The Covesea Caves range just short of Inverness on Scotland’s northeastern coast have been known to archaeologists since 1929, but each round of exploration and analysis throws up fresh surprises. The latest, truly astonishing discovery is evidence of a deliberate mummification process — most unexpected for the United Kingdom — in the human bones found strewn on their floor, according to a report in the Express.
Interior of the Sculptor’s Cave. ( The Sculptor’s Cave Publication Project )
A “Dark Magical Mystical” Place: Analyzing Covesea Caves
The remote, almost inaccessible Covesea Caves were first explored by Sylvia Benton in the 1920s and 1930s and then again by Ian and Alexandra Shepherd in 1979. The most famous of these caves is the Sculptor’s Cave, so called because of the Pictish carvings scratched on its walls. Pictish is an extinct language used by the Picts who inhabited northern and eastern Scotland from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. By the ninth century, the Pictish kingdom had merged with the rest of Scotland and Pictish was replaced by Gaelic.
However, the Sculptor’s Cave, which has a history stretching back 3,000 years to the Late Bronze Age, has more secrets of the past to offer than just the Pictish carvings on its walls. From crucibles to gold covered rings, a swan’s neck pin and bronze arm rings, a host of artifacts have been recovered from within the cave.
Most mystifying and shocking are the human bones, mostly of children, scattered across its floor that have caused epithets such as “dark”, “magical” and “mystical” to be used to describe this damp, deathly and silent cavern. Even more bizarrely, there is evidence that some of these children were decapitated and their heads displayed on poles at the entrance to the cave in what may seem a gruesome ritual to modern sensibilities.
However, as a 2017 article in Ancient Origins explains, it does not necessarily point to sacrificial killing. These child remains were likely brought here after death from different parts of northern Scotland, and even as far as Ireland, for it to serve as their final resting place. The decapitation was probably part of the mourning process.
3D imaging technology being used within the Covesea Caves. The results were revealed in a book published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. ( The Sculptor’s Cave Publication Project )
Mummies in Britain?
In 2020, a book written by Ian Armit and Lindsay Büster and published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland brought together new analysis of data from the Sculptor’s Cave and the results of terrestrial laser scanning and 3D imaging of the cave and its carvings, the Society’s website reports.
It is in this research by Armit and Büster that mummification of the human bones found in the cave has for the first time been discussed. A documentary by Smithsonian Channel entitled the Mystic Britain: Mummies , has followed this research and suggested that the cave could have been an ancient “lab” for preserving dead humans.
To Dr. Büster, the fact of these ancient Britons making the “hazardous journey [to these very out of the way caves] time and time again carrying the bodies of their dead” is itself remarkable and indicates perhaps that they were perhaps less aware of the dangers involved and the possible consequences of such expeditions, reports the Express.
“For prehistoric people to make the effort and to make the journey would have been really arduous and quite a difficult thing to do,” she says. She adds that they perhaps did so because there was “something about this place that gave it mystical, perhaps even magical properties.”
Screenshot of Smithsonian Channel documentary. (Smithsonian Channel / YouTube)
A “Really Significant Find”: Finding Soft Tissue at Covesea Caves
The bones that the archaeologists found were unlike anything previously seen in ancient human remains in Britain. Hand bones from more than one specimen showed the presence of soft tissues, more precisely ligaments. While these may appear to be odd and chance scraps, the narrator of the Smithsonian documentary warns that “it may only be scraps, but don’t be fooled. This is preserved human flesh dating to the Bronze Age.” Dr. Büster adds that it was “a really significant find,” not expected from a site over 3,000 years old.
The fleshy bones could once have been part of an entire corpse, preserved by the saltiness of the air in the ancient cave. While researchers cannot declare with certainty that the bodies were brought here given this unique preservative quality of the air, they did find some evidence of fires being lit “at the same time presumably as bodies are being laid out.” Smoke too has a preservative quality and, according to the narrator of the documentary, bodies preserved by smoking and salting sounds “a lot like mummification.”
One of the bones discussed within the Smithsonian Channel documentary. (Smithsonian Channel / YouTube)
Dr. Büster believes that ancient Britons came to these caves specifically to mummify their dead. “I think once bodies began to be brought into the cave and were behaving in ways that they didn’t normally do on above-ground sites, those characteristics were probably well noted and became a factory of people coming back again and again over centuries to deposit their dead,” the Express reports her as saying.
Even today, with modern science explaining many complex natural phenomena that older human civilizations tended to view as divine will and magic, death and the world beyond are still governed by a sense of mystery. The Sculptor’s Cave, according to Dr. Büster on the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland website, “provides a window into the complex rituals used by past inhabitants of Moray to navigate the difficult transition between life and death”.
Top image: Covesea Caves with screenshot of one of the bones discovered inside. Source: Society for Antiquaries of Scotland
By Sahir Pandey