Violence and Conflict in Early Medieval South East Scotland

By Dr Angela Boyle

Background to the research

Recently completed doctoral research by Dr Angela Boyle (History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh) examined the skeletal evidence for violence in South East Scotland during the early medieval period (Boyle 2021). The region experienced several dramatic events during this time, including the end of Roman rule, the Anglian occupation and the commencement of Viking attacks. However, the traditional view that violence was endemic did not appear to be reflected in the skeletal evidence.

The research included analysis of human remains not previously examined alongside scientific analyses of selected skeletons. The latter included radiocarbon dating, isotope and DNA analysis. Human remains provide the most direct evidence of violence in the past yet regional studies remain relatively uncommon, particularly in Scotland. This is the first major synthesis of human remains in South East Scotland and includes the first bioarchaeological analysis of several important assemblages.

The dataset

The study group comprised 306 skeletons from 35 sites across the region which are mainly long cist burials, for example Thornybank (Rees 2002), Catstane (Cowie 1980) and Parkburn Quarry, Lasswade (Henshall 1958; 1967). It also incorporates the monastic site on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth (James and Yeoman 2008), the mass burial at Cramond Roman Fort (Czére et al 2022, the cairn cemetery at Lundin Links (Greig et al 2000) on the north shore of the Forth and the so-called Seacliffe Mausoleum (Turner 1917). The sites at the Isle of May and Lundin Links are just outside the SESARF region but their proximity to what would have been the frontier between Picts and Angles means they are key to our understanding of the nature and scale of violence in the South East. Indeed, highly significant examples of violent injury have been identified in both assemblages.

Much of the material recovered in the 19th century is better preserved than that which was more recently excavated. It was common practice in the 19th century, and to a lesser extent the early 20th, to retain only skulls and/or mandibles and this accounts for just over a third of the assemblage. Males are in the majority (119/306, 38.89%), followed by near equal numbers of females (68/306, 22.2%) and unsexed adults (67/306, 21.89%). Given the number of unsexed adults, this is unlikely to be statistically significant. A clear male bias has been introduced by the inclusion of the largely male monastic community at the Isle of May (James and Yeoman 2008). A total of 22 skeletons within the dataset could not be aged or sexed due to poor preservation. There is a clear under-representation of non-adults (30/306, 9.8%), which confirms Adrian Maldonado’s assertion that ‘infants and subadults are an almost invisible category in long cist cemeteries’ (2013, 11).


A total of 27 skeletons from 10 sites across the study area exhibit definite or possible cranial trauma (11.64%). Most victims were men (85%, 23/27), followed by a small number of women (11.1%, 3/27), with a single neonate (3.7%, 1/27) from Cramond. Detailed discussion of all the data is beyond the scope of this case study, however, the mass burial at Cramond illustrates many of the key observations. Radiocarbon dating, isotope and DNA analysis alongside a modern methodological approach to the interpretation of cranial injuries have all contributed to our understanding of this important assemblage.

Cramond Roman Fort was established during the Antonine invasion of Scotland in 142 AD. A deposit of human remains was revealed in a latrine associated with the bathhouse attached to the fort during excavations in 1975. The remains were originally believed to be medieval victims of bubonic plague (Barnetson 2003). Body position, orientation and location are all in marked contrast to the normal burial practice of the period. A recent radiocarbon dating programme has demonstrated that the deposit is of 6th to 7th century date and the application of Bayesian modelling suggests that the bodies were likely to have been deposited in the second half of the 6th century. Two phases of burial have been identified. There are a minimum of nine adults and five neonates. Four adult skeletons and one neonate exhibit evidence of both healed and unhealed blunt-force and sharp-force trauma (5/9, 55.6%). There are no defensive wounds or post-cranial injuries. One young adult female and a newborn child exhibit injuries which are almost identical in form and location.

Burial 5 is a young adult female aged 18-25 years. Isotope analysis suggests that she grew up locally in Cramond, Edinburgh or the Lothians. Peri-mortem blunt-force trauma is present on the right side of her skull (see Plate 1 below). This injury may have been caused by the butt-end of a spear. The blow would have been quickly fatal as it penetrated all the way through the skull to the brain. A fragment of depressed bone is still adhering and there are five radiating fractures extending outwards from the injury.

Close up image of a sub-circular piece of bone with a noticeable crack and small, oval hole to the top right corner. The bone is textures with vein-like lines and is discoloured to a yellow-brown colour.
Plate 1:  Cramond burial 5, peri-mortem blunt-force trauma, right parietal © Angela Boyle

The right parietal of a newborn child exhibits an irregular broadly circular perforation (see Plate 2 below). Note that the skull fragment has been glued back into place at some point in the recent past. The injury indicates that this child was killed deliberately and it is likely that the other four newborns whose partial remains were recovered from the Roman latrine met the same fate.

Close up image of a sub-square piece of bone with three noticeable cracks alond the left and top sides. In the centre, connected to the cracks, is a circular dent with a hairline fracture outlining it. The bone is textures with vein-like lines and is discoloured to a pale yellow-brown colour.
Plate 2: Newborn infant, peri-mortem blunt-force trauma, right parietal © Angela Boyle


The perceived absence of skeletal evidence for violence in Scotland before the 9th century now appears due to the lack of population-based osteological studies such as this which attempted to elucidate a clearer understanding of the actual scale and prevalence of non-accidental trauma as evidenced by the injuries themselves. There appears to be a concentration of osteological evidence for ante-mortem (before death) and peri-mortem (at or around the time of death) cranial trauma around the Firth of Forth with a few isolated examples in the rest of the study area. It seems likely that surviving historical sources present a realistic view of the extent of warfare and interpersonal violence within and between certain groups. Does this suggest that the Anglian occupation of the study area was more peaceful than previously thought? Was there more of a focus on the Pictish frontier to the north? Radiocarbon dates for the victims of violence from Dunbar are highly desirable given the context of the town as a likely urbs regis or royal town. It is possible that interpersonal violence there was linked to increasing population density, or tension between natives and incomers.

The importance of archive material in museums cannot be overstated, nor can the importance of new and improved scientific analyses. There is a wealth of untapped data waiting to be revealed. The integration of biomolecular data has provided important data on origins, mobility and genetic relationships which, when combined with the skeletal evidence for trauma, contributes greatly to our understanding of the period in general but more specifically on the nature of conflict and of political and social interaction both within and on the fringes of the study area.

The detailed results of this research are to be presented in a forthcoming article in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.


Barnetson, L 2003 The human remains from the bathhouse, in N Holmes (ed.) Excavation of Roman sites at Cramond, Edinburgh, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph Series No. 23, Edinburgh, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 139-141.

Boyle, A 2021 Cowboys and Indians? A biocultural study of violence and conflict in south-east Scotland, c. AD 400 to c. AD 800, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Cowie, T 1980 Excavations at the Catstane, Midlothian 1977, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 109, 166- 201.

Czére, O, Lawson, J A, Müldner, G, Evans, J, Boyle, A and Britton, K 2022 ‘The bodies in the Bog’: A Multi-Isotope Investigation of Individual Life-Histories at an unusual 6th/7th Century Group Burial from a Roman Latrine at Cramond, Scotland’, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 14, 67. Available at:

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