by Helen Spencer
The skeleton of a man was discovered during construction work near the Bridge of Tilt, a small village next to Blair Atholl in 1985. This individual has come to be known as the Blair Atholl man and over the years since has been subjected to a range of scientific analysis.
The body was found in a east-west facing long cist burial. The cist was built from ten slabs of local stone. There were no grave goods in the cist, apart from a large flat, round stone, placed at his feet. The skeleton was dated by radiocarbon and was found to date between AD 400-600. Analysis of the skeleton showed that he died around the age of 45 and there was no evidence of trauma or the cause of death.
Analysis of the skull by a forensic artist enabled his appearance to be reconstructed.
This 5th–6th century burial has recently been subject to an advanced isotopic study as part of a commercial, community and academic partnership, enabling the employment of multi-isotope approaches to gain insight into the diet and early life mobility of this individual (see Czére et al in press).
The carbon and nitrogen stable isotope values of bone collagen extracted from the remains indicate a diet largely focused on terrestrial food sources. The results suggest the man ate a large quantity of meat like pork and possibly also freshwater fish or wildfowl. Elevated sulphur levels in his bones suggest that he spent some of the later years of this life living near a coastal location. Despite this, the carbon and nitrogen levels suggest that marine fish was unlikely to have made up much of his diet. This is very similar to the diet proposed for other Pictish individuals analysed from this period across Scotland. The fact that he had lived near the coast in later life means that he may have only been a relatively new inhabitant of the Blair Atholl area, before he died and was buried there.
The results of strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of his tooth enamel suggest that he spent his childhood in a more westerly location. He grew up in an area with older rock formations and in a place with a milder climate. Possible places that he may have grown up include the islands of Mull, Iona, Coll, Skye or Ireland.
These isotopic analyses and results show that an individual from western Scotland or even further afield traveled into the Central Highlands during the 5th–-6th century. He grew up in an area not known to part of Pictland but he then moved to the eastern side of Scotland at some point in his life. Even though he did not originate from what is normally considered ‘Pictland’ he was accorded a Pictish style of burial after his death.
Czére, O, Fawcett, J, Evans, J, Sayle, K L, Müldner, G, Hall, M et al (in press) ‘Multi-isotope analysis of the human skeletal remains from Blair Atholl, Perth & Kinross, Scotland: insights into the diet and lifetime mobility of an early medieval individual’, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal.