‘Mr and Mrs Culduthel’

Two special people buried over 4000 years ago in Inverness

by Alison Sheridan


Here is the remarkable story of a woman and a man who were buried over 4000 years ago at Culduthel, in what is now the southern outskirts of Inverness. Discovered in 1928 and 1975, they are light-heartedly referred to as ‘Mr and Mrs Culduthel’ but there is no proof that they were related to each other in any way. What connects them, though, is that both were buried with rare and precious possessions that set their graves apart from other contemporary graves. Who were these people and how did they come to be buried with high-status possessions?

Thanks to developments in archaeological science, we are now able to unlock some of the secrets of these fascinating people.

Map showing location of Mr and Mrs Culduthel’s burials © Google Maps

‘Mrs Culduthel’

On 9 August 1928, when excavating sand and gravel on Culduthel farm, workmen came across a large stone slab, around 46 cm below the surface of a little, low hill. When they lifted it, they discovered that it had been the capstone for a short cist – a roughly rectangular, box-like grave, around 100 cm long by 68 cm wide and 56 cm deep, made from four slabs set on their edges, with a floor made from the natural pebbly gravel. The cist’s long axis was orientated north east to south west. It was a tight fit for the skeleton that lay inside – that of a young woman, lying on her back with her arms bent, her hands resting on her belly, and her legs tightly drawn up to the right, as if she was asleep. Her head was at the south west end of the cist and was turned to look towards the north west (Low 1929). This arrangement of the grave and the body is fairly typical for Early Bronze Age female graves in northern Britain.

Plan of cist (after Low 1929)

Luckily, the workmen realised that they had stumbled on something important so they put the capstone back and the tenant farmer, Mr Hugh G Johnstone, contacted Alexander Low, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Aberdeen, who came and investigated the grave. He identified the skeleton as that of a young adult woman, in her early 20s, around 1.54 m (just over 5 feet) tall – not so different from many women nowadays. There were no signs of how she died.

In the area of her waist, Low discovered the remains of a belt made from hundreds of small beads of jet and jet-like material, many lying under the skeleton. The woman must have been fully dressed when buried, but no trace of her clothing survived other than the belt.

Low carefully collected the contents of the cist and passed the soil through a sieve to catch any small items that may have been missed (1929). He found a fragment of a bronze awl (a tool used for piercing, for instance in making clothing of animal skin) and also reported finding a ‘small flake of obsidian’ – a volcanic glass – and ‘several small pieces of charcoal’ (Low 1929). The skeleton was kept in Aberdeen University along with the ‘obsidian’ and ‘charcoal’, while the belt and awl went to what is now the National Museum of Scotland.

The disc-and-fusiform bead belt © National Museums Scotland
The copper alloy awl © Alison Sheridan

Dial forward to the 1990s when the belt was analysed by Mary Davis and studied by Alison Sheridan at National Museums Scotland (NMS). It consists of 513 tiny disc beads of a material that looks like (but isn’t) jet, along with six larger disc beads of cannel coal or shale, 18 fusiform (barrel-shaped) jet beads, and a boat-shaped fastener of jet. The fusiform beads and the large disc beads could have been ‘recycled’ from a necklace. The jet will have originated in the area around Whitby in North Yorkshire, an amazing 400 km to the south east of Culduthel as the crow flies. Bizarrely, when Alexander Low published the find in 1929, he had arranged the beads to form a necklace even though they had clearly been found in the waist area! It’s now strung as a belt, big enough to go around a slender waist.

This belt is unique among Early Bronze Age ornaments of jet and similar materials, and it will have been a precious, prized possession of a well-connected VIP. The awl is a type of object found in some women’s graves of this period, and while metal would have been rare, it was nowhere near as precious as the belt.

More recently, the ‘obsidian’ and ‘charcoal’ were examined at NMS and were found to be a piece of 19th century bottle glass and coal-like material that had accidentally found their way into the cist!

The skeleton was studied as part of two major research projects in the early 2000s – the Beakers and Bodies Project and the Beaker People Project (Parker Pearson et al 2019; see ScARF HighARF Chapter 6.7.1). It was radiocarbon-dated to 2200–1970 cal BC, placing it in the Early Bronze Age. Bone, dentine and enamel from her body were subjected to isotopic analysis to find out what she ate and whether she had been brought up locally. The carbon and nitrogen isotope results showed that, like her contemporaries elsewhere, her diet was based on meat and plant foods – she didn’t eat fish. A big surprise came when her strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotope values were obtained: it turns out that she wasn’t a local at all, but must have been brought up a very long way away, possibly even in south-west or western Britain (Parker Pearson 2019, 395). What brought her to Culduthel? We’ll probably never know – but we can say that the people in this part of Scotland had far-ranging contacts.

