The coastal caves that are revealing the strong bonds between living and dead in prehistoric Scotland.
10 Feb 2022
On a coastline overlooking the Moray Firth, a series of caves are slowly sharing their remarkable, if at times macabre, secrets of prehistoric society in Scotland and their relationship with the dead.
Ever since the late 1920’s when Sylvia Benton entered the Sculptor’s Cave, the best known of the Covesea Caves, and found its floor strewn with human remains, archaeologists have been fascinated by the activities and funerary rituals that the bones within the caves portray.
Most recently Dr Lindsey Büster, Lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology at Canterbury Christ Church University and Professor Ian Armit, Chair in Archaeology at the University of York, have continued to unearth the caves’ secrets. Their new book, Darkness Visible: The Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea, from the Bronze Age to the Picts, has just won Scottish Research Book of the Year 2021 and the Sculptor’s Cave Project has been nominated for Current Archaeology’s Research Project of the Year 2022.
Dr Lindsey Büster said: “The Sculptor’s Cave is a most enigmatic site, representing one of the largest later prehistoric mortuary assemblages in Britain.
“The archaeology of the Sculptor's Cave sheds light on the complex funeral rites of prehistoric communities. It provides a glimpse into the type of activity that would’ve been widespread across the British Isles at this time, but for which evidence is at best scarce and worst entirely lacking. It has much to teach us about life and death in prehistoric Scotland and beyond and tells us stories about the past which have the power to move us in the present.”
Ancient societies associated caves with the dead. Regarded as liminal places, between the above ground of the living and the below ground of the ancestors, they are often seen as portals or gateways into the underworld or a place to communicate with spirits.
The Covesea Caves in particular exhibit these characteristics, situated on the edge of an inhabited landscape and facing out to sea. The caves are extremely difficult to access today, but in prehistoric times would’ve been cut-off completely by boggy ground and sea lochs, essentially making it an island of the dead. To access the caves, prehistoric people would have had to either sail around the sea and lochs or wade across the boggy land, emphasising the symbolic journey from inhabited land to ‘other’ world.
The caves are also unique as they have retained archaeological evidence of the dead from prehistoric Scotland. There is very little evidence for the dead during this time. They are often called the illusive or invisible dead as their burial rites don’t leave any visible trace. It is thought that the main mortuary treatment was excarnation, either laying out of bodies above ground to de-flesh and disintegrate naturally by exposure, or by manually disarticulating them. The resulting scattered remains would be very difficult to detect archaeologically.
Dr Büster explained: “In Scotland the soil is very acidic, which doesn’t help with the preservation of bones. However, the preservation in the caves is amazing. The caves protect the remains and give us evidence that we would never normally have expected to find. The cave represents one of the only known later prehistoric primary excarnation sites in Britain.”
Original excavations at the Sculptor’s Cave undertaken between 1928-30 by Sylvia Benton where around 1600 disarticulated human bones were recovered during her three-year campaign. Finds were sent to anatomists in Glasgow and Aberdeen, but analysis back then was very basic, and she received handwritten reports containing only assumed ages of the bones and grid references of where they were found in the cave. Though Benton excavated the majority of the archaeological deposits in the cave interior, she left some material in the distinctive twin entrances passages, for future archaeologists.
In the 1970s this area was being threatened by treasure hunters and illicit excavations, so in 1979 there was a further excavation by Ian and Alexandra Shepherd.
Dr Büster continued: “During the 1979 campaign new evidence was found of timber structures across the entrance of the cave, which along with the original finds from Benton’s campaigns of cranial and mandible (jaw) bone fragments and several gold covered hair rings suggested that there had been some kind of curation and display of bodies, many of them children, at the entrance to the cave.
“However, in 2007 there was a major breakthrough when archaeologists had another look at the original bones. Benton’s analysis had assumed that all of the bones were from the Late Bronze Age. Of the original 1600 bones only 7 survived in the archive. All 7 were cervical vertebrae, upper bones of the neck, and at least six had evidence of cut marks suggesting decapitation. The cut marks were so fine that they must’ve been made by an iron blade and not a bronze one. Dating of the bones confirmed that they were from the Roman Iron Age. Therefore, we now have two very different phases of activity in the cave: Late Bronze Age and Roman Iron Age.
“Sadly, Ian Shepherd died unexpectedly in 2009 and left his archive from the 1979 campaign unpublished. Because of the new evidence from the bones, me and Professor Ian Armit applied for funding from Historic Environment Scotland to write-up the Shepherd’s excavation, and to carry out further analysis of the site using new scientific methods."
