MHG63097 - 'Rosemarkie Man' burial - Learnie Cave 2b (Smelter's Cave), Learnie, Rosemarkie


The 2016/17 open-area excavations uncovered significant archaeological results, including a c. 5th-7th century male inhumation burial.

Type and Period (1)

  • BURIAL (Late Iron Age to Early Medieval - 430 AD to 631 AD) + Sci.Date

Protected Status

  • None recorded

Full Description

NMRS Report: (30/04/2007 13:38:58)
NH76SE 29 757 608

Large - medium natural cave with well built 1m thick wall - stone faced on both sides - large boulders. 0.3m high across whole entrance.
Small secondary wall 1.5m into cave from first wall. <1>

This cave is one of 9 caves below Learnie Farm consisting of 3 groups of 3. The floor of the cave is described as being dry with some rocks and pigeon droppings. It is ideal for habitation, 6m high, 4.4m across at entrance, 17m deep. It lies at slightly over 5m above mean sea level, about 3m above high water.
A small scale trial excavation took place here in September 2008. The excavations revealed nothing earlier than 19th century. The cave appears to have been used by cattle for shelter during the 20th century. A series of packed clay floor levels pre-dated this use, and were associated with leather offcuts and worn shoe soles of probable 20th-century date. Across the front of the cave stands a substantial stone wall with an entrance gap. This overlay a shell midden. No dating evidence was recovered from either feature, but the excavators suggest that the shell midden dates from 19th or 20th century. Earlier evidence may be present but was not observed, probably due to the limited extent of the excavation. At the end of the excavation, possible cup marks were noted on the north wall of the cave. <2>

From the results of our 2011-2015 programme of survey and test pitting, we had gathered substantial evidence for lengthy use of the Rosemarkie Caves over the past 2000 years. A number of the caves, in particular the Learnie group, had been visited or occupied sometime during the 7th-9th centuries AD. At 5 metres OD, Learnie 2B is a large cave where a limited excavation took place in August 2006. The exposed floor surface is mostly flat, consisting of sand and rocks with areas of manure below this. The top of two sections of wall are visible running across the cave entrance. In 2006, a small shell midden was found just outside this wall at a depth of 1 metre. In the floor of the cave were found various animal bones including the cranium of a common seal, periwinkle shells and pieces of cut leather and a small girl’s shoe.

Two test pits were excavated in 2013 (Figure 8; Plate 6). Test Pit 1 was located inside the cave along the front of a rough wall built against the north side of the cave. Test Pit 2 was placed at the entrance, up against the northern wall section.

Test Pit 1 contained a sequence of 8 stratified contexts ending at a depth of 118cm (Figure 9). Below the remnants of a modern fire, the upper layers contained post-medieval midden material including ceramics, glass, leather and clay pipe fragments. This material was interpreted as being associated with the low remains of a rubble wall [104] (Plate 7). An intermediate layer [105], contained large stones, animal bone and shells and sherds of possible medieval pottery. Near the base of the pit, a charcoal-rich layer [107] with animal bone and shells may have been hearth material and contained sherds of possible medieval pottery. The lowest archaeological horizon excavated in the pit [108] also contained animal bone and shell. A fragment of animal bone from this layer was selected for submission for radiocarbon dating.

Test Pit 2 provided a chance to look at the construction of wall [204] and to assess the survival of underlying deposits (Figure 10). The wall was well-built of mortar and stone construction (Plate 8) and aligned NNE-SSW. It measures 36 cm wide. A layer of clean sand and stone [205] to the front and back of the wall was interpreted as backfill after the structure went out of use. The wall had cut through a charcoal-rich layer [206] containing a possible hearth layer and animal bone and shell. At the base of the pit was a final archaeological horizon [210] containing charcoal and animal bone, which overlay clean sand and bedrock.

