Case Study: Sculptor’s cave, Covesea

A photograph of a stony shoreline leading to a grassy slope and a cave set in a dramatic landscape of vertical cliffs

Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea, showing the site at the base of the cliff © I Shepherd

The Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea, is located near the base of impressive cliffs where the Moray Firth meets the sea. The cave interior, some 13.5 x 20m in area and up to 5.5m high, is reached via twin passages, over 11m long, from a large entrance canopy. The site – inaccessible at high tide – produced a range of objects of Late Bronze Age date including several bronze armrings, ring money, a swan’s neck pin, pottery and worked bone, along with a very large quantity of human remains, predominantly those of children (Benton 1931; Shepherd 2007).

A photograph of scaffolding against a cliff edge and a person wearing a hard hat

Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea showing the site under excavation © I Shepherd

The presence of skull and mandible fragments in the entrance passages suggests the display of heads at the entrance to the cave. There is evidence to suggest that one juvenile frontal bone was deliberately defleshed, hinting at practices which involved the curation of human remains (Armit et al. 2011).

A photograph of 8 degraded penannular rings around 1.5cm to 2cm wide with 4 coated in gold

Hair rings from Sculptors Cave, Covsea ©NMS. ‘Hair rings’ from Sculptors Cave … The true function of these objects is not yet understood.  They occur in precious metal, as well as in base metal covered with gold sheet.  In northern France and the Low Countries they are often found with burials and with human remains in a cave at Han-sur-Lesse in Belgium

The very nature of this site – a cave that was often difficult and dangerous to access – is likely to have made this a highly appropriate location for the undertaking of ritual practices. A dark and frightening place situated between land and sea, the upper world and the underworld, this was a liminal location in which rites of passage – transforming children to adults or the living to the dead – may have taken place. It may also have provided an access point to the gods or spirits of the underworld. Interestingly, a concern with the human head re-emerged at the site in the Roman Iron Age, more than a millennium later, when a number of individuals were decapitated, again most likely in the context of ritual activities in the cave (ibid.).

Return to Section 5.4 Belief systems and ceremony in Bronze Age Scotland

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  1. Covesea Caves 2018 Excavations

    In 2018, a University of Bradford team returned to the caves, with funding from Historic Environment Scotland and Aberdeenshire Council. They conducted further excavations in Deer Cave, and other adjacent caves, to learn how extensive this later prehistoric mortuary landscape was, and understand more about the role of these enigmatic places in the lives of the prehistoric people who visited them. More details can be found on their blog.

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