Almost a century ago, Sylvia Benton – a student of Classical archaeology at the British School at Athens – paid a visit to the Sculptor’s Cave, a secluded sea cave overlooking the Moray Firth some 64km east of Inverness. The year was 1928, and Benton had travelled to examine the Pictish carvings that give the site its name – but when she arrived, it was not the weathered symbols that caught her eye. As she described in a letter some years later, ‘the floor was strewn with human bones’.
Three seasons of excavations followed, and their results were as productive as they were intriguing: Benton recovered hundreds of disarticulated human remains, as well as a unique array of objects spanning the Late Bronze Age to the Roman Iron Age. Many of her finds were later lost or discarded, though, and her reports, although published swiftly, are frustratingly patchy in places. More detailed excavations in 1979 by Ian and Alexandra (‘Lekky’) Shepherd recovered yet more bones and associated artefacts but, apart from interim reports, remained unpublished. But now the story of the Sculptor’s Cave has been brought vividly to light in a wide-ranging book that draws together Benton’s finds with subsequent work at the site – of which, more below – to illuminate more than 1,500 years of human life and death within the confines of the cave. Darkness Visible is written by Professor Ian Armit and Dr Lindsey Büster, both of the University of York, and published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (see ‘Further reading’ box on p.27). Its diverse chapters explore evidence for enigmatic funerary rituals, votive offerings, and a violent episode in which at least seven Iron Age lives were cut short within the cave. Here we will explore some highlights from the project’s findings, sharing the latest thinking on a remarkably long-lived place of the dead.
Exploring the cave
Let us begin by exploring the Sculptor’s Cave itself. The site nestles at the foot of high sandstone cliffs, with distinctive twin entrance passages that are comfortably high enough for humans to walk through. These run in parallel for 11m until they join the main body of the cave: an inner chamber that stretches 20m by 13m, its roof soaring to a height of 5.5m to create an airy but gloomy subterranean space. The cave’s dramatic entrance looks almost monumental, setting it apart from other caves dotted along this stretch of coastline – you might be forgiven for thinking that it must be manmade. Perhaps it was a story attributing this almost-architectural portal’s creation to powerful ancestors or even supernatural forces that first drew people to the cave more than 3,000 years ago.
The site’s appeal surely does not lie in its practicality or convenient location. Sandwiched between the waters of the North Sea and the former Loch Spynie (a once-extensive sea loch surrounded by boggy wetlands that, although mostly dried up today, would have presented a considerable obstacle to the prehistoric traveller), the cave has no easy landside access. A visit at low tide would involve either a perilous descent down the cliffs, or a long walk over a beach crowded with obstructive, slippery boulders. At high tide, moreover, the site is completely cut off to pedestrian access, and the bay before it is fringed with sharp rocks threatening anyone approaching by sea.
Despite these hazards, people were travelling to this spot from at least the Early Bronze Age. They may not have stayed for long – a sparse scatter of discarded flints and the marks left by fires coaxed into life on the cave floor speak of sporadic, fleeting visits – but the effort that must have gone into reaching the site suggests that it was seen as somehow significant. In many cultures, caves are special, liminal places, bridging the world of the living and the subterranean domain of the dead or divine. Moreover, recent investigations by the Covesea Caves Project suggest that other caves along this stretch of coastline were already being used for funerary rites at this time. While the Sculptor’s Cave was a little later in adopting these practices, once they began in around 1100 BC, they mark the start of an extraordinary period of ceremonial use and repeated revisiting that would span hundreds of years, and that provides unique insights into beliefs and traditions that have long vanished from our collective memory.
The question that faced Armit and Büster was: how to interpret these enigmatic traces? Much of the material from earlier investigations provides only fleeting glimpses of the site’s past, beginning in 1868 when the Elgin Courant described ‘some scientific gentlemen of the neighbourhood and one, we believe, from Edinburgh’ carrying out ‘deep excavations’ within the cave. These anonymous antiquarians apparently found human remains and the debris of prehistoric occupation during their work, but aside from these scant details little else is known about their discoveries. Sylvia Benton, arriving 60 years later, provided the bulk of known finds from the site, but her methods were crude by modern standards – workmen borrowed from the local estate were tasked with shovelling deposits into wheelbarrows and moving them to a heap outside the cave, where they could be sieved and examined in better light than was available in the depths of the cave.
