by Matthew G Knight and Adrián Maldonado
We often think of the graves of the dead lying undisturbed and untouched until they are discovered by modern day archaeologists. But this is not always the case. Investigations of a burial from Golspie, in the Highlands of Scotland, have revealed an intriguing tale of ancient interest in even older graves!
Two cists at Golspie
In September 1956, two burial cists, or stone-lined grave ‘boxes’, were discovered close together during sand quarrying at Golspie school in Sutherland, in the Highlands of Scotland. Each cist contained a human skeleton (Woodham and Mackenzie1957). One cist also held some objects and burnt remains, which we’ll come back to later in our story. The skeletons were acquired by the Marischal Museum (now the University of Aberdeen’s Museum collections) whilst the objects and other remains were donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (now National Museums Scotland).
Stone-lined cists like these were common in the Early Bronze Age in Scotland (around 4,100–3,600 years ago), and burying complete, unburnt bodies was a usual practice (see HighARF Bronze Age Chapter 220.127.116.11 for more information). It would be fair to assume, then, that the cists at Golspie were two entirely routine Early Bronze Age graves. Or at least that’s what was thought at first. On closer examination the Golspie cists proved to be out of the ordinary. To start, early Bronze Age burial cists were usually constructed by setting flat slabs of stones on their sides to form a rectangular grave. The grave would then be capped by a large stone slab. In contrast, the first cist discovered at Golspie was roughly ‘pear-shaped’, instead of rectangular. The sides were also built out of five or six courses of small flat stones instead of single slabs. But the grave was then covered by the traditional single slab. The second cist was more conventional. It was built using the usual flat slabs set on their side. However, it formed a trapezoidal shape and was constructed with two courses of smaller stones to level up the sides. Then two, rather than one, stones were used to cover it (Woodham and Mackenzie 1957).
Unusual grave goods
The first cist was empty, apart from the skeleton, but the second included some intriguing deposits. In one corner of the cist there was a collection of burnt animal bones and some charcoal. Two unburnt animal bones were also recovered, including a rib with small cut marks. Found in the centre of the cist was a worn pumice ‘pendant’ and four fragments of clay moulds for metalworking. A perforated pendant would not necessarily be out of place in an Early Bronze Age grave, but the moulds were quite bizarre. They did not look like any other known surviving objects from this period. To date, no Early Bronze Age grave from Britain has been found with metalworking moulds (Woodham and Mackenzie 1957).
The exact purpose of the four objects that would have been produced using the moulds is unclear. Two were too fragmentary to work out what they were for, one mould appeared to be for casting a tanged or tabbed tapering strip of metal and the fourth was for a small, irregularly shaped plate with two perforations. Strangely, the mould for the strip of metal is similar to a type of object that occurs in the early medieval period. Moulds for somewhat similar objects have been found at the Brough of Birsay in Orkney (dating to 1,200 – 1,300 years ago), and Portmahomack in Easter Ross (dating to 1,200 years ago). In the original report, the fourth and most complete mould fragment from the cist at Golspie was compared to a bronze object from the early medieval fort at Dunadd in Argyll (dating to approximately 1,400 years ago; see Parker Pearson et al 2019). Similar examples have since been found at Anglo-Scandinavian Coppergate in York (dating to 1,000 – 1,200 years ago). While we cannot be sure, the object in question is probably a hasp, clasp or strap fitting, designed to fit onto another object. But these objects are early medieval, about 2,500 years more recent than the cist itself.
We can suggest another possible interpretation for the ‘pendant’, which might be a very worn whetstone or rubbing tool. Pumice is often associated with Iron Age to early medieval workshops in western and northern Scotland. It is usually used for the preparation of skins and leather. It can be used as an abrasive in craftworking activities for smoothing bone, leather or amber. And, interestingly for our story, the same sites mentioned previously that have moulds (Portmahomack and Brough of Birsay) also have perforated pumice ‘rubbers’. So, while the cists have oddities in their construction, they look generally Bronze Age in date, but the objects found inside appear to be thousands of years more recent.
A Late Bronze Age metalworker?
So, what about the skeletons? In seeking to unravel this further, the skeleton from the second cist was recently radiocarbon dated. This produced an unexpected date of around 2,750 years ago, during a time when unburnt skeletons are very rare. Analysis of the bones suggests that the dead person was an older, possibly male, adult. Analysis of the isotopes in their bones and teeth suggested that they may have grown up in eastern Scotland (Pellegrini et al 2019, 415). Clay moulds are more common in Late rather than earlier Bronze Age contexts, but we do not have other finds of metalworking moulds from burials (Mainman and Rojers 2000). Could this be the first known grave of a Late Bronze Age metalworker from Britain?
