breeds of sheep that are found in Norway and Sweden, as well as parts of Finland. It is possible that these are simply divergent breeds from the same root-stock that the Icelandic and possibly Orkney breeds developed from (possibly as cross-bred with the Soay).
    • Gammelnorsk Sau
    • Spaelsau
    • Gammelnorsk Spaelsau (Stone Age?)
    • Gammelnorsk Spaelsau-Herarsull
    • Villsau