Animal bone from base of deposit at 110cm deep 640‐672 AD Calibrated 1‐sigma (68.2%), 604‐757 AD Calibrated 2‐sigma (95.4%).
Charcoal at 105cm deep from base of context, transition to underlying Context 211. 669‐764 AD Calibrated 1‐sigma (68.2%), 660‐770 AD, Calibrated 2‐sigma (95.4%).
Charcoal from 110cm deep in context 611‐652 AD Calibrated 1‐sigma (68.2%). <3>

Rosemarkie Caves Project Excavation in 2016;
From the results of our 2011-2015 programme of survey and test pitting, we had gathered substantial evidence for lengthy use of the Rosemarkie Caves over the past 2000 years. A number of the caves, in particular the Learnie group, had been visited or occupied sometime during the 7th-9th centuries AD. A test pit evaluation in Learnie 2B had revealed that there was significant potential for surviving archaeological deposits in this cave, which contained a substantial mortared stone wall at the entrance.

The evidence for small-scale metalworking prompted the extension of the main trench into the dark alcove to the N. This involved the removal of the post-medieval cobbled floor and a sequence of midden deposits. Remarkably, the trench extension produced no metalworking residues, suggesting that the wooden screen (represented by the post and stake holes) contained this spread of material. The amount of butchered animal bone increased dramatically in this area on reaching the early medieval horizon, some of which appeared to be cattle and formed distinct groups. However, cleaning back this material further revealed something completely unexpected: well-preserved human remains. Excavation in the alcove revealed the outline of a large beach cobble, along with two articulated upper and lower leg bones. Other stones also started to appear in the area overlying the inhumation and revealed that these, like the larger beach cobble, had probably been used to pin down the body. Analysis of the distinct caches of butchered animal bone located above the cranium of the inhumation showed that these represented the main meat-bearing bones from eight adult cattle, while two bones from a horse were also included in the deposits. The bone groups may relate to a feasting deposit placed with the burial.It was clear from the stratigraphic relationships that the individual dated at least to the early medieval period, but there was no diagnostic evidence such as grave goods to provide any further clues. However, evidence relating to the individual’s demise soon presented itself after revealing the skull. The roughly circular exit wound at the right temple area suggested that this was probably no accident! While informing the police and procurator fiscal regarding our discoveries, so that we could proceed with the recovery of the individual, we were also contacted by Sue Black, of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University of Dundee. Due to details revealed by some of our images, which had been submitted to her department by the procurator fiscal, Sue and her team kindly offered a full forensic analysis of the remains, along with a digital reconstruction of the individual’s face.

The individual was male, between 25–35 years of age, was Caucasian and stood between 5ft 6" and 5ft 9" high. Although some slight pathology was identified on his vertebrae to suggest possible mild osteoarthritis and some back pain, this was a robust and healthy individual in the prime of his life. He had been well nourished and his teeth were excellent with no caries. He had very strong muscle attachments on his lower arms, capable of producing a strong grasp, which may be indicative of his work. There was no sign of systemic pathology, previous healed trauma, or disease. The only trauma that he had sustained was to his head. The first blow was to the right side of his mouth and it fractured teeth in the upper and lower mandible and displaced one tooth back into the bone due to the force inflicted. A tooth found during excavation in the thorax is a clear indication that he was still alive at this time as it is likely that he either inhaled or swallowed the fractured incisor. The second blow came to the left side of his jaw with some force. It severely fractured the left side of his chin and caused fractures on both sides of the jaw focused on the condylar process. The force of the blow also set off a radial fracture internally along the base of the skull. Next was a contact injury – probably caused by the individual falling backwards and striking his head on a hard surface – most likely as a result of impact numbers 1 and 2, which probably followed swiftly. While the individual was lying on the ground, a rounded implement was then pole-driven through the side of his head from left to right, just in front of the temple region. This set off fracturing around the face and skull and was most likely the cause of death. The final blow to the top of his head used tremendous force, creating a large penetrative wound which set up massive fracturing of the skull. This final blow would have been carried out while the man was prone and suggests significant ‘overkill’.

We have secured a total of six radiocarbon dates from the excavations at Learnie 2B and the date on the human rib overlaps with the dates from the main occupation/metalworking horizon – although statistically the human remains appear to sit slightly earlier. Therefore, it appears that the body was placed in the cave immediately prior to, or contemporary with the start of the occupation/metalworking horizon. The date on the human rib bone provided a calibrated result of cal AD 430–631 at 2 sigma level of confidence (SUERC-70721). Excavations conducted at the four caves in 2017 focused on finalising work in Learnie 2B and starting new open area trenches in Learnie 1A, 1B and 2C. Excavations in Learnie 2C were concluded and the results indicate that this long, dry fissure-type cave had been used only for post-medieval occupation. Excavations in Learnie 1A and 1B will be finalised in 2018, but the results so far indicate their use during the post-medieval, medieval and early medieval periods. Of particular interest are the rich occupation deposits revealed in Learnie 1B, dating to the early medieval period. This is the largest of the Rosemarkie Caves and we hope that evidence relating to site function will be revealed in 2018. The excavations bringing to a close our work in Learnie 2B included a trench investigating the relatively flat apron of ground just outside the cave entrance, and the removal of the final deposits in the back of the cave, adjacent to where
we had recovered the human remains in 2016.

