Bringing the Early Iron Age to Life

Ok, so the title of this article is a bit simplistic. Still, I feel the need to “start at the beginning” in order to show a progression of where my research has taken me. For much of this, my primary resources were M.L. Ryder’s Sheep and Man and the website maintained by the Oklahoma State University ( where they list many different breeds of sheep – with pictures, which helped in sparking different avenues of inquiry.

Sheep, as a species, is considered to be one of the oldest, if not *the* oldest, species of domesticated livestock. Ryder maintains that sheep were first domesticated around 9000 B.C. in south-west Asia (Ryder, Sheep & Man, p 3). Our modern sheep (and in this I include the sheep from my period of interest) genetically point to a common ancestor – Ovis musimon – the European Mouflon. The genetic ‘evidence’ of this is that both modern domestic sheep and O. musimon share the same number of chromosomes – 54. The other “races” of sheep, Ovis orientalis (Urial), O. ammon & O. vignei (Argali) both have larger number of chromosomes – 58 and 56 respectively. Based on similarities in the Asiatic breeds, it is felt that the Argali was their major contributor, with the Mouflon contributing to our European breeds. Recent research into the mitochondrial DNA of sheep and by use of edogenous retroviruses has helped to confirm the relationship between the breeds of sheep that could have been raised by people of the 4th-7th centuries AD. It has also confirmed the European Mouflon (O. musimon) as the common ancestor to the sheep that will be introduced below. The sheep we’re interested in are considered to be part of the “first wave” of migration – the Soay, Orkney, Norse breeds (Gammelnorsk sau, spaelsau, villsau, etc.) with some hints to Shetland and Icelandic.

The sheep listed below are my “root” breeds of interest. They can be found in the Oklahoma State University “Breeds of Livestock” database. The entries for these breeds include photographs and some have links for more information.

  • Mouflon
  • Soay
  • Gammelnorsk
  • Orkney/North Ronaldsay
  • Another link about the North Ronaldsay