The Covesea Caves Project

Grant from the Society is helping to uncover a Late Bronze Age coastal mortuary complex along the Moray coast.

Covesea Caves 1 and 2 (from NE)

Covesea Caves 1 and 2 (from NE)

The Covesea Caves are located on the south shore of the Moray Firth in north-east Scotland. The best known is the Sculptor’s Cave, which derives its name from the Pictish carvings (roughly AD 600-800) which adorn its entrance walls. The Sculptor’s Cave was excavated in 1928-30 by Sylvia Benton and again in 1979 by Ian and Alexandra Shepherd, and yielded significant assemblages of Late Bronze Age metalwork, Roman Iron Age artefacts and human bone.  The excavated material suggests two distinct mortuary rites: the laying out of bodies and the curation of (possibly adorned) juvenile heads in the entrance passages in the Late Bronze Age, and the decapitation of individuals inside the cave in the Roman Iron Age. Unfortunately the majority of the human remains from the 1928-30 excavations are lost.

The Sculptor’s Cave has traditionally been viewed in isolation. However, collections of human bone and artefacts in Elgin Museum and the National Museum of Scotland suggested that other caves along this stretch of coast also contain anthropogenic deposits. The Covesea Caves Project was conceived with the aim of examining the archaeology of this coastal landscape. Excavations have so far focused on Covesea Cave 2, in the bay immediately west of the Sculptor’s Cave. This cave appears to have been dug into in the 1960s, and is a likely source for much of the unprovenanced material.

Excavation underway in Covesea Cave 2

Excavation underway in Covesea Cave 2

Work began in 2014 with the re-excavation of an old unrecorded trench and investigation of adjacent undisturbed areas. This confirmed the presence of in situ archaeological deposits, including human bone. The 2015 season aimed to further investigate these deposits, in order to characterise the nature and extent of human activity within the cave. It also aimed to increase the sample of human remains recovered, in order to better understand the range of mortuary activity taking place.

Excavations have revealed a long sequence of prehistoric activity within Cave 2. The uppermost appear to relate to Iron Age metalworking, as indicated by numerous crucible fragments, slag, ironwork and a possible furnace base. Below this are Late Bronze Age layers characterised by dense concentrations of disarticulated human bone, some with