8.6.3 Osteological evidence for interpersonal violence

The study of human remains for signs of interpersonal violence presents the most definitive evidence for conflict during this period. While previous studies of early medieval graves have pointed to interpersonal violence as a rarity among the buried population (Maldonado 2013), new work by Angela Boyle (2021) along with evidence from Cramond has overturned this (see Violence and conflict in early medieval South East Scotland Case Study).  

Illustration of soldiers taking part in a battle, centered on a bleeding man with his mouth agape, while the battle rages around him.
Reconstruction of the 6th century attack at Cramond Bathhouse © Alan Braby, courtesy of City of Edinburgh Council

The Cramond mass grave also underlines a particularly uncommon example. A mass grave of nine adults (five females, four males) and five infants was uncovered during excavations of the Cramond Roman bathhouse latrine in 1976. As they appeared to be mixed with later medieval midden backfilling the stone structure, they were interpreted as late medieval, perhaps a plague pit. However, radiocarbon dating of 8 of the adults later determined that all had died in the 6th or 7th centuries (Czére et al 2022). At least four of the adult remains have evidence of interpersonal violence, with two of the individuals showing signs of sharp-force trauma, one of blunt-force trauma, and another evidence for a blow to the head and a fractured mandible (Czére et al 2022).

Black and white photograph of a skeleton in the dirt, surrounded by a stone structure.
Cramond bathhouse latrine Burial 7 © Scotsman
illustration of a church in a town center.
Cramond Bathhouse in 6th century AD, reconstructed as a possible church © Alan Braby, courtesy of City of Edinburgh Council

Boyle’s (2021) analysis of human remains for violence and conflict in South East Scotland demonstrated clear evidence of interpersonal violence during the early medieval period. While the most significant concentrations of evidence for violence were located outside the SESARF study area (Lundin Links and Isle of May), both Cramond and Dunbar also showed significant levels of interpersonal violence in their assemblages. Other sites in the region also contained a few examples, such as Auldhame, Catstane and Thornybank. Despite the relative scarcity of actual weaponry found dating to the period in question, the human remains show clear evidence of their use.

Photograph of an excavated skeleton
Skeleton 801 from Auldhame © HES
Photograph of excavations of a burial site. In the foreground, there are four graves, two of which have skeletal remains. At a separate excavation spot in the background, three people can be seen digging.
View of long cist cemetery, Catstane, during the 1969 excavations © HES