Engraving as epitaph? Memorialising the dead at the Sculptor’s Cave, north-east Scotland

Guest-blogger Dr Lindsey Büster explores the treatment and commemoration of the dead from prehistory to the early medieval period.

The Sculptor’s Cave, which derives its name from the Pictish symbols carved on its walls, lies on the south coast of the Moray Firth in north-east Scotland. It is difficult to reach, lying at the base of 30m cliffs on a coast strewn with beach pebbles and boulders, and is cut-off from the access points for four hours either side of high tide.

The cave has seen a long history of use, from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1100BC) to the early medieval (Pictish) period (c. 6th-8th centuries AD), during which time it gained special significance in the landscape as a place where people brought their dead. New research is revealing, in fact, that the Sculptor’s Cave represents just one site in a whole series of caves along this stretch of coastline which took on this role in prehistory, with some sites revealing mortuary evidence from the Early Bronze Age (c. 2300BC), if not earlier (Büster and Armit 2014; 2016). Lying between land and sea, this world and the next, caves have often been seen as portals to the underworld, and have attracted ritual and mortuary activity across many cultures past and present (Bergsvik and Skeates 2012; Moyes 2012).

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Sculptor’s Cave bay, looking west. Photograph copyright Lindsey Büster.

Excavations at the Sculptor’s Cave (Benton 1931; Shepherd and Shepherd 1979) have yielded one of the most significant assemblages of Late Bronze Age metalwork in Scotland, together with coins and other artefacts from the Roman Iron Age. Although the artefactual material is exceptionally significant, perhaps the real importance of the cave derives from the corpus of human remains. These have revealed that the cave witnessed at least two distinct and unusual mortuary rites: the exposure of bodies to the elements for the purposes of defleshing (excarnation) in the Late Bronze Age, as part of normal funerary treatment; and the decapitation of a number of individuals in the Roman Iron Age. No doubt, the ritualised killing of individuals in the Roman Iron Age drew on past associations of this place with the dead – in 1927 the cave floor was found to be ‘strewn with human bone’ (Benton 1931, 177) and this cannot have been lost on individuals using the cave in later prehistory.

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The Sculptor’s Cave twin entrance passages. Photograph copyright Lindsey Büster.

Activity in the cave, with the exception of a seventeenth-century ‘curse’ and later graffiti, appears to have ceased with the carving of a series of enigmatic Pictish symbols in the cave entrance passages some time between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. Carvings of this kind are common on free-standing slabs from the region, but are much more rare on natural outcrops, such as in the Sculptor’s Cave. With the exception of a ‘leaping salmon’ and ‘crescent-and-V-rod’, the Sculptor’s Cave motifs are also unusual within the wider corpus of Pictish symbols, with the closest parallels represented at Wemyss Caves in Fife. The meaning of the symbols is currently unknown, but they likely communicated messages in a society without writing. The symbols are commonly found in pairs, and there has been some suggestion that they might represent personal names or other attributes such as ‘strength’ or ‘courage’ (Samson 1992).

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Photograph of the ‘leaping salmon’ and ‘crescent-and-V-rod’ symbols on the east wall of the East Passage. Photograph copyright Lindsey Büster.

Just as the long association of the cave with the dead made it the perfect arena for a series of ritual killings in the Roman Iron Age, did the social memory of this event (or its recounting through oral tradition) serve as the impetus behind the carving of the symbols (Büster and Armit in press, 2017)? We cannot know for certain the reasons behind the decapitations, but they took place at a time of political upheaval after the withdrawal of Roman military from the north of Britain and the subsequent instability of local rulers and ‘client kings’ whose power and legitimacy they protected. Had sufficient time now passed to honour those caught up in these events, and are we seeing at the Sculptor’s Cave the retrospective memorialisation of a group of individuals whose remembrance was now permitted, and whose names formed part of the social identity of local communities?

Dr Lindsey Büster is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bradford, and specializes in the archaeology of later prehistoric Britain and Europe. She manages the Sculptor’s Cave Publication Project, funded by Historic Environment Scotland, and also works as a researcher on the Continuing Bonds Project (www.continuingbonds.live), funded by AHRC, where she uses the diversity of death practices in the past to open up discussions around death, dying and bereavement in the present. Additional fieldwork at the Covesea Caves was funded by Aberdeenshire Council and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (http://www.socantscot.org/research-project/the-covesea-caves-project/).

References

Bergsvik, K. A. and Skeates, R. 2012. Caves in Context: The Cultural Significance of Caves and Rockshelters in Europe. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Büster, L. and Armit, I., 2014. The Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea: Fieldwork 2014. Data Structure Report (September 2014). University of Bradford: Unpublished Data Structure Report.

Büster, L. and Armit, I., 2014. The Covesea Caves Project: Excavations and associated fieldwork 2014. Data Structure Report (September 2014). University of Bradford: Unpublished Data Structure Report.

Büster, L. and Armit, I., 2016. The Covesea Caves Project: Fieldwork 2015. Data Structure Report (December 2016). University of Bradford: Unpublished Data Structure Report.

Büster, L. and Armit, I. In press, 2017. ‘Signs from the Pictish underground: Early medieval cave ritual in Scotland’, in M. Dowd and K. A. Bergsvik, Cave Rituals in Early Medieval Europe, 400-1200AD. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Moyes, H. 2012. Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Samson, R. 1992. The reinterpretation of the Pictish symbols. Journal of the British Archaeological Association 145, 29–65.

Shepherd, I. A. G. and Shepherd, A. M. 1979. Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea (Drainie), Occupational/Ritual Site. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 1979, 14.

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