Resolving the story
However, even after all this investigation, we still faced a mystery. How could a Bronze Age burial contain a mould for an object dating to 1,500 years later than the radiocarbon date for the skeleton? The original excavators had clearly considered this problem, but still suggested that the second cist:
“…was apparently undisturbed when found, and the possibility of either moulds or pendant having been introduced at a later period than the original burial seems out of the question”.
In looking to solve this contradiction, we decided only radiocarbon dating the burnt animal remains and charcoal from the cist might help. Thankfully, it did. The resulting radiocarbon dates lie between 1,600 and 1,400 years ago, more roughly in keeping with our expected early medieval age of the moulds. This evidence paints a fascinating picture of the intriguing history of this burial, a prehistoric monument revisited in the time of the Picts.
Remembering and revisiting ancient monuments
In putting the pieces of the story together, we know that the individual buried at Golspie died in the Late Bronze Age. They were placed in a stone-lined cist that echoed burial practices from about 1,000 years previous but with some tweaks to the designs. The skeleton and the cist remained in place for some 1,500 years, undisturbed, but not necessarily forgotten. Something of the original monument must have remained visible above ground. We know that Iron Age and early medieval people had an interest in earlier burial monuments and must have recognised them for what they were – graves from the ancient past. For instance, in nearby Aberdeenshire, cremation deposits with Roman brooches and gaming pieces were cut into the Bronze Age cairn at Waulkmill. But this was not just limited to burials.
A silver hoard was deposited at a stone circle at Gaulcross, thousands of years after that monument was first constructed. Something rather different occurred at Golspie. Whilst other ancient monuments were being reused for burials, the second cist at Golspie was reopened in order to deposit a clutch of clay moulds, a worn pumice tool, animal bone and charcoal. The crouched skeleton was left completely undisturbed. No human bone was added, and the offering of animals and moulds may have been left as a kind of tribute to the long deceased. This revisiting of a funerary monument tells us a rich story about how the ancient dead continued to be relevant to the world of the living in the early medieval or Pictish period. Graves, both recent and ancient, were reopened in rituals that we see hints of, through the new offerings that were introduced. Here, we see how a Pictish population recognised ancient burials as important and relevant to their own lives. Did they see the dead as venerated kinfolk, ancient heroes, or maybe as troublesome spirits needing to be pacified? This discovery was made through the careful reassessment of the remains of the burials held by the University of Aberdeen and National Museums Scotland using modern techniques. It is a great example of the detective work that lies behind archaeological stories and of the many deposits which seem to take place in and around age-old monuments throughout time. This site tells us how people in the past recognised ancient places and incorporated them into both their own landscapes and their own beliefs.
We’d like to thank Gemma Cruickshanks for contributing her thoughts on the nature of the moulds and metalworking evidence, and Leanne McCafferty and Maya Hoole for drawing our attention to the 1955 aerial photograph.
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.
Craw, J H 1930 ‘Excavations at Dunadd and at other sites on the Poltalloch Estates, Argyll’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 64 (1929-30), 111-127.
Maldonado, A 2020 ‘The Pictish cemeteries’, in Campbell, E and Driscoll, S (eds) Royal Forteviot: Excavations at a Pictish Power Centre in Eastern Scotland: SERF Monograph 2. York: Council for British Archaeology (CBA Research Report 177), 67–80. Available online: https://doi.org/10.5284/1082003, accessed 9 May 2022.
Mainman, A J and Rogers, N S H 2000 Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Anglo-Scandinavian York, York: York Archaeological Trust (Archaeology of York 17-14).
Parker Pearson, M, Sheridan, J A, Jay, M, Chamberlain, A, Richards, M P and Evans, J 2019 The Beaker People. Isotopes, mobility and diet in prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society Research Paper 7), Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Pellegrini, M, Jay, M and Richards, M P 2019 ‘Oxygen isotopic analysis’, in Parker Pearson, M, Sheridan, J A, Jay, M, Chamberlain, A, Richards, M P and Evans, J (eds) The Beaker People. Isotopes, mobility and diet in prehistoric Britain (Prehistoric Society Research Paper 7), Oxford: Oxbow Books, 407–424.
Woodham, A A and Mackenzie, J 1957 ‘Two cists at Golspie, Sutherland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 90 (1956-57), 234–238. Available here: http://journals.socantscot.org/index.php/psas/article/view/8536