Unfortunately, the excavations outside the cave failed to find any significant archaeological features or deposits. The deep sequence of deposits comprised residues redeposited outside the cave interspersed with large boulders (rock-fall from the cliff above the cave entrance) and wind-blown sand/sediments. The deposits did produce some metalworking residues, mixed midden material, and a number of artefacts of post-medieval date. However, the excavations in the back of the cave produced a final perplexing discovery.Within the small excavation area, we uncovered two superimposed post-medieval hearths – the upper of which displayed the remains of a stone kerb on the NW arc. Removal of the ash deposits and kerb defined a rectangular stone setting, below which was revealed the almost complete articulated remains of a red deer… minus one half of the lower mandible and cranium. There were no obvious signs of butchery, while the stone setting did not contain the animal’s remains, but had been built over it. Removal of the rib cage revealed thecomplete leather sole of a shoe, while post medieval ceramics and glass sherds also accompanied the burial, proving its age in the overall sequence. The substantial quantities of leather shoe remains and leather off-cuts suggest this group of caves may have been used as temporary workshops, with a number of craft activities including basket-making potentially servicing this area of the Black Isle.

The 2016 open-area excavation uncovered significant archaeological results, including evidence for iron-working activity and a c. 5th-7th century male inhumation burial. Found in a dark alcove below a post-medieval cobbled floor and midden deposits, the burial comprised the well-preserved remains of a young male who had suffered severe, multiple trauma to the head. The individual had been placed in an unmarked grave in a recess of the cave. He was situated in an unusual cross-legged position with large stones over the limbs and butchered animal bone over the location of the head. Potentially categorised as a 'deviant burial', this early medieval or 'Pictish' period rite appears to represent a deliberate act to weigh down the individual after death . The skeleton was forensically analysed and facially reonstructed by Dame Sue Black and her team at CAHID, University of Dundee.

Also at the lowest archaeological horizon in the cave, a group of pits and cobbled features associated with considerable iron working residues have shown that metal-working was taking place within a defined area in the rear of the cave. The metal-working area respected the location of the burial, which may provide evidence that there is a relationship between this specialised activity and the burial placement. A sequence of archaeological layers covering the metal-working area, indicates that it took place before or during the early medieval period. The cave continued to be used at least intermittently through the medieval and post-medieval periods, where there appears to be a phase of significant occupation until a mortared stone wall across the entrance was put out of use. The cave continued to be in use subsequent to this, probably by travellers, who may have been employed specifically in shoe manufacture or repair.

Connections between metalworking and burial practices (in our case the execution and deposition of Rosemarkie Man in Smelter’s Cave (Learnie 2B) have been identified at other late prehistoric sites in Scotland, such as the burial of a woman placed below the slabbed floor of a metal and craft-working structure at Mine Howe in Orkney. Many of the earliest burials recorded on monastic sites such as Whithorn, the Isle of May, Portmahomack, Govan, and St Andrews Kirkhill have also been linked with craft working and industrial activity – especially metalworking. Some of their burials were inserted into craft-working areas at these important centres. The discovery of such a complete skeleton from the Early Medieval period is rare, especially beyond burial complexes such as those recorded at nearby Portmahomack and Balintore. This man’s death, whether brutal murder or a selfless act of sacrifice for the good of the local community, provides the potential to investigate a narrative associated with Late Iron Age and Pictish cultural traditions, and the arrival of Christianity. <4>

(Note - see MHG50574 for Learnie cave 2b)

Sources/Archives (8)



Grid reference Centred NH 7567 6076 (12m by 12m) (2 map features)
Map sheet NH76SE
Geographical Area ROSS AND CROMARTY

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