An encounter with a woman from Copper Age Caithness
Almost 30 years ago, the c.4,250-year-old remains of a young woman were discovered in a remote spot at the northern tip of mainland Scotland. Now a wide-ranging array of scientific techniques have shed vivid light on her life and death. Maya Hoole reports.
This tale begins with the death of a young woman. She belonged to the Beaker people (a cultural phenomenon that came to Britain from the Continent in the 3rd millennium BC, bringing with it distinctive pottery styles and metalworking technology – see CA 338) and lived c.4,250 years ago in the very north of mainland Scotland, at a place now known as Craig-na-Feich, Achavanich, in Caithness. When she died, her community chose to bury her in a spot close to the summit of a small ridge, with expansive views across the landscape towards distant mountains in the south and west. All around lay a mixture of woodland and heathland, with livestock grazing nearby.
In creating the woman’s grave, her buriers did not dig into the earth, but instead spent several days cutting into the solid, stone bedrock to create a hollow in which she was laid to rest, carefully positioned in a stone-lined cist (a short, rectangular type of grave commonly used at this time). There, she lay on her right-hand side, with her body facing south and her head pointing towards the west; tightly crouched, her knees were tucked close under her chin. Around her had been placed a number of significant items: by her head lay a tiny flint scraper the size of a thumbnail, two small flakes of flint, and an extensively decorated clay pot known as a Beaker, while a shoulder of beef from a small, young adult cow had been placed by her left shoulder. That done, her mourners sealed her body into the earth by placing a large, heavy capstone over her grave.
There she rested through the rest of the Copper, Bronze, and Iron Ages, through the Roman invasion, the coming of Christianity to these shores, the age of Picts, and the Viking invasions. Castles were constructed and kings came and went; Scotland saw the Highland Clearances and two world wars while her lofty grave lay long-forgotten – until her remains were rediscovered in mid-February 1987.
DISCOVERY AND (RE)DISCOVERY
For father and son duo William and Graham Ganson, it was just a normal day. Like so many other occasions, they were quarrying rock for road-improvement works from a small hillside beside what is now the A9, when they were startled to find a skull peering out of the earth at them from beneath their digger bucket. They contacted the local Thurso police, who sent out Officer Neil Sutherland to investigate their discovery. When he arrived, he realised that this burial did not represent a modern crime victim, but was of great historical significance. Another report was made, this time to the Highland Council archaeologist in Inverness, Robert Gourlay, who quickly travelled north to examine the site. During his investigation, Gourlay photographed the process as he recovered the bones and the artefacts, then took them back to Inverness for further study and conservation. But while some initial investigations were carried out, the site was never fully researched or published. Gourlay left the council and, sadly, passed away not long after, and the finds were returned to Caithness where they rested in silence once more for almost 30 years.
This brings us to four years ago when, while working as a graduate trainee for the Highland Council, an enthusiastic young archaeologist was looking through the Highland Historic Environment Record for an interesting site to share on social media to help promote the archaeology of the Highlands. A fortunate search for Bronze Age cists resulted in the (re)discovery of the site at Achavanich, and something about it captured her imagination. After reading everything that was available to consult on the site, she was hooked, and made the decision to find out as much as she could and to disseminate those findings as widely as possible. Over the next few years, she would go on to source funding for a range of post-excavation analyses, granted by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and to collaborate with experts and organisations across the globe to reveal new information about the young woman buried at Achavanich so many years before. That archaeologist is the author of this article.
As the research became more visible and gained traction, the Achavanich Beaker Burial project – also known as the Ava project – was born. Initially this abbreviation (taken from the central three letters of the place-name) was used purely as a reference for the investigation, but after a flurry of media interest in February 2016, the name Ava was used interchangeably for both the prehistoric woman and the project. It is not uncommon for archaeologists to assign names to human remains – with famous examples including ‘Lucy’ (an Australopithecus afarensis found in Ethiopia in the 1970s) and ‘Ginger’ (a late Predynastic Egyptian man whose remains are on display in the British Museum) – and while the ethics of naming a deceased individual are debatable, we must not forget that the subjects of our research are people, not inanimate objects. The chances that this young woman was actually named Ava are remote, but she would have had a name and an identity within her community, and giving her a name highlights her individuality in life.
Although ‘Ava’ died thousands of years ago, it is still possible to deduce a great deal of information about her life and death. Analysis of her skeleton by Angela Boyle revealed that she was a young adult female who was between 18 and 25 years old when she died. She stood over 1.71m (5’7”) tall in life. Her teeth were in good condition – indicating a high protein and low carbohydrate diet – but signs of disruption to their development also hint at a prolonged illness or nutritional deficiency affecting the woman’s early years. Other clues to her life not having been an easy one come from evidence of slight wear-and-tear along her spine, possibly indicating a stress-induced trauma or that physical labour was a regular part of her activities.
