Along the pristine, windswept coast of the south shore of the Moray Firth in north-east Scotland, near Lossiemouth and surrounded by soaring cliffs that reach up towards the grey sky is a cave that is very difficult to access, only open at low tide and perhaps seeming outwardly like many of the other sea caves of the area. However, within the perpetual darkness here are hidden vast historical mysteries, ancient enigmas, and macabre discoveries that have puzzled archeologists for over a century.
Called the “Sculptor’s Cave,” it was long known by the locals but mostly avoided and only first properly explored and excavated in 1929 by archeologist Sylvia Benton, who called it a grim place the “sun never touches.” It was found to be an ancient Bronze Age site dating back to perhaps 1,100 BC., and held within the dank gloom were found Pictish carvings on the walls and it was littered with various items from the era such as pottery, worked bone, a swan’s neck pin, and several bronze arm rings, as well as numerous small copper alloy rings wrapped in gold foil, amber beads, and artifacts from other time periods as well, including Iron Age crucibles, slag and ironwork, with much of the contents of the cave suggesting that it was used all the way up the Early Medieval period. While this was all very unusual to find in a nearly inaccessible cave in the middle of nowhere and had purposes we can only guess at, what was truly special and bizarre about this place was all of the human remains lying around.
Here within the Sculptor’s Cave were found hundreds of bones from mostly children, many of them showing evidence of having been decapitated. Even more gruesomely, it has been found over the decades that there is evidence that the heads of these children were placed on stakes and put up for display here for reasons we have yet to understand. Curiously, while it was at first thought that this had been to warn people away, it is now believed that these heads of the older sets of remains were likely adorned with hair ringlets and amber beads, and that they were cut off after death. Researchers now think that the placing of the heads on stakes may have been some show of reverence, with other bones from the body being used for other purposes as the corpse decomposed there in the gloom. Archeologist Ian Armit, of the University of Bradford, has said of these remains:
In the entrance passage were bones from heads, mandibles and crania, all which belonged to young individuals aged from two. There were eight or nine remains of children’s heads and also pieces of hair rings. We believe they would have been there for some sort of display of human remains at the entrance passage to the cave. So you would have preserved human heads with finery hair rings displayed at the entrance disintegrating. Quite a disturbing and striking image. The mandibles had probably rotted off and fallen where they were.
There is no evidence of violence in the late bronze-age material – no suggestion this was head hunting or trophy taking. They were letting dead the dead decay to be absorbed back to the earth and removing some bones for other purposes. It is a very, very alien kind of treatment of the dead we are not used to or comfortable with, but it is confirmed with other ethnographic discoveries.
Interestingly, human remains from later time periods ranging from 200 to 400 AD, the Roman Iron Age, do show signs of violent treatment more in keeping in line with ritualistic sacrifice and suggesting the purpose of the cave had evolved and changed over the centuries. In all of these executed individuals they were killed the same way, facing away from their attacker and their heads lopped off with a sharp instrument as their chins were held down to their chest, and there is also evidence that they were bashed on the head with a blunt object as well. Although it is a mystery as to why these people were executed here in this remote seaside cave, Armit has said of these mysterious killings:
By the consistent way it was done, with, in some cases 11 cut marks in each vertebrae, it indicates a brutal and deliberate act. All were attacked in the same way – assaulted from behind with their chin held down to the chest, so more than one person was involved in their execution. In a cave that already has more than 1,000 years of funerary activity, it could have been a sacrifice, not just military or political. It was heavily ritualized and potentially witnessed by a great many people.
Considering this long history of an association with death, it is thought that originally the Sculptor’s Cave was chosen as it was believed to have been a portal to the underworld, seen as a bridge between the realm of the living and that of the dead, as well as an access point for various gods and spirits. This would have made this place, with its perilous location and dark, haunting atmosphere, a ritualistically important place for dealing with the dead and funerary purposes, and this potent connection to the underworld might have carried over into later times with the Romans. As Dr. Lindsay Buster, or Bradford University has said:
No doubt, the ritualized killing of individuals in the Roman Iron Age drew on past associations of this place with the dead. We cannot know for certain the reasons behind the decapitations, but they took place at a time of political upheaval after the withdrawal of Roman military from the north of Britain and the subsequent instability of local rulers and ‘client kings’ whose power and legitimacy they protected.
However, despite these theories it is still unknown why this cave was chosen or why these human remains were left here, nor is the connection between the deaths or significance of the myriad objects found here understood. Besides the state of the human remains and the exact purpose of the cave, there are other mysteries as well. The Pictish symbols carved into the stone of the cave walls, dated back to around 500 AD to 600 AD, have proven to have meanings that are elusive, their purpose just as steeped in mystery as the rest of the cave. It is thought that perhaps they were later carved here to pay respects to or remember those who were executed here, but no one really knows for sure. There is also the fact that there are so many varying objects from different eras scattered about the cave over a range of 1,000 years, many of them which would have been precious at the time and it is also unknown just why this particular cave should have such a long history of constant, ever-changing use.
The cave continues to be studied, its long buried secrets uncovered, but efforts are hampered due to the fact that many of the artifacts over the years have been moved or taken away, and most of the human remains originally found back in the original excavation have been lost. The inaccessibility has also made studying the cave difficult and even dangerous at times. The Sculptor’s Cave, also sometimes called The Cave of Death, remains a rather macabre mystery, with much unknown about the people who used it or why it should be such a focal point for death. Perhaps one day we will know more, but for now this place lies there in the dark, with only the crashing of the waves to break the silence and only the dead knowing what really happened here.