HEAD HUNTING IN THE HIGHLANDS – Using archaeological science to understand extraordinary medieval burials from St Colman’s Church, Portmahomack, Tarbatness, Highlands

The next post in our British Science Week 2020 series is about a project supported by funding from Historic Environment Scotland, a NHSF member. 

Written by Cecily Spall, FAS Heritage

Image 1 - 3-D scans - credit Visualising Heritage, UoB
Image 1: 3-D colours scans of the skull of Chieftain A (right) showing blade cut and Chieftain B (Credit: Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford)
Image 2 - Chieftain A and skulls - credit FAS Heritage
Image 2: Chieftain A with the four extra skulls set at his head (Credit: FAS Heritage)
Image 3 - Chieftain B reconstruction - credit FaceLab LJMU
Image 3: 2-D computer-based facial reconstruction of Chieftain B (Credit: FaceLab, Liverpool John Moores University)

The Tarbat Discovery Centre, Portmahomack, opened in 1999 in the former medieval church of St Colman.  It displays the results of 20 years of archaeological research excavation focussed around this important church.  Along with National Museums Scotland, the Centre cares for the collection of burials, dating from the 7th to the 16th century, excavated from in and around the church building.

St Colman’s Church was built in the 12th century in the abandoned burial ground of an 8th-century Pictish monastery. Burials continued from the 13th to the 16th century. Over 80 medieval burials were excavated and include a small group of burials which were highly unusual, displaying burial rites never before seen.  The central burial was that of an older man – ‘Chieftain A’ – who had died aged 46 to 59 years from a horrendous facial injury caused by a blade (Image 1). On his death he was interred in a large coffin which included four extra skulls set at his head (Image 2). About a generation later his grave was reopened and the body of a second man – ‘Chieftain B’ – was laid on top with the skulls now set around his head.

A Historic Environment Scotland funded programme of archaeological scientific analysis is now underway, designed to better understand these extraordinary burials. This includes radiocarbon dating and ‘Bayesian’ (statistical) modelling of the dating brackets to refine them. The results suggest that Chieftain A died between AD1290 and 1410 and Chieftain B between AD 1380 and 1450; three of the skulls buried with them died between AD1250 and 1400 and the fourth belonged to a Pictish monk who died between AD770 and 900. These extraordinary burials belong to the period when the clan system was becoming established and so represents an important part of understanding Highland heritage and the history of the community of Portmahomack.

Multi-isotope analysis measuring strontium and oxygen preserved in tooth enamel has also provided information on region of birth with Chieftain A having grown up on or around the Tarbatness peninsula, and Chieftain B growing up elsewhere, perhaps in the Western or Northern Isles, moving to Portmahomack later in life.

Computer-based reconstruction of the face of Chieftain B has been undertaken using European datasets to model his likely appearance (Image 3), work which was generously funded by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Ancient DNA analysis is also underway at Harvard University and it is hoped that it will provide information on possible family connections between the burials, as well as likely skin tone, and eye and hair colour, and perhaps even his deeper shared ancestry.

The Tarbat Discovery Centre is currently hosting a temporary exhibition on the burials project. For more information visit: http://www.tarbat-discovery.co.uk.

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