A very individual detail also emerged, thanks to a CT scan of her cranium by Dr Thomas Booth at the Natural History Museum Imaging and Analysis Centre. This revealed that one of Ava’s teeth (the second premolar) never grew through – a small detail she probably never knew about herself, yet it has been revealed thousands of years later.
Further information on Ava’s diet came through stable-isotope analysis by Dr Jane Evans and her team at the NERC Isotope Geoscience Laboratory. A sample taken from one of Ava’s ribs and one her molars allowed the analysis of carbon, nitrogen, strontium, and oxygen isotopes. Although she was buried only a few hours’ walk from the coast, the carbon value from Ava’s bones indicated that she was consuming little, if any, marine resources, and instead had a strongly terrestrial-based diet. Adding to this picture, radiocarbon analysis revealed a slightly elevated signature for nitrogen, suggesting that the animals that she consumed lay further up the food chain than cows or sheep, such as pigs or freshwater fish. This radiocarbon dating, undertaken at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) in 2017 by Dr Derek Hamilton, and focusing on samples from one of Ava’s leg bones and from the cattle scapula found beside her, also helped to refine the date of her burial. Results were combined with a previous finding produced by the British Museum for Robert Gourlay to form a mean burial date spanning 2300-2145 cal BC at 95% probability. This places Ava’s burial firmly in the Scottish Chalcolithic.
Where, though, should we place Ava herself? Strontium signatures from the isotope analysis shed vivid light on her origins. These chemical clues are determined by an area’s underlying geology, and the same signature transfers from the bedrock into the soil, plants, and – subsequently – the animals and humans which eat them. Throughout this chain, the strontium signature remains unchanged, and so can be used to determine where an individual spent their childhood. Interestingly, Ava’s strontium results did not match the immediate area around her burial, but it did tally with areas nearby to the west and south. Moreover, her oxygen isotopes – generally determined by the higher and lower levels of rainfall on the west and east coast of Britain – matched the expected value for someone who had lived on the east coast. The combination of these two results suggests that it is highly likely that Ava was a local woman, who grew up in the Caithness region where she was to end her days.
Further insights emerged through ancient DNA (aDNA) work undertaken by researchers at the Natural History Museum in London, and at Harvard Medical School in the United States. A good sample of DNA was obtained from a tiny piece of petrous bone (a section at the base of the skull which – due to its density – is often successful for this purpose) and this was used to establish Ava’s genetic sex, confirming that (consistent with the osteological evidence) she was indeed female.
This research also illuminated Ava’s maternally inherited genetics, which belong to the H5 mitochondrial haplogroup, which is estimated to have originated in the Near East 12,000 years ago. The first evidence for this group’s presence in Europe dates back c.8,000 years, and is attributed to the movement of Neolithic farmers out of Anatolia. However, looking at evidence from across Ava’s whole genome, the findings suggest that, while she probably grew up in the Caithness area (as discussed above), she was recently descended from Beakerassociated populations from mainland Europe.
This suggests that very few or none of her ancestors belonged to the British Neolithic populations who lived in Caithness before her. This result was consistent with recent work on Beaker-period DNA that has indicated a migration of people from the Continent into Britain around 2500 BC, and significant population replacement at that time (see CA 338). Even more interestingly, the lack of any detectable British Neolithic ancestry in Ava presents a likely scenario that her ancestors had arrived in Britain only a few generations before she was born, making her a potential first- or second-generation migrant.
In addition to her ancestry, examination of Ava’s DNA revealed details of her physical characteristics. Predictions were made for her eye and hair colour, based on genetic associations and physical traits among modern populations, which suggested that she probably had brown eyes and black hair, and – based on the available evidence – it was thought likely that her skin tone would have been darker than today’s average Brit, more like modern populations from southern Europe. This study also revealed that, like most of her contemporaries and unlike the majority of the modern British population, Ava was lactose-intolerant.
We have learned much about Ava’s life, but what can we establish about the way she was buried? Dr Thomas Booth carried out a histological assessment of three of Ava’s bones, using micro-CT to examine the extent of bacterial decay and investigate how the body had decomposed over time. This analysis aimed to determine if anything had interfered with the natural process of decay, but all three bones displayed evidence of extensive bacterial attack, suggesting that the body had been buried soon after death. The likelihood is, then, that Ava’s rock-cut cist was her primary – and only – burial place, and that, unlike elsewhere in Scotland (such as at Cladh Hallan in the Western Isles, see CA 273) and sites in wider Bronze Age Britain, where researchers have found evidence of mummification (CA 279 and 309), here the natural processes of decomposition had not been purposefully interrupted.
