1,400-year-old Pictish skeleton found on the Black Isle

25 September 2019
Archaeologists excavating at a site near Muir of Ord on the Black Isle have - on the last day of their dig - uncovered the partly preserved remains of a Pictish skeleton that is thought to be about 1,400 years old.
1,400-year-old Pictish skeleton found on the Black Isle Images

The remains were found on the very last day of the excavation of a Pictish cemetery that had been identified from aerial photographs. For more than two weeks archaeologists from the North of Scotland Archaeological Society had uncovered the outlines of barrows, the earthen mounds raised over ancient graves, but owing to the acidity of the soil no remains of human bodies had been found until the surprise discovery right at the end of the dig.


Steve Birch, the archaeological supervisor at the site, said: “As it was the very last day I decided to do a little bit more excavating in a grave that I had been working on for a few days. I had found no indication of a burial but I was certain that there had been something there. It was very difficult to establish where the bottom of the grave was as it was dug into sand and gravel and had been filled up again with sand and gravel. After I found some blackened patches in the ground I decided to trowel back at that level and to my astonishment the ghostly outlines of a skeleton started to appear.


“I was able to identify the spinal column with individual vertebrae, and then moving up the body I uncovered the upper arms and shoulders, all of which were just black stains in the ground. Moving carefully higher up I was able to locate the skull, which is better preserved although it had partly collapsed in on itself. I was able to find the legs and the feet, which appear to have been bound together before burial, and eventually almost the whole outline of the skeleton could be seen, surrounded by the faint shadow of a coffin”. Steve then added “I have been an archaeologist for a long time and have made some important discoveries but this was a real eureka moment for me.”


The burial


Although a number Pictish cemeteries have been discovered in northern Scotland over the last 30 or 40 years, only a handful of been excavated and bodies very rarely survive. The significance of the current excavation in the Black Isle is that it is one of the largest Pictish cemeteries in Scotland and firmly placed within the old Pictish province of Fortriu. Aerial photographs had clearly shown the outline of the ditches enclosing circular and square barrows of different sizes and the recently discovered skeleton lay within one of the large square enclosures. It may be difficult to assign a sex to the skeleton but it is possibly a female. The Picts were a matrilineal society and it would not be unexpected to find a woman of high status buried in what would have been a very large and imposing barrow.


Professor Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen, an advisor on the excavation, said: "Tarradale is one of the largest recorded Pictish barrow cemeteries. The Tarradale Through Time project has done a fantastic job of revealing and excavating part of the cemetery. The discovery of human remains within one of the barrows is a particularly exciting result for it may help date one monument of the cemetery and tell us more about the individual buried within the grave. Very few of these cemeteries have been excavated so projects like us have much to tell us about the ways in which the Picts buried their dead".


Saving the best until last


The excavation has now finished and most of the archaeologists were helping to dismantle the tents and remove the equipment when the skeleton was found. Dr Eric Grant the leader of the archaeological project, said “It is a bit of a joke amongst archaeologists that the best finds always come on the last day, but it has been proved on many occasions. A few years ago the remains of a Pictish man was discovered in a cave at Rosemarkie, again on the last day of the dig.” 


The skull from the skeleton will hopefully give some further information about the deceased person. If the teeth have survived, isotope analysis of the enamel of the teeth can say great deal about where the person grew up and what kind of diet he or she enjoyed.