7.6.1 Deposition of Human Remains

Iron Age burial evidence has been elusive, though by the time of the National ScARF new evidence was beginning to be recognised (ScARF Iron Age sections 7.6). Since then a number of older finds have been dated and new Highland burials have added to the picture (see Table 7.12). Nevertheless, burial evidence is limited for the Highlands, with gaps in Inverness, Badenoch and Strathspey and Nairn, and many finds have emerged only by chance in recent years. Evidence is very sparse for the Early to Middle Iron Age.

Crosskirk brochCAD 130–340SUERC-23664Perforated femur head found on platform west of entranceMHG45519; Tucker and Armit 2009
Whitegate brochC210–50 BCSUERC-24961Cranial fragment from roundhouse interiorMHG1545; Tucker and Armit 2009
Wag of ForseCAD 130–340 AD 230–340SUERC-24239
Individual bones buried below roundhouse entranceMHG2404; Tucker and Armit 2009
AckergillCAD 256–530SUERC-2985Unstratified human bone in barrow cemetery; probably early medieval in dateMHG2135; Hunter Blair 2004
Kintradwell brochSAD 80–260SUERC-23669Cranium placed at interior end of broch entranceMHG9777; Tucker and Armit 2009
Dornoch Bridge QuarryS395–209 BC 405–235 BCBRAMS-2596
Two cremation burialsYoung et al 2019
BalnabruachER410 –230 BC  SUERC-13257Burial in short cist. In same area as early medieval burialsMHG14367; Carver et al 2016
FanellanI811–554 BC
755–409 BC
Small quantities fragmented bone in two pits at roundhouse. One pit capped by saddle quernMHG61055; Sneddon forthcoming
Sangobeg SandsNWS170 BC–AD 30SUERC-4527Inhumation of juvenille beneath Norse period houseMHG29877; Brady et al 2007
Loch BorralieNWS40 BC–AD 130OxA-16490Sub-rectangular burial cairn with 2 inhumations, probably multi-phase. Only one dated.MHG33474; MacGregor 2009; Case Study; Loch Borralie
Applecross Old SteadingWR156 BC–AD 53 AD 21–211
AD 27–214
AD 138–377
At least four male burials, lain on top of one another, underneath 19th century steading building and animal bones.MHG61030; Cathy Dagg, Ian Armit pers comm
High Pasture CaveSkyeSpan Early Iron Age to AD 25–90Remains of 13 individuals, some foetal. Closing deposit of woman buried with 2 infants. Also disarticulated human boneMHG32043; Birch et al forthcoming; Case Study; High Pasture Cave
FiscavaigSkyeSite dates to c. AD 50–150Human cranial fragment with drilled holeMHG51768; Armit and Shapland 2015, 38
AcharnLPossibly Late Iron AgeCharcoal from cist. Old date (1980s)MHG496
Dun Mhurchaidh, ArdnamurchanL521–412 BC (68.2% probability)Cremated bone beneath stone platform forming substantial structure. Ardnamurchan Transitions Project
Phil Richardson pers comm
Table 7.12  Radiocarbon dated Iron Age human remains found in the Highlands
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

The Iron Age in Scotland is noted for its diverse burial traditions, with local preferences, encompassing inhumation, cremation, and the inclusion of token body parts. The deposition of skulls or perforated bone could be interpreted as being trophies from enemies or veneration of ancestors (ScARF Iron Age section 7.6; Armit and Ginn 2007).

The Highlands indeed show a continuation of a wide range of burial traditions, for example with a burial in a short cist from Balnabruach and one from Loch Borralie in a sub-rectangular cairn; without radiocarbon dating these would have been attributed to the Bronze Age and early medieval periods respectively. The Highlands is not unique in this range of burial traditions, and the need for dating elsewhere has been noted (Cook et al 2018).

A Clava-type ring cairn from Laikenbuie, Nairn-shire (MHG54907) would have been expected to produce a Bronze Age date, but radiocarbon dates from the fill of a small hole in the centre, and from the early land surface beneath the cairn, produced Early Iron Age dates; this is reminiscent of late use from the Balnuaran of Clava South ring cairn (Scott and Jack 2016; Bradley 2000). This may indicate harking back to a much earlier tradition. No finds, however, provided information as to the Laikenbuie cairn’s function. 

In Caithness, burial of selected bone, sometimes pierced, appears at some broch sites (see Table 7.12). Many of these brochs would have been derelict, but they were clearly still seen as important in the landscape. This practice continues into the early medieval period (Heald and Barber 2015, 95ff; see also Chapter 8.6). 

From northwest Sutherland there is evidence of carefully chosen materials and layouts for burials. The juvenille aged eight to ten years old that was buried at Sangobeg Sands (MHG29877) had been laid on a platform of white quartzite pebbles on their right side with body flexed. Several red stones were placed near the body, with a flat slab beneath the head. The burial was defined by a rough kerb of larger stones, then covered with clean beach sand and finally capped with larger quartzite stones. At the nearby Loch Borralie burial (MHG33474; Case Study Loch Borralie Burial) the body had also been placed on a platform of stone and earth, covered by another layer of sand and then sealed by stones including quartz and quartzite. A ring-headed pin accompanied one of the Loch Borralie burials (Brady et al 2007, 74ff; MacGregor 2009).

Skull protruding from dirt in the ground
The skull of Skeleton 1 at Loch Borralie. ©Hugh Powell

Some of the best burial evidence from the Highlands comes from High Pasture Cave (Case Study High Pasture Cave). Disarticulated human bone and the teeth of at least seven and possibly up to 12 individuals were deposited in the cave fit the wider tradition of disarticulation, curation and deliberate deposition found on other Iron Age Scottish sites, representing various practices carried out over several centuries. The bones were probably gathered from bodies left to decompose naturally. The final activity at the site was the burial of a female with two infants, a foetus and a perinatal infant who died during the last month of development or during the first two weeks of life; these individuals were placed at the top of the previously filled in stairwell around cal AD 25–90. The foetus was placed between the knees of the female, while two small bundles of bones at her feet contained the remains of the perinatal infant, the remains of a foetal pig and a perinatal dog. DNA analysis showed that the perinatal child was not related to the woman. This level of ritual detail is rarely available for Iron Age Scotland and clearly indicates the presence of distinct burial traditions even if not fully understood. Only children who died before or shortly after birth were placed in the cave, suggesting that individuals of a very young age were selected (Birch et al forthcoming).

Evidence of burial under paving slabs comes from recent finds at Dornoch Bridge quarry and Dun Mhurchaidh, Ardnamurchan (Phil Richardson pers comm). At Dornoch Bridge quarry the burials were near a pit containing Iron Age pottery and charred plant remains, possibly related to a burial ritual (Young et al 2019, 41–2).

Burials at times seem isolated, as the two in northwest Sutherland, but some appear to often be in domestic contexts or settlements, although more work on direct connections between burials in houses is needed. It is clear, as in other prehistoric periods, that archaeologists have only a small selection of the burial evidence (ScARF Iron Age section 3.8).


Case Study: Loch Borralie Burial

Case Study: High Pasture Cave

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