Her recording of stratigraphy was also rather rudimentary, but the project was ‘well conducted for its time’, Armit and Büster note. Unfortunately, although her reports document the discovery of large quantities of disarticulated human bone, they are distinctly lacking in detail on this subject, with records largely limited to handwritten ‘bone lists’ compiled by the anatomists who examined the remains for her. Nor are these bones available to modern researchers: although metalwork and other artefacts were retained, most of the human remains were ultimately discarded. Out of an estimated 1,600 bone fragments recovered by Benton, today just seven survive, split between the collections of National Museums Scotland and Elgin Museum.
Jumping forward another half century to 1979, Ian and Lekky Shepherd carried out their own investigations – the first at the site to be conducted to modern scientific standards. There was still much to discover: although Benton had dug out all human-generated deposits in the main body of the cave, as well as the upper layers in the entrance passages, she had left the lower deposits for future researchers. The Shepherds’ excavation of this remaining material revealed invaluable additional clues, including dozens more fragments of human bone. Due to competing work demands, though, this project languished largely unpublished for decades, and although post-excavation analysis resumed in 2006 – including producing the first radiocarbon dates for the cave finds, as well as re-examination of the surviving human remains by Ian Armit and Rick Schulting (University of Oxford) – these endeavours were cut short by the death of Ian Shepherd just four years later.
The site’s story would still be told, however: in 2013, the Sculptor’s Cave Project was formed following discussions between Lekky Shepherd and the University of Bradford, and funding by Historic Environment Scotland. Directed by Ian Armit and Lindsey Büster, this initiative set out with the ambitious aim of finally publishing the entire excavation archive for the site, and making sense of the disparate discoveries that have been made there over the last century. Its culmination was the comprehensive and thought-provoking monograph that we are drawing on here.
Searching for lost remains
In addition to analysing the archives of earlier investigations, Armit and Büster also describe recent fieldwork by the present project team. As well as a programme of laser-scanning to document the interior of the cave and to create a lasting and (given the difficulty of visiting the site) accessible record of its Pictish and later carvings, a small-scale excavation took place in 2014, aiming to shed light on the lost bones from Benton’s works in 1928-1930. Her correspondence about them is intriguing. ‘There are a prodigious number of human bones to be explained… some of them show beheadings’, she wrote in one letter. In another, she wonders why the ‘human bones in Layer 1 have a “reddish tinge” while animals have not’, and asks ‘what have they done to skulls to make them turn blue, white, and black like a new kind of pottery?’ These observations offer tantalising glimpses of possible mortuary rites, perhaps hinting at the use of pigment and the exposure of skulls to fire. Sadly, Benton’s writings also make it all too clear what happened to the remains, as she cheerfully writes to an anatomist apparently overwhelmed by the scale of her discoveries: ‘I am keeping all the skulls and leg bones, and I am carefully noting all bones in the second layer. You will be glad to hear that the rest goes in the dump.’ Even the retained bones seem to have been later largely discarded, however – writing in 1931, Benton suggests that ‘unless any anatomist would like them, perhaps you would be kind enough to throw them away for us.’
The Sculptor’s Cave Project hoped that they might be able to recover at least some of the bones discarded during the dig, and – determining that the remains were most likely discarded on site – set out to find Benton’s spoil heap. Their efforts focused on a promisingly pronounced mound just outside the cave entrance, which one of the few photographs from Benton’s excavations (shown on p.20) supported as a likely location. One of the first finds was a pair of iron feet and other bits of metal from the scaffolding tower that the Shepherds had erected in 1979. This was an encouraging discovery, suggesting that this part of the site had been covered and inaccessible during the later fieldwork, and that any underlying material would therefore belong to Benton’s excavation.
The team was not disappointed: a further 104 fragments of human bone have now been added to the tally for the Sculptor’s Cave, bringing the total of known human skeletal remains from the site to c.1,750. Only a fraction of these were physically available to study, but after analysing all those that survive, and examining reports and bone lists documenting those that do not, the Sculptor’s Cave Publication Project suggests that at least 33 bodies had been present in the cave, which they classify as nine ‘adults’ aged 26 or over, 13 ‘young’ people aged 15-25, nine ‘children’ aged 3-14, and two ‘infants’. They have also been able to piece together how these bodies may have come to rest in such a remote place.
Bronze Age beginnings
Radiocarbon dating of the available bones (together with animal bones and charred seeds from associated deposits) suggests that there were two periods when the cave was used to dispose of the dead. The first began c.1100 BC, when the main chamber was dominated by a shallow pool of stagnant water, making it largely inaccessible. For the duration of around a generation (Bayesian statistical analysis suggests between 1 and 33 years), though, people were bringing their dead into the dry entrance passages, and possibly storing or displaying them on a succession of wooden structures that can still be traced in lines of post-holes.