Who knows what more we can find out about this fascinating, high status stranger? It would be worth analysing her DNA, and her skull is in good enough condition to allow us to reconstruct her appearance. Watch this space!

‘Mr Culduthel’

On 24 November 1975, during building work at Inverness Royal Academy, another NE-SW-orientated cist containing even more spectacular grave goods was found around 240 m to the north east of ‘Mrs Culduthel’s’. Excavated by Laurie Wedderburn, then of Inverness Museum, it was found to hold the remains of a man who had died in his 30s; he had been around 1.72 m (5 feet 6 inches) tall. He had been laid on his left and his skull was found towards the SW end of the cist. His skeleton gives no clues as to how he died.

The cist during excavation © Laurie Wedderburn, Inverness Museum

A large smashed pot, of a type known as a Beaker, was found close to his head, where it had once stood upright. This pot was big enough to contain 2–3 litres of drink or liquid food – an offering to sustain him on his long and difficult journey to the Otherworld.

The grave goods © NMS

His other grave goods are very impressive indeed. He had been buried with the trappings of an archer: a quiverful of eight very fine flint arrowheads (buried with or without their shafts); a stone ‘wristguard’; and a decorated bone ring from a belt that could have been for his clothing, to stop it getting in the way of the bowstring.

The flint arrowheads © NMS
The decorated bone belt ring © NMS

The ‘wristguard’ was made of tuff from Great Langdale in Cumbria, north-west England, around 350 km to the south west. It has four copper rivets capped with tiny sheet gold cones: this is the earliest evidence for the use of gold in Scotland. It’s most likely to have been an ornament, riveted to a functioning wristguard made of animal hide. Such objects were used to protect the archer’s wrist from the bowstring as it pinged back after an arrow had been shot. Amazingly, a nearly identical wristguard has been found in a man’s grave at Kelleythorpe in east Yorkshire. These would have been exceedingly prestigious possessions of the elite.

The wristguard of Langdale tuff, with gold-capped copper rivets © NMS

Also present was a flint strike-a-light, for making fire, and a tiny pendant made from a pebble of amber that had probably been collected from the shore. The fire-making tool was to make sure that the dead man was able to have a comfortable life in the Otherworld, and the amber pendant was probably a good-luck amulet, to protect him on his journey into the Afterlife. Amber was very rare at the time and it was probably believed to have magical properties, being a stone that could float and burn and was electrostatic.

The flint strike-a-light © NMS
The amber pendant © NMS

The man’s bone was radiocarbon-dated to 2280–2020 cal BC, which places him at the end of the Copper Age and the beginning of the Early Bronze Age; in theory, he could have lived around the same time as ‘Mrs Culduthel’, or at least within a few generations of her.

The wristguard shows that the man was well-connected, but strontium isotope analysis of one of his teeth was to reveal a bigger surprise: he had spent the first few years of his life in the Antrim Plateau of Northern Ireland! Perhaps he had been involved in the movement of metal from Ireland to north-east Scotland – where people were making objects of copper and bronze – and he chose to show off his wealth and status according to the latest fashion in Britain (Parker Pearson 2019, 395).

As with Mrs Culduthel, we might be able to find out more about this intriguing migrant by analysing his DNA – which would also tell us whether he was related to her. Sadly, his skull isn’t in good enough condition to warrant trying a facial reconstruction, though.


Low, A 1929 ‘A short cist at Culduthel, Inverness’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 63 (1928–29), 217–224. Available online: http://journals.socantscot.org/index.php/psas/article/view/7757

Parker Pearson, M, Sheridan, J A, Jay, M, Chamberlain, A, Richards, M P and Evans, J (eds) 2019 The Beaker People: isotopes, mobility and diet in prehistoric Britain. Oxford: Oxbow.

For more information:

Culduthel Mains Bronze Age burial assemblage (nms.ac.uk)

Gold object of the week No. 5 | National Museums Scotland (nms.ac.uk)

Canmore IDs: Mrs Culduthel: 13513 (the belt is wrongly described as a necklace); Mr Culduthel: 13519

HERs: Mrs Culduthel: MHG3782 and MHG40902; Mr Culduthel: MHG3776

NGRs: Mrs Culduthel: NH 6639 4189; Mr Culduthel: NH 66603 42000

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 ScotlandNational Museums Scotland and the Universities of Manchester and Reading. The original blog was published in Canmore in Context and can be found here.