Hereditary or Head-Binding? Archaeologist Seeks Answers on the Strange Achavanich Beaker Burial
In 1987, the remains of an 18-22-year-old woman, now dubbed Ava, were discovered at Achavanich in Caithness in the north of Scotland. The site was excavated by the Highland Regional Council Archaeology Unit, and the burial was later dated to the Middle Bronze Age. Although the discovery is interesting, and one aspect of it has been hotly debated by researchers, it was soon forgotten by most people. Now, an archaeologist is working to change that.
Archaeologist Maya Hoole hopes to renew public interest in the burial from about 3,700 years ago. As she told the BBC, "Like many others, I'm sure, I find skeletal remains completely mesmerising.”
On Hoole’s website, the Achavanich Beaker Burial Project, she explains her goal further: “I had one objective when I started this project: to change our understanding of this site and, over the last year, have been trying to make this happen.” Hoole believes that a renewed interest and modern technology could make this happen, revealing much more about the secrets of Ava’s life and death.
Many of the records about the excavation and analysis of the Achavanich Beaker burial have been lost, or perhaps they never existed. However, as Hoole shows, there was an extensive photographic survey of the excavation – these images provide vital information to modern researchers interested in the burial.
One of the photos of the 1987 excavations. (M. Hoole)
It was undoubtedly a special burial. The remains of the young woman were probably interred in a crouched position in the unmarked rock-cut pit. This is rather odd, as most burials from the location and period were underneath a cairn or in a pit dug into soil. British History Online says that “most Beaker burials are inhumations, sometimes under round barrows, accompanied by a few grave goods.”
Hoole agrees that she is only aware of a few other pits dug into solid rock in Scotland. She told the BBC: "A lot of time and energy was invested in this burial. It just makes you wonder - why go to all that effort? What was so unique about the individual buried here to receive such special treatment?"
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One of the most interesting and hotly debated aspects about Ava’s remains is her skull. Short and round skull shapes were supposedly common amongst the Beaker people, but Hoole’s website shows that the Achavanich specimen is exaggerated and of an abnormal, uneven shape. She explained:
"There has been much debate amongst the archaeological community for many decades about the shape. Some argue it is a hereditary trait, whilst others think there may have been a practice of head-binding which creates the distinct shape. Perhaps this site can contribute more to the debate if further research is undertaken."
The skull of the Bronze Age woman found in the Achavanich Beaker burial. (M. Hoole)
On her website, Hoole writes:
“The skull had survived in a very good condition, although the mandible and most of the occipital bone were missing. The cranium was reported as being very short and broad, although there was no sign of distortion. Harman noted that the individual had an exceptionally high cephalic/cranial index. My own measurements suggest a cephalic index of 89.6, classified as hyperbrachycephalic bordering on ultrabrachycephalic. The skull has been examined recently (December 2015) by a burial archaeologist who has retaken these measurements.”
Hoole is currently awaiting the results of the burial archaeologist’s assessment. In the meantime, she has created some illustrations to demonstrate “potential abnormalities” in Ava’s skull. The rest of the bones that were preserved from the burial can be viewed on the Achavanich Beaker Burial Project website.
Front view of the skull of the woman dubbed ‘Ava’. (M. Hoole)
Along with her remains, there was a unique short-necked beaker, a bovine scapula, two flint flakes and a tiny thumb-nail scraper. The beaker adds further mystery to the woman’s life and her burial. Hoole described the importance of the artifact:
"I've looked far and wide for comparable examples, but there's nothing else out there quite like it, again making this burial significant. I have closely examined the beaker decoration and discovered that at least three different tools were used to create the design, likely meaning that the artist had a specially-made tool kit and was prepared and likely experienced."
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Harman’s report on the Highland Council’s website says that the beaker contained: “prepared cereal grain, honey, added flowers and fruit (including meadowsweet, bramble & wood sage), and the sap of birch and alder trees.”
The decorated beaker found at the Achavanich Beaker burial. (M. Hoole)
If the potential abnormalities in Ava’s skull are not enough, Hoole may be looking for more controversy as she has said that she is not interested in just a cold, analytical consideration of the burial. “Although potentially a controversial decision, I want people to remember that this is not just a cluster of bones, but that she was once a human being, with a name, an identity and a place in a long lost community.”
The community to which Ava belonged may be of a great advantage to Hoole in raising awareness of the burial. The Beaker people are named as such for their distinctive pottery style. It is said that they made “some of the loveliest prehistoric objects ever to be found in Britain.”
Furthermore, the Beaker people are believed to have been a sociable group of people that “mixed with any new culture they encountered.” They are also known for having different shaped skulls than their Stone Age ancestors, though the reason for this remains a point of debate.
Featured Image: Skull shown in-situ prior to excavation. Source: M. Hoole