These seem to have been mainly the bodies of children or infants, making up 88% of the remains from this phase. The fact that we do not see a more balanced cross-section of the community might suggest that the individuals brought to the Sculptor’s Cave were specifically chosen. Were the bodies intended as some kind of offering, might being laid to rest in this space have been perceived as a particular honour, or was this location seen as a particularly appropriate place for those who had died ‘too soon’, such as the very young? While the cave was selected as their final resting place, though, it had not been their first – the bodies seem to have been curated or stored somewhere else for at least a short period immediately after their death.
We can deduce this because, while skulls and the larger bones of the body – parts of the pelvis, the sternum, collarbones – are well represented, small elements like the bones of hands and feet are strikingly scarce, even when allowing for them being easier to miss during excavation. As these smaller bones would have been among the first to become detached as bodies decayed, it appears that the corpses had been first exposed in another location (albeit a protected one, as no signs of weathering or animal gnawing were seen on the bones), and smaller parts had been left behind when they made their final journey to the Sculptor’s Cave, possibly as elaborately wrapped mummy bundles. Some of the objects found among the scattered remains suggest they had been decorated with copper-alloy bracelets, pins, and gold ‘hair rings’ – small copper rings wrapped in gold sheet that have been interpreted as personal adornments, possibly worn in the hair, or alternatively as earrings or septum/nose piercings. Hair rings are known from sites across Britain and Ireland, as well as in north-west France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and the Sculptor’s Cave finds represent the largest group ever found in Scotland. The fact that these valuable objects had been left undisturbed during centuries of people subsequently visiting the cave suggests that there was a powerful taboo against taking them, strengthening suggestions that they were associated with the dead.
Once left in the cave, the bodies were not abandoned: time and again, groups of people travelled to the site, not only to visit those resting within its passages, but to prepare and share food and drink – whether offerings for the dead or meals for the living – leaving tell-tale accumulations of pottery and fuel waste to testify to their gatherings.
Into the Iron Age
People continued to venture into the passageways during the pre-Roman Iron Age, sharing meals in the shadow of the by-now decaying wooden structures and surrounded by the bones of their ancestors. By c.900 BC, though, these visits did not include funerary rites – it seems that it was no longer the custom to bring the dead to the cave. Indeed, it would be more than a millennium until such practices resumed at the site. The cave itself was being transformed, however. Sometime between 800 BC and 500 BC, an enigmatic structure made from turf or stone was raised at the entrance – its precise form and purpose are unknown, but it would have obstructed the passages – and this period also saw the erection of a wooden gate at the outer end of the west passage into the cave; a similar gate was later built halfway along the eastern passage. Were these barriers intended to restrict access to the cave, or to more formally separate the worlds of the living and the dead?
As the new millennium dawned, the changes heralded by the 1st century AD were rather more dramatic. When the invading armies of Rome first reached Britain’s shores, far to the south, the communities around the Sculptor’s Cave may have been blissfully unaware until stories of an unstoppable foe began to ripple north, carried by traders and perhaps refugees fleeing the expanding occupation. After AD 43, imperial influence swept inexorably north from these conquered lands; fierce resistance like that of Boudica’s Iceni in c.AD 60 was not able to stem the tide, and by c.AD 70 powerful northern territories like that of the Brigantes had fallen (see CA 365). In the space of little more than a generation after the invasion began, even Iron Age communities in Scotland were forced to confront the new threat, as Agricola’s forces clashed with the Caledonians in AD 79. Although Scotland was never conquered and the Sculptor’s Cave lay well beyond the limits of Roman military control, the presence of such an unprecedentedly powerful new neighbour must have had a catalysing effect on the politics of the region. Previously disparate groups came together to oppose a shared enemy at the Battle of Mons Graupius, c.AD 83, which is thought to have been fought in north-east Scotland – giving rise to new elites and factions. Faced with such turbulent times, it seems unsurprising that votive activity resumed at the Sculptor’s Cave during this period. Was the local community returning to an ancestral place as a comfortingly tangible link with a safer past before their social landscape changed beyond recognition, or might they have been seeking the intervention of powerful forces thought to be resident in the cave?
