Animal, vegetable or mineral? Characterising shell-lime, maerl-lime and limestone-lime mortar evidence from the Late Norse and Medieval site of Tuquoy, Orkney

Mark Thacker, John Hughes, Nic Odling

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Recent examination of an extensive curated assemblage of mortar samples, removed from the Late Norse and Medieval site of Tuquoy (Orkney) during excavation in the 1980s, suggested the collection was associated with distinct groups of compositionally contrasting materials related to discrete constructional events. Subsequent petrographic analysis supported this early interpretation and presented evidence for a remarkable series of phase-specific mortars, bound with a range of different biogenic and geogenic lime source materials - including marine shell, coralline algae (maerl) and limestone. Wider landscape survey highlighted the broad range of exposed calcareous materials in the coastal and sedimentary environments dominating the Northern Isles of Scotland today, and that many of these different potential lime sources were exploited by craftspeople at different times in the Medieval and later period is now clear.

Given the high significance of the Tuquoy mortar study for our understanding of the development of this culturally important site, and as a prelude to more general publication of the wider archaeological project, a further investigation of selected samples from the mortar assemblage is now being undertaken through a range of geoscientific techniques. This paper presents emerging evidence from a comparative petrographic, SEM-EDS and XRD study designed to further characterise these various mortar materials, and challenge those previous interpretations of contrasting building lime sources. Like most environmental archaeological investigations, this study is essentially concerned with interpreting the depositional histories of surviving materials, but with a particular focus on establishing the distinction between (anthropogenic) kiln relict and (natural) added temper mixtures when both contain biogenic and geogenic clasts.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 5th Historic Mortars Conference
Subtitle of host publicationRILEM Proceedings PRO 130
EditorsJose Ignacio Alvarez, Jose Maria Fernandez, Inigo Navarro, Adrian Duran, Rafael Sirera
Place of PublicationParis
PublisherRILEM Publications S.A.R.L.
Number of pages20
VolumePRO 130
ISBN (Electronic)9782351582220
ISBN (Print)9782351582213
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jul 2019
Event5th Historic Mortars Conference 2019 - Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain
Duration: 19 Jun 201921 Jun 2019
Conference number: 5

Publication series

NameRILEM Proceedings
PublisherRILEM Publications S.A.R.L.


Conference5th Historic Mortars Conference 2019
Abbreviated titleHMC 2019
Internet address


  • Orkney
  • Shell-Lime
  • Archaeology
  • Historic Mortar
  • Norse
  • Maerl-Lime


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