Case Study: Ava: An Early Bronze Age Cist Burial from Achavanich, Caithness

Susan Kruse

In 1987, a Bronze Age cist burial was excavated at Achavanich in Caithness (MHG13613), containing a skeleton, a beaker, three flint artefacts and a cattle scapula. Limited post excavation work was undertaken, and the report was never published. Maya Hoole launched a project in 2014 to investigate and publish the find. She employed a range of scientific techniques for the skeleton including osteological, ancient DNA, histological and isotope analyses, contributing to a facial reconstruction by Hew Morrison. Detailed analysis was also undertaken on the grave goods. Pollen analysis of sediment attached to the beaker provided evidence of the burial rite as well as the landscape around the burial. Radiocarbon dates were also undertaken.

Digital drawing of the Achavanich cist burial with the contents labelled.
Figure 1: Recreated plan of the burial based on site photographs showing probable location of the Beaker, cattle scapula and cranium ©Maya Hoole

The results showed that a young woman (nicknamed ‘Ava’ over the course the project) between 18 and 25 was buried sometime between 2300 and 2145 cal BC. Her cause of death could not be determined, though the presence of sphagnum moss pollen may relate to wound dressings (as it did in both World Wars in modern times).

Ava was 1.71 m tall, taller than many similar female Bronze Age skeletons, and she had a brachycranial shaped skull, a shape which is related to Beaker people incomers. Her spine had mild to moderate Schmorl’s nodes, probably the result of stress-related trauma, such as carrying heavy loads. Her teeth also suggested some period of stress or malnutrition when growing up.

The ancient DNA analysis was particularly revealing. It showed that she was born in Caithness but her family had migrated from the continent, possibly from the Netherlands, and probably relatively recently, as Ava had few or no ancestors from the British Neolithic population. She was lactose intolerant, a condition also found in some other Beaker burials. She had dark hair, brown eyes and a darker skin tone than most modern British people. She ate a high protein, meat diet, again similar to others at the time, despite relative close proximity to the sea.

Figure 2: Facial reconstruction of Ava by Hew Morrison based on evidence from research undertaken throughout the project. ©Hew Morrison

She had been buried soon after dying, and considerable effort had been expended on her burial place, with a pit hewn out of flagstone rock. This is in contrast to nearby Beaker burials where the easier option of digging pits through sand and gravel occurred. Vegetation was burned beforehand, perhaps to purify the area. Pollen analysis suggests that ferns, brackens and rushes may have been laid on the body. Her body was flexed, and like many female burials in the northeast, she was lying on her right side. Burial goods, presumably for the afterlife, included a flint scraper and two flakes placed near her head, together with a beaker and a joint of meat, a practice again found in other Beaker burials elsewhere in Scotland.

The environmental analysis suggested that animals probably grazed nearby. The area had heathland with wet areas, and woodland of birch, hazel, alder and pine.

The use of social media publicised the results, reaching tens of thousands of people. A website provides 3-D modelling of the cist (based on original photographs) and all the objects. Podcast interviews have been listened to by over 100,000 people. Comic book style banners have been prepared for promoting to youth events, and are being made into a comic book for children.

This research project is a good example of what can be gleaned by focusing on older excavation material, and applying a range of scientific analysis. The potential of ancient DNA analysis in particular for helping create a picture of an individual in ways previously not available is very exciting.  The Ava project also showed the reach and excitement generated by a well thought out social media campaign, that brings alive old finds without dumbing down the material.

Further information

Shiels, Jenny and Campbell, Stuart 2011. ‘Sacred and banal: the discovery of everyday medieval material culture,’ in E.T. Cowan and L. Henderson (eds), A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland 1000-1600, pp. 71–2.

Hoole, M., Sheridan, A., Boyle, A., Booth, T., Brace, S., Diekmann, Y., Olalde, I., Thomas, M., Barnes, I., Evans, J., Chenery, C., Sloane, H., Morrison, H., Fraser, S., Timpany, S. and Hamilton, D. (2018) “‘Ava’: a Beaker-associated woman from a cist at Achavanich, Highland, and the story of her (re-)discovery and subsequent study”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 147, pp. 73–118. doi: 10.9750/PSAS.147.1250.

Parker Pearson, Mike et al (eds) 2019. The Beaker People. Isotypes, mobility and diet in prehistoric Britain, (Prehistoric Society Research Paper No. 7), Oxbow Books: Oxford.

The Achavanich Beaker Burial website