Our results show that although there are two main phases of mortuary activity, the cave was continually used between those times, with evidence of food preparation and cooking during visits to the ancestral dead. So even though in between the Late Bronze Age and the Roman Iron Age there is no evidence of funerary activity or rites being conducted in the cave, it is being continuously used for over 1500 years between 1100BC and the 4th century AD.Dr Lindsey Büster
Dr Büster and Professor Ian Armit have also uncovered two very different types of mortuary rituals taking place in the cave during the two phases of funerary activity.
The Late Bronze Age bones mainly belong to juveniles. They are partial bodies, excarnated off site with the cave used for secondary deposits of bones or perhaps mummy bundles. This includes some evidence of curation and display, on the timber structures found at the front of the cave. The bodies were probably adorned with ornaments like gold hair rings, of which ten have been found in the Sculptor’s Cave: the most at a single site in Late Bronze Age Scotland.
“Essentially in the Late Bronze Age they are bringing mummy bundles into the cave,” explained Dr Büster. “We think they have either been left above ground to disarticulate in the open air, similar to a Tibetan sky burial, or have spent time above ground as mummies or mummy bundles. There is an absence of the smaller bones from the hands and feet which would indicate that they have been lost above ground during this time, before the bodies were brought to the cave.
“During the Roman Iron Age we see protected excarnation. We believe they are bringing the newly dead into the cave. There is evidence of laying out of the dead within the cave with a large representation of hand and foot bones, which would make this site the first recorded primary excarnation site in the UK.
“The bones from the Roman Iron Age also differ from the Late Bronze Age bones because they are predominately adults. The absence of larger bones, such as heads and limb bones, suggest that once disarticulation has happened, people have gone back to the cave to retrieve their ancestors’ bones and use them in rites amongst the living, which was common at the time. We have bones such as these on settlement sites. They may have been deposited as mementos or keepsakes, placed under house floors or between walls for protection or as a fertility offering, or even just to maintain a connection with the ancestors.”
There is a single event in the cave during the Roman Iron Age which highlights the special status it held in prehistoric society. In the third century AD, up to 9 individuals were decapitated in the cave. It was the bones from this event which prompted re-analysis of the original finds.
Dr Büster continued: “We can tell that decapitation was the mode of death because of the angle of the cut marks. It looks like the blows were delivered from behind. If you were to decapitate post mortem, which does happen in this period, it would been done from the front, with the individual lying down, but here it looks like they are kneeling forward with their heads bent.
“The presence of vertebrae from the severed head and body also tells us that decapitation took place inside the cave itself. This is really interesting, as well as a bit odd, as it would’ve been much easier to do this on the cliff top, rather than march people down to the caves. So obviously the power of that place, as a place of ancestors, as a place of mortuary activity, clearly influenced the choice of location for this violent act.
“We can only speculate why this event occurred. The Romans never fully conquered Scotland, but the Romans had a lot of influence and there would’ve been individuals tied into the power structures of the Roman world. But when Rome withdraws at this time it leaves an unstable region, a power vacuum and lot of people vying for power, so perhaps this represents the dispatching of a rival group.”
The final activities within the cave include the deposition of coins, sometime after 364AD, and carving of the Pictish symbols from which the cave takes its name.
“The carvings are exclusively at the entrance and current interpretations suggest that they could represent names. They could also be earlier than first thought, only a century or so after activity at the cave ceased in the Roman Iron Age. Perhaps they represent the closing of a dangerous pagan ritual site by a newly Christianised community, or memorialisation of the decapitated individuals” said Dr Büster.
The team have begun excavating other caves along this coastline where they are finding more evidence of mortuary rites and processing of the dead. Human bones, teeth and artefacts have been found, including remains dating to the Early Bronze Age as well as the Neolithic, showing that these caves have been used for over 5,000 years.
Dr Büster said: “They are amazing sites to work on. It’s unique as you don’t find this evidence elsewhere. The caves have shown us how sophisticated mortuary treatments were in prehistoric Scotland. We think of mummification as something that is confined to ancient Egypt. But now we have a few sites in Scotland, these cave and another site (Cladh Hallan) in the Western Isles, where we are starting to see similar kinds of practice.
“The caves also highlight the really intimate relationships between the living and the dead, and how important the dead are in the lives of the living. The evidence of continuous activity from the Late Bronze Age to Roman Iron Age at the Sculptor’s Cave, and even earlier evidence at adjacent sites, demonstrates strong bonds between the living and the dead and offers us a glimpse into the complex lives of prehistoric people.”
Darkness Visible: The Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea, from the Bronze Age to the Picts was funded by Historic Environment Scotland and published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.