Researchers reconstruct the face of a 1400-year old Pictish murder victim found inside a Scottish cave

reconstruction-face-pictish-murder-victim_1Credit: University of Dundee

The Black Isle, a peninsula (despite its name) in the Scottish Highlands, is home to its fair share of historical mysteries. And one of those came to the fore when archaeologists discovered a skeleton of a man buried in a recess of a cave. The posture of the body suggested an compelling scope, with its cross-legged position and its arms and legs being weighed down by beach stones. These relatively well-preserved bones were sent to the University of Dundee’s Center for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID). The forensic experts determined that the man, hailing from an epoch around 1400-years ago, was brutally murdered. Additionally, the researchers also managed to reconstruct the facial features of the young Pictish man, thus providing us with a glimpse into the history of the Scottish Highlands during the ‘Dark Ages’.

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The skeleton interred in a peculiar fashion. Credit: Rosemarkie Caves Project

A team under world-renowned forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black was able to determine the assortment of rigorous injuries inflicted on the subject. These horrific scope entailed at least five impact points that resulted in fracturing of the skull and face. As Professor Black explained –

This is a fascinating skeleton in a remarkable state of preservation which has been expertly recovered. From studying his remains we learned a little about his short life but much more about his violent death. As you can see from the facial reconstruction he was a striking young man, but he met a very brutal end, suffering a minimum of five severe injuries to his head.

The first impact was by a circular cross-section implement that broke his teeth on the right side. The second may have been the same implement, used like a fighting stick which broke his jaw on the left. The third resulted in fracturing to the back of his head as he fell from the blow to his jaw with a tremendous force possibly onto a hard object perhaps stone.

The fourth impact was intended to end his life as probably the same weapon was driven through his skull from one side and out the other as he lay on the ground. The fifth was not in keeping with the injuries caused in the other four where a hole, larger than that caused by the previous weapon, was made in the top of the skull.

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Credit: University of Dundee

As for historicity, radiocarbon dating of the remains indicate that the man lived anywhere between the epoch of 450 – 630 AD, which corresponds to the Pictish period of Scotland. Interestingly enough, the Picts in themselves did not belong to any particular tribe. Much like the Huns of late antiquity, they were a confederation of different tribes, most of whom dwelt within the confines of northern Scotland from 3rd to 9th century AD and were probably ethnolinguistically Celtic.

Coming to the historical scope of the cave itself, archaeologists (as part of Rosemarkie Caves Project) have determined that the site was used as an iron-smithing site during the Pictish period, as could be evidenced by the ruins of hearths and extensive iron-working debris. In fact, many of the proximate caves in the area were used over 1,500 years in some form or the other, while recent excavations have also revealed how this particular cave was even temporarily occupied by travelers and merchants (who repaired leather shoes) only 200-300 years ago.

In any case, the question still arises – why was the young Pictish man brutally murdered and then laid to rest in a particular fashion? Unfortunately, historians do not have any definite answer when it comes to this 1400-year old puzzle, with conjectures ranging from interpersonal conflict to even sacrificial ritual. However the researchers are looking forth to unveil more clues, especially connected to the subject’s place of origin and the significance of the cave during that time. They hope to shed more light into these mysteries by extensive analysis of the skeleton and the artifacts recovered from the site.

Source: University of Dundee

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  • Mara Cohen

    Were the Picts the Aboriginal People of Northern Britain?

    • Dattatreya Mandal

      The term ‘Picts’ was probably used as a generic term by ancient writers for people who lived in (more-or-less) northern Scotland and raided the Romans. These ‘raiders’ formed tribal confederations and possibly fell under the blanket category of Celtic people – so in essence, they were the natives of Scotland.

  • Bob Ross
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