Identifying seaweed consumption by sheep using isotope analysis of their bones and teeth: Modern reference δ13C and δ15N values and their archaeological implications

Magdalena Blanz*, Ingrid Mainland, Michael Richards, Marie Balasse, Philippa Ascough, Jesse Wolfhagen, Mark A. Taggart, Jörg Feldmann

*Corresponding author for this work

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Seaweed consumption by wild, feral and domesticated animals in coastal areas world-wide is currently likely widely underestimated. Seaweed consumption on the Orkney Islands by domesticated animals has become an established part of the archaeological literature, but the extent of seaweed consumption elsewhere is still largely unknownin archaeological contexts. The identification ofsmall amounts of seaweed consumption by collagen δ13C and δ15N values remains problematic, as it is unclear to what extent seaweed consumption is reflected in skeletal tissues, and how results may vary between different tissues. In this study, modern sheep consuming known seaweed (predominantly kelp) and terrestrial diets on the Orkney Islands were analysed for δ13C collagen, δ15N collagen, δ13C bone apatite and δ13C enamel to provide a reference for archaeological studies. Seaweed and terrestrial vegetation were also analysed for δ13C and δ15N(n = 122). Seaweed δ15N values did not differ significantly fromterrestrial vegetation on North Ronaldsay, indicating that δ15N is not a reliable indicator of seaweed consumption. In contrast, we confirmed that δ13C is a suitable marker for substantial seaweed consumption in all studied tissues in herbivorous diets in the absence of C4 plants. The consumption of both seaweed and terrestrial vegetation led, to a large degree of variability in δ13C results (−19.1 to −11.5 ‰) within one herd kept under a consistent management system, due to differences in the amount of seaweed consumedby the individual sheep. However, when only small amounts of seaweed are consumed (<25 %), this may not be evident in the δ13C collagen data. In contrast, when seaweed-consumption occurs primarily in winter, spring-born lambs may be expected to have substantially higher δ13C values than their mothers. This study emphasises the need for modern reference data in archaeology, and may aid the identification of seaweed consumption by herbivores globally.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105140
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Early online date24 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020

Bibliographical note

This research was funded by the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC; NER/B/S/2003/00223) and the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme. Stable isotope values in tooth enamel were measured at the SSMIM (Paris, MNHN) with technical support of Joël Ughetto. Modern sheep mandibles and/or information on sheep herding practices on Orkney were kindly provided by Robert Mainland (Rousay), Linda Haganand Una Gordon (Holm of Aikerness), Billy Muir, Dr Kevin Woodbridge and the North Ronaldsay Sheep Court (North Ronaldsay). We would like to thank Anne Brundle, Tankerness House Museum, Orkney (Point of Cott), Dr Colleen Batey, University of Glasgow (Earl’s Bu) and ProfJane Downes and Nick Card, Orkney College, UHI (Mine Howe) for providing access to the archaeological mandibles. The authors would also like to thank Jane Outram and Mandy Jay for assistance in preparation and isotopic measurement of the vegetation samples, which were kindly collected by Robert Craigie, and Karen Chapman for preparing the mandibles. Lastly, the authors are also grateful for the constructive comments of the editors and anonymous reviewers.


  • stable carbon isotopes (δ13C)
  • stable nitrogen isotopes (δ15N)
  • palaeodietary modelling
  • seaweed-eating sheep
  • prehistoric husbandry
  • dairying
  • seaweed stagger
  • Prehistoric husbandry
  • Seaweed-eating sheep
  • Stable carbon isotopes (δ C)
  • Seaweed stagger
  • Stable nitrogen isotopes (δ N)
  • Dairying
  • Palaeodietary modelling
  • Stable nitrogen isotopes (delta N-15)
  • DIET
  • Stable carbon isotopes (delta C-13)


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