The Achavanich Beaker Burial Project: New Research on the Bronze Age of Northern Scotland

by Maya Hoole

In 2014, whilst working with the Highland Council Historic Environment Team, I came across the record of a Bronze Age beaker burial from Caithness in the Highland HER records (MHG13613). Although the site was discovered and subject to a rescue excavation in 1987, and some preliminary post-excavation had been undertaken, it had never been fully researched or published. The burial was positioned in a rare rock-cut pit with a stone lined cist, complete with cap stone. Inside were the remains of a young female (fondly known as Ava, her name an abbreviation of the place of discovery), aged 18-22 years old, accompanied by: a highly decorated beaker, three pieces of flint and the scapula of an ox or cow. Within seconds of opening the file and starting to read I was completely captivated. At that moment, I had no idea of the impact of my curiosity. I was totally clueless as to what was in store and completely oblivious to the fact that two years down the line my passion for the site would not only have increased but it would have extended far beyond myself.

The Beaker from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

The Beaker from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

The project began with my own research: I sorted the paper archives, located the artefacts at the Caithness Horizons museum, and subsequently photographed, measured, recorded and illustrated them. I went on to: re-discover the exact location of the site, re-create site plans, analyse the decoration on the beaker, make comparisons on a national scale and build a database and complete record of the artefacts. I bashfully presented my findings at a couple of conferences and… then things started to get interesting. At the very heart of the project was research. The initial goal was always to find out more about the individual buried at this site and to increase our knowledge of Bronze Age society in Northern Scotland. With the help of many different organisations and individuals, I applied for funding and soon found myself talking to experts (and to BBC news reporters, twice!) who were interested in developing our understanding of the site.

Dr Tom Booth of Natural History Museum examining the cranium from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

Dr Tom Booth of Natural History Museum examining the cranium from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

So, where are we up to now? Well, since I spoke at the HAF conference in October:

  • An examination of the skeletal remains has been undertaken by an osteologist and burial archaeologist, Angela Boyle, a current Edinburgh University PhD candidate working with National Museums Scotland.
  • The cranium has been sampled for inclusion in an ancient DNA project funded by the Wellcome Trust by the Natural History Museum in London – a big thanks to Dr Alison Sheridan for helping to make this happen.
  • Samples of bone are currently been analysed by Dr Tom Booth, a post-doctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum, who specialises in Bronze Age mummification in Britain.
  • Funding has been kindly granted by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland to undertake new research: firstly, to carry out stable isotope analysis to hopefully determine the geographical location of this individual’s childhood and to identify if her diet was terrestrial or marine based, by Dr Jane Evans at NERC. Secondly, funding has been awarded to carry out an examination of the pollen on the beaker by Dr Scott Timpany of UHI.
  • We are hoping that as part of the ancient DNA project, we may be granted new radiocarbon dates as well, as long as the aDNA sample gives suitable results.
View from the Achavanich cist burial site (Maya Hoole©)

View from the Achavanich cist burial site (Maya Hoole©)

Although none of the final results have come back; preliminary results are looking quite promising. Later in the year, I will be happy to provide an update on the progress of the project as the results of the new research come back. I’d just like to say a quick thank you to everyone involved in making this happen and to all of you interested in the project. If you want to keep up-to-date with everything as it happens, please follow us on our website, or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. If you have any queries, comments, or thoughts, please feel free to contact me at: mayahoole@gmail.com.

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