The funerary practices of this period, though, were very different to what had gone before. Directly contrasting with the Bronze Age remains, the Iron Age dead seem to have been mostly adults, and – while their small bones are well represented – larger elements are noticeably missing. This suggests a very different rite, with intact bodies being brought to the site shortly after death. Once they had begun to disarticulate, pieces were selectively retrieved and taken elsewhere, perhaps for display or deposition. The focus of this activity was also different: by the Roman Iron Age the large pool of water had dried up, meaning that the main chamber could now accommodate large groups. Like their predecessors in the passageways, these assemblies were cooking and eating together – and among these activities, the dead appear to have been laid out in their best clothes, adorned with necklaces, highly decorative pins, bracelets, amber and glass beads, belt fittings, dress fasteners, and coins that had been pierced to create ornaments. Unlike these apparently honoured individuals, though, some of the Iron Age individuals had met an ignominious end – and had entered the cave alive.
Evidence of executions?
Benton described finding nine vertebrae showing signs of decapitation, and seven of these remain to be examined today. These bones all come from the upper neck and are thought to represent five adults and two young teens or children (unfused elements suggest individuals younger than 16-17). They bear witness to a particularly violent episode in the cave’s past, when execution-style killings took place in its depths.
By analysing signs of trauma on the bones, we know that each victim met their end in the same way: while kneeling with head bowed on to their chest, they were struck from behind using a heavy, sharp-edged weapon like a sword or axe. There may have been more than one assailant: while most of the blows were struck from the right, one came from the left, and varying degrees of skill are visible – one vertebra was cleanly sliced through with a single stroke, while another shows an agonising 11 attempts to sever the head.
Dating evidence gives a narrow window for these deaths, suggesting either a single event or multiple similar ones in a very short space of time, c.AD 220-335. Who were these unfortunate individuals, and why had they been brought on the difficult journey to the cave to meet such a brutal end? Isotope analysis suggests a fairly homogenous group, with a similar diet to the Late Bronze Age people who had been laid to rest in the cave centuries earlier. If the victims were relatively local, perhaps their deaths were driven by the powerful political shifts that marked this period. Could this have been a defeated family line abruptly snuffed out? If so, perhaps the attackers had used a cave associated with their own community, so that their ancestors could legitimise the vicious act. Alternatively, if it was the executed who laid claim to this spot, were their deaths deliberately located to desecrate their most sacred space?
After this upheaval, visits to the cave became sporadic once more, but there were two more significant acts. The first of these saw a large hoard of c.230 coins deposited in the cave sometime after AD 364. The coins are all copper-alloy nummi – nine Roman originals and the rest indigenous copies – and, while they were quite dispersed, they represent a tight span of time, AD 330-364 (only one deviates, dating to AD 320-341), which points to them originally having been placed in a single deposit. The coins themselves are not exceptional, but their location so far north of the Roman frontier is. Coins were not used as currency in this region during the Roman Iron Age, so they may have been valued for more than their monetary worth. Given the other activities in the cave, might they have had a ritual role?
The final act was the creation of the Pictish carvings. Might these intricate symbols, being concentrated around the entrance passages rather than in the body of the cave, have been intended to seal the space – and any forces within it – from the world of the living?
Pictish symbols are most commonly found on free-standing stones, though a smaller number are known on cave walls and other natural rocky outcrops. The Sculptor’s Cave examples are worn and weathered today, but they would originally have been crisp, deeply cut images that would have made the entrance even more striking to look at. There are around 24 known, with many arranged in pairs or groups, and they include some very common motifs from the Pictish corpus – particularly crescents and V-rods, which occur at least five times, and a minimum of three ‘mirror case’ images. While the symbols are familiar, many of the pairings are unique, and it is also unusual that they tend to be paired horizontally rather than vertically as is the case on symbol stones.
Might these curiosities be explained by the motifs being particularly early forms? Pictish symbols are traditionally dated to the 6th-8th centuries AD, but recent work at Dunnicaer has suggested that motifs there might date to as early as AD 250-400 (CA 364). A similar date for the Sculptor’s Cave would close the gap between the site’s late Roman Iron Age activity (culminating in the deposition of the hoard) and these markings, with the creation of the symbols possibly coming only a few generations later. Whatever their meaning, they seem to bring human activity at the cave largely to a close, memorialising a remarkably persistent place.
Further reading Ian Armit and Lindsey Büster, Darkness Visible: the Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea, from the Bronze Age to the Picts (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, £30, ISBN 978-1908332172). For more information on the monograph, and links to other resources about investigations at the cave, see www.socantscot.org/product/darkness-visible.
ALL IMAGES: The Sculptor’s Cave Publication Project, unless otherwise stated.