The Medieval Faces of Whithorn Priory’s Cold Case Project Revealed
A three-dimensional likeness of a young woman buried at Galloway, Scotland’s Whithorn Priory, laid to rest at one of Scotland’s earliest Christian sites centuries ago, is about to be revealed. The excavation of the medieval woman, laid to rest on a bed of shells in the 14th century at Whithorn Priory, is part of the ambitious Cold Case Whithorn Project that is “revisiting” archaeological archives in the Whithorn the area. So far, 52,000 items from this excavation are being re-examined and re-housed.
Whithorn Priory, in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, was built by early Christian monks in the 12th century. It later became a cathedral church. Its period of wealth and glory ended with the Protestant Reformation of the 1560s, after which it became a parish church. With evidence of Christianity dating as far back as 450 AD , the burgh of Whithorn is often referred to as Scotland’s “Cradle of Christianity.”
The nave of the Whithorn Priory, Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. (Otter/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Whithorn Priory: Medieval World of Bishops, Bones and Burials
That’s not all though! The 3D reconstruction of a cleric with a cleft palate , buried in the same Galloway Whithorn Priory cemetery, will also be revealed! He had been buried close to the high altar of the cathedral, in an elaborate mortared stone cist, generally reserved for bishops. What’s also intriguing is that it was never thought that someone with a cleft palate would be able to rise to such a high level of status.
The Cold Case Whithorn initiative has also been able to reveal information about the lifestyle, diets, and health of people from medieval Scotland, reported the BBC. For example, the cleric grew up locally and had a terrestrial diet, while the bishops buried around him had richer protein diets (fish and meat). The woman, whose face was the first to be 3D reconstructed, has not had her diet tested yet.
All of this and more is set to be unveiled as a part of the Wigtown Book Festival with the flagship event titled “Bishops, Bones, and Burials.” There will also be an opportunity to see a recently completed reconstruction (the third so far) of Bishop Walter of Whithorn, who had died in 1235, and was buried adjacent to the cleric with the cleft palate. According to a DGW Go report, Bishop Walter, from somewhere in southwest Scotland, was a portly man, buried with a gold finger ring and a wooden crozier, which was taken as proof of his bishophood.
Photo of the excavation of Whithorn Priory cemetery which took place from 1984 – 1991. (Elliott Simpson / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Cold Case Whithorn project is led by Dr. Adrian Maldonado of the National Museums Scotland. He will be joined by cranio-facial anthropologist Dr. Chris Rynn and Dr. Kirsty Dingwall of Headland Archaeology for the talk and event on the 30th of September at the County Buildings, Wigtown. Speaking about this event Dr. Adrian Maldonado said,
"The famous excavations at Whithorn were a huge leap forward in the archaeology of Christianity and, amazingly, they continue to bring new insights into life in medieval Scotland. These graves were discovered decades ago, when they could not have anticipated the kinds of questions we can now ask. In addition to generating critical new scientific data about health and diet in the past, the people of medieval Whithorn continue to inspire stories . What could be a better testament to the value of curating archaeological collections in museums?"
The process of the 3D reconstruction of the medieval Whithorn Priory people, will be revealed at the Whithorn Trust event, Bishops, Bones and Burials, on September 30th. (Dr Chris Rynn / University of Dundee )
3D Face Rebuilds: Take Lots of Time But Give Real Results
The project first entailed radiocarbon dating of some human remains carried out by Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, East Kilbridge. This was followed by stable isotope testing by Dr. Shirley Curtis Summers from the University of Bradford, and then ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis by the Crick Institute , London.
Finally, Dr. Chris Rynn added the final, crucial step in this process, facial reconstruction, using his cranio-facial anthropological expertise. The skulls had been loaned and 3D scanned by Dr. Adrian Evans at the University of Bradford, who gave them lifelike faces. Voiceovers were then created by Urbancroft Films of Glasgow to accompany films of the faces, reports STV News .
Julia Muir Watt, the trust’s development manager, said, “The chance to see and imagine that we can hear these three people from so many centuries ago is a remarkable way to help us understand our history and ancestry . It’s always a challenge to imagine what life was really like in medieval times, and these reconstructions are a brilliant way to engage with who these people from our past really were, of their everyday lives, their hopes and their beliefs.”
Top image: Reconstructed face of a medieval woman from the 14th century, who was buried at Whithorn Priory, Galloway, Scotland. Source: Dr Chris Rynn / University of Dundee
By Sahir Pandey
BBC. 2022. Medieval woman's 3D animation tells Whithorn Priory's story . Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-south-scotland-63033758.
Fitzpatrick, T. 2022. Medieval Scottish woman brought to life in 3D reconstruction . https://news.stv.tv/scotland/scotlands-medieval-past-brought-to-life-with-3d-reconstructions-to-tell-story-of-whithorn-priory.
McLaughlin, M. 2022. Digital project brings Scots face to face with Whithorn’s medieval dead . Available at: https://www.scotsman.com/heritage-and-retro/heritage/digital-project-brings-scots-face-to-face-with-whithorns-medieval-dead-3857390.
Van Reenen, D. 2022. First glimpse of 700-year-old medieval Scottish woman digitally reconstructed . Available at: https://www.edinburghlive.co.uk/news/edinburgh-news/first-glimpse-700-year-old-25108935.
A face cannot be reconstructed to look like the person actually did. There are so many facets, that there are many elements of artistic licence, during reconstruction. In any case, the likeness cannot be proven and what does matter?