by Lynne Mahoney
NB: This Case Study contains images of human skeletons. Reader discretion is advised. Before deciding to share these images, we consulted recognised ethical guidance on digital imaging and human remains.
The circumstances of your discovery
You were about my age when you died and were laid to rest in a beautiful part of Sutherland, on the bank of the Dornoch Firth.
It was September 2011 when you were discovered by Ronnie Fraser, a contractor from Tain, who hit a huge flat stone while digging a hole for a septic tank at Keas Cottage. The stone Ronnie struck was the northern capstone of your burial cist. As soon he hit it, he stopped work.
You were positioned with your skull resting beside a triangular stone. The fragments of a food vessel with charred contents were found close to your skull and there were the remnants of a possible sheepskin beneath your skeleton.
Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) was called in to carry out an archaeological excavation, and as curator of the local museum, I followed your story with fascination.
Your cist was situated on a raised beach facing towards the Dornoch Firth, and radiocarbon dating suggested you were buried about 4.000 years ago. I wondered if the scenery had changed all that much since your loved ones placed you on a blanket of sheepskin and laid you to rest in the cist within a large burial pit. Who were those people? Your close family, your friends and members of your wider community?
The cist was made up of four upright slabs of sandstone and granite. These were large and colourful stones, no doubt carefully chosen. They reminded me of the way we might choose the colour of a headstone or wood for a coffin, in our own day. You were found curled up on your right side as if you had just lain down to sleep.
The burial goods that accompanied you may have been gifts or perhaps your own belongings. These included shards of a food vessel, some organic material, a triangular ‘pillow stone’ and a small ring.
The grave goods
The triangular stone placed near your head is particularly intriguing. Had your head at one time rested on this stone and what significance did it hold? A similar stone was discovered in a Bronze Age burial at Cabrach in Aberdeenshire. It was described as ‘a wide stone raised like a pillow where the head had rested’.
The pottery shards found with you were from what we would call a food vessel. It had been decorated using cord, bone and even fingernails. I wondered who had made the vessel. Was it one that you had used daily or was it specially made to commemorate your death? The vessel had been positioned close to your head before the pillow stone was added. The act of placing the stone in the cist may have broken the urn. So why didn’t they take the vessel out before they put the heavy pillow stone in? The archaeology report suggests that this may have been to do with burial rites. It may have been important and significant not to move the pot. It made me think more about the people surrounding you in life and how much care they had taken with your burial.
The fragments of organic material found in the cist turned out to be sheep’s wool and skin. The skin particles might even be yours, but more analysis needs to be done to determine this. Sheepskin is not a common find in a Bronze Age cist and yours is the only one reported in Scotland. A fragment from a ring was also found. Although further analysis has to be undertaken, it made me wonder if these items represented the status you had in life, or the relationships you had.
The human remains: you
About 90 percent of your skeleton was recovered during the excavation, your flesh and soft tissue having long rotted away. From the measurements of your skull and pelvis, we believe you were biologically female, standing 1.70 metres in height with a slender build. You were in your 50s when you died.
And this is where our stories come together, as curator of Historylinks in Dornoch, just a few miles from your burial place, I was invited to visit you at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. This encounter recalled again the reality of a woman living quietly in the countryside. Your skeleton is delicate and beautiful. The bones have transcended time and, although fragile, are a solid reminder that you were a real person.
As I looked at your bones, I imagined you lingering to take a breath of air and admire the view while carrying out your daily chores. I mused about the colour of your hair, your eyes, your skin and I just can’t help wondering why and how you died.
You still had your teeth, and archaeologists suggest that you looked after them well and ate a low starch diet. The bony lumps found on either side of your sixth vertebrae make me think that you probably suffered with back ache. Archaeologists identified a joint disease probably associated with old age. Being in your 50s today is not considered old but a hard-working life would explain the deterioration of your spine. These findings make me wonder, about you and your family. Did you have time to relax together and enjoy your surroundings or was your existence driven solely by the need to survive?
I wonder what your given name was – were you named after family members or a place perhaps?
What might you have thought?
For me, your discovery brought up a myriad of complex thoughts and feelings. Initially, I was carried away by the excitement of the find. What can we learn? How can we interpret your story within the Historylinks museum? How can we engage the community in research about the find?
But, as I read the report and looked at work done by other organisations, academics and archaeologists, I realised that you were not just a ‘find’. That term removes you from your experience as a person. In life, you had your own thoughts, feelings and choices. In death, you were taken from your resting place, examined and deposited in a drawer in a museum store. It was unfortunate that your burial was disturbed but I hope we can make a new resting place for you nearby, under the protected gaze of Historylinks.
I wanted to find out more about you through scientific analysis. Would you have minded this? I hope not. I studied the ethics of displaying human remains. I looked at policies and researched other museums that had human remains on display and sought the advice of professionals. Eventually, I came to conclusion that if the museum and local community could represent you as a person and tell your story, then we should.
Where do we go from here?
Historylinks Museum Committee have been fund raising to build an extension to the existing building and it occurred to me that perhaps we could house a replica of your burial cist in that space.
After discussion with the Museum Committee and Trustees, it was agreed that we would make plans to recreate the place where you were found using digital interpretation and a reconstruction of a cist built into the floor of the museum. The space will provide a multimedia experience where people can be transported back to the Bronze Age through sights and sounds. The project will generate exciting opportunities for education, allowing school engagement, university participation and visits from the local community and holidaymakers.
It’s a chance to find out more about the grave goods such as piecing together the food vessel. The opportunity for further analysis on the contents of the beaker and the sheepskin is tantalising. Tooth and bone fragments will be analysed to allow us to find out what you may have looked like, what you ate and where you came from.
Perhaps we could create a digital map linking other Bronze Age burials in the area? Whilst I can never ask for your permission to share your story with the world, I hope you would approve of what we are trying to do (see distribution of Bronze Age burials in HighARF Chapter 18.104.22.168).
In time, there will be answers to many of the questions I have posed, but there is one question that can’t be answered by science or research. Why is this so important?
The only answer I can come up with is simply because the past is where we have come from. It can help us gain an understanding of who we are and give us a sense of belonging. You never know, it might help us to figure out where we are going.
Canmore in Context
This case study is adapted from a series produced as part of the AHRC funded Boundary Objects Project, a partnership between Historic Environment Scotland, National Museums Scotland and the Universities of Manchester and Reading. The original blog was published in Canmore in Context and can be found here.
Arabaolaza, I AR05: Spinning the yarn: a cist at Keas Cottage, Spinningdale, Guard Archaeology Ltd (2013). Available at: https://www.archaeologyreportsonline.com/PDF/ARO5_Keas_Cottage.pdf
Flemming, A ‘Soay Sheep: The Back-story’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 31, 2021. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/cambridge-archaeological-journal/article/abs/soay-sheep-the-backstory/F318078594A6B08D9242B17E010A0064
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, 73-118. Available at: https://doi.org/10.9750/PSAS.147.1250
Kruse, S Case Study: Ava: An Early Bronze Age Cist Burial from Achavanich, Caithness. Available at: https://scarf.scot/regional/higharf/highland-archaeological-research-framework-case-studies/ava/
Northern Times, Bronze Age human remains found in garden, 30 th September 2011. Available at: https://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number11089