Children of Gold Uncovered in Pictish Death Cave
Golden rings discovered in a sea cave once adorned a dead child in a bizarre ancient funerary ritual, in Scotland.
We might expect to read such a headline in a Peruvian or Chinese archaeological publication as mummies blazoned in gold ornamentation seem to be unearthed in these countries on a weekly basis. But Sculptor’s Cave is an archaeological site near Covesea in Moray, on Scotland’s north east coast. Locally, this cave was a place of pagan rituals and child sacrifice and for hundreds of years it has been regarded as a portal or gateway between the upper and underworlds.
Enter the Underworld
In reality, the indigenous people of Scotland, the Picts, like contemporary cultures in South America and in the East, associated caves with the underworld and variably souls came from, and traveled into them, after death. This was all confirmed in archaeological excavations in 1928 which established that the cave was a sacred Late Bronze Age site and was used continually up to the Early Medieval era “primarily for funerary and ritual purposes.” In 1929, archaeologist Sylvia Benton, who carried out the first detailed excavation described the cave as a place “that the sun never touches.” And nor it does. This massive, damp, deathly silent cathedral like cave is equipped with a huge central pillar and a stone altar, neither of which are ever stroked by the light of the sun. It is in every way, the underworld.
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The entrance passages of the Sculptor's Cave led to a dread mortuary chamber. Credit: University of Bradford/Sculptor's Cave Publication Project
A Treasure Trove
Professors Ian Armit and Dr Lindsey Büster from the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford have researched Sculptor’s Cave since 2013. In a Scotsman report this week Dr Büster described the “very, very small, but very beautiful” copper alloy rings as being “very carefully wrapped in gold foil and would have been very precious and very valuable items.”
This natural mausoleum is located at the foot of steep cliffs and is covered in Pictish carvings. Archaeologists have discovered Iron Age crucibles, slag and ironwork and also, Late Bronze Age pottery and worked bone, a swan’s-neck pin and bronze rings. What is more “hundreds of children’s bones.” The Scottish Archeological Research Framework admit “the true function of these objects is not yet understood” but they are always found with dead people and most often they are forged in precious metals.
Excavations taking place in Coversea ‘Cave 2’, 2015. (Image: Dr Lindsey Büster)
Children of Gold
For almost a century, archaeologists have found this unique coastal cave littered with children's remains and Dr Büster said, “it was found along with nine other hair rings and carefully placed in a location which is very difficult to access which seems to have been a site for ritual and votive deposition and mortuary activity for more than 1,000 years.” The archaeologist said “the rings reflected the earliest activity at the cave” and that people traveled here from “across the north of Scotland, and perhaps Ireland, to leave their loved ones.”
Curiously, the rings were found with fragments of human skulls at the entrance to the cave and commenting on this unusual occurrence Dr Büster said: “Some body parts were carefully looked after and adorned and left to, essentially, naturally disintegrate.” The archeologists claimed that, “a line of children’s heads may have been on display in this area with bodies laid out to naturally de-flesh.” Büster also finds it remarkable that “with their intrinsic value and the fact that they were left in the cave to be recovered by archaeologists today, suggests there was a taboo going into this place and disturbing the dead that were laid out there.”
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Pictish carvings in Sculptor’s Cave. (Aberdeenshire Council)
Digitalizing the Darkness
Because Sculptor’s Cave is only accessible during low tide, until recently they have been difficult to study formally but this changed in 2017 when archaeologists from the University of Bradford created a digital model of Sculptor’s Cave. Not only does it demonstrate the layout of the massive cave but it highlights specific Pictish (early medieval) carved symbols. “Using modern scientific methods and innovative digital technologies such as laser-scanning and structured light scanning” the digital model has been created in collaboration with Bradford Visualization, also based at the University of Bradford.
The animation has confirmed that “The cave was also used as a focus for complex funerary rites and the deposition of precious objects in the Late Bronze Age/Iron Age,” said Professor Armit. And speaking further of the benefits of their new walk-through animation he said it will present this inaccessible dark archaeological site to the public, through dynamic “online and museum displays.” The animation is currently being used by the Elgin Museum in their exhibition and on www.elginmuseum.org.uk. Additionally, a detailed monograph about Sculptor’s Cave is currently being authored by Professor Ian Armit and Dr Lindsey Büster and will be published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland sometime in 2018.
Youtube Screenshot of the 3D animation of Sculptor’s Cave (Youtube Screenshot)
Dr. Rebecca Jones, Head of Archaeology & World Heritage at Historic Environment Scotland said: “It is wonderful to have such a detailed interactive model so that audiences have the opportunity to explore the Pictish engravings up close.” In a report published on the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland website they point out that “Sculptor’s Cave has traditionally been viewed in isolation” but any accurate interpretation of this cave must account for the collections of “human bones and artifacts” from other caves along this stretch of coast which “also contain anthropogenic deposits.”
A Current Archeology report last month informed that this year will bring a fuller examination of the archaeology of this ‘coastal landscape’, aiming to paint a broader picture of this “Late Bronze Age coastal mortuary complex.” It might be discovered that the bones in caves 2 and 3 are those of adults alone, further establishing Sculptor’s Cave as a children only dead zone. What might be found in the other caves along the sacred Moray coast this year, simply electrifies my imagination.
Top image: The gold hair rings found at Sculptor's Cave near Covesea, Moray. Credit: Courtesy of Elgin Museum.
By Ashley Cowie