How great must a warrior be to be buried in a grave with a total of six heads – four of them severed and arranged around his own? Did he slay them? Is this a great opening for a movie?
“We excavated the site for 13 seasons. We don't know of anything quite like it. The fact that one man was buried with six skulls around his head is quite phenomenal. It's not like anything that's been found in Scotland or anywhere else in Britain.”
Scotland! If you’re thinking this sounds like the end result of some kind of clan feud, you’re up on your Scottish history or Mel Gibson movies. According to STV News, archeologists discovered the remains of two men in their 40s placed on top of each other in a single coffin while excavating underneath the Tarbat Old Parish Church in Portmahomack, Easter Ross – a small fishing village on the northeastern coast of Scotland. Portmahomack was the site of the first confirmed Pictish monastery, which was built around 550 CE and destroyed, possibly by Viking raids, around 800 CE. about the year 800. Tarbat Old Parish Church, also known as St. Colman or St Colmóc, is a medieval structure built on the same site and now used as a museum and visitor center.
Hey! You promised a movie-worthy Scottish feud story!
Thanks for the reminder. Dr. Cecily Spall, director of York-based Fieldwork Archaeological Services who is currently studying the skulls as part of the Tarbat Medieval Burials project., says the remains were discovered in 1997 and immediately caught the attention of researchers … and not just because of the four skulls carefully arranged around the two skeletons. One of the men apparently died from a “horrific” sword injury that cut off the bottom half of his face and had another cut above his left eye in case he wasn’t dead yet. The second man died by both the sword and a blunt weapon. What kind of battle was this?
“The skeletal remains are thought to date from the 15th century when Clan Ross and Clan Mackay fought out a bloody rivalry in the area that arguably peaked with the Battle of Tarbat in the 1480s. Then, Clan Ross cornered a raiding party of Clan Mackay, with many killed in the encounter. Survivors of the attack sought sanctuary in the church, but the Rosses set fire to it, killing all those hiding inside.”
This was what is now known as the Battle of Tarbat, which took place in the 1480s. Not much more is known of it – except that the Mackays got their revenge a few years later in the Battle of Aldy Charrish where many of the Rosses were slain.
What about the skulls and the mysterious burial?
That’s the same question many have been asking since they were found. Dr. Spall says there were 88 burials under the church from the same medieval period and none were like this one. The two men and the skulls were buried at the mouth of the crypt directly under the nave – the most prominent spot. No artifacts or other hints have been found that might help solve the mystery of their identities or strange burials, so Spall is now attempting to use the latest DNA analysis tools to unravel it.
"The burials will be radiocarbon dated to see when they died and carbon isotopes will be used to see where they were born. We're also going to get them analysed to see if any ancient DNA exists to see whether they were related and we've had one of the faces reconstructed. Are these men related? Are they father and son, brothers, or are they clan chiefs who were related to each other, or are they rivals?"
The facial reconstruction can be seen here. It’s obviously pre-injuries, the severity of which convinced Dr. Shirley Curtis-Summers, a specialist in human osteology (the study of skeletons and bone structures) at the University of Bradford and an assistant on the research, that the men were “very, very seasoned fighters."
There’s definitely enough here to start writing the movie script. Mel ‘Braveheart’ Gibson is too old to play a warrior, although he could make a cameo as a wise yet wild leader. Ditto for Sean Connery. Gerard Butler? James McAvoy? Ewan McGregor? Kelly Macdonald? Shirley Manson?
Coming soon to a theater near you … Skullspotting!