What of Ava’s grave goods? Unfortunately, the three pieces of flint that were found with her have subsequently been lost, making further analysis impossible, but the cattle bone has survived to the present day. It was examined by Sheena Fraser, who identified it as the left scapula of an adult or sub-adult cow, though there was no evidence of how the animal died. As the blade showed no sign of smoothing, erosion, or parallel scrape marks – unlike examples known from Neolithic sites in Orkney – it was determined to have not been used for digging the grave, and was more likely included as a food offering.
The Beaker was examined by Dr Alison Sheridan of National Museums Scotland, who also contributed significantly to the rest of the research and analysis throughout the Ava project. Standing around 16.6cm (6.5in) tall, the vessel may have contained drink or food for the deceased, although there is no clear evidence of what this may have been. It had been created by stacking successive flattened coils of clay, which were then carefully smoothed upwards on the outside and downwards on the inside, most likely while wet. The pot was carefully decorated: signs of faceting can be seen inside its neck, and fragments of white quartz had been included in the clay used to make it.
On the outside, a toothed comb had been pressed into the surface of the clay to create multiple zones of decoration covering almost the entire surface of the Beaker. Three bands of horizontal lines (a group of six around the neck, nine around the widest section of the belly, and five around the lower belly) are interspersed with more complex designs, including a herring-bone pattern, crisscross impressions, and bands of grouped diagonal impressions that alternate between sloping up and down. These decorations appear to have been made using three or four different comb-lengths, and seem to have been created by a skilled, experienced craftsperson.
One final aspect of our analysis of Ava’s burial was provided by pollen-sediment analysis by Dr Scott Timpany of the University of the Highlands and Islands, who recovered material from the outer surface of the Beaker. This methodology includes pollen grains, spores, stomata, and fungi, and while, in this case, only small amounts of pollen were identified, it still preserves a wealth of clues to the landscape that Ava had inhabited. The results paint a picture very different to modern Caithness. Today this region is devoid of natural trees, but recovered pollen testifies to the presence of trees and shrubs including birch, pine, hazel, and alder, while pine stomata also speak of pine trees growing in the vicinity. This was a woodland and heathland environment, carpeted with heather, grasses, meadowsweet, St John’s wort, ferns, brackens, rushes, cottongrass, and sphagnum mosses, and inhabited by grazing animals. The latter were indicated by the presence of Coprophilus dung fungi around the cist, while traces of charcoal also point to burning having taken place in the immediate area, possibly relating to funerary practices associated with the burial. Among the plant species, meadowsweet and St John’s wort are particularly noteworthy, as they are known to have medicinal properties. A chemical within the leaves and flowers of meadowsweet acts in a similar way to aspirin; it has also historically been used as a flavouring for ale, and as a sweet-smelling plant for masking bad odours. St John’s wort is used as an antidepressant, for staunching bleeding from wounds, for stomach upsets, for diarrhoea, and for healing fractures and sprains. Might the presence of these herbs within the burial reflect the treatment of an ailment before Ava’s death?
While many questions about Ava’s life and death remain, this wide-ranging research project has revealed an astonishing amount of information to illuminate the life of an individual who passed from living memory millennia ago. The results of this analysis, and a recent digital reconstruction of Ava’s physical appearance, mean that three decades after her grave was rediscovered, and over 4,000 years after she was laid to rest, we can meet this intriguing woman face-to-face once more.
This research was published in full on 30 November 2018 as a peer-reviewed article in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (who awarded it this year’s R B K Stevenson Award). With the support of Historic Environment Scotland, the research has been made open and available to anyone who wishes to access it. For additional information, visit the project website at achavanichbeakerburial.wordpress.com.
T J Booth, A T Chamberlain, and M Parker Pearson (2015) ‘Mummification in Bronze Age Britain’, Antiquity 89 (347): 1,155-1,173; see https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2015.111.
M Hoole et al. (2018) ‘”Ava”: a Beaker-associated woman from a cist at Achavanich, Highland, and the story of her (re)discovery and subsequent study’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 147: 73-118; see https://doi.org/10.9750/ PSAS.147.1250.
I Olalde et al. (2018) ‘The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe’, Nature 555: 190-196; see https://doi.org/10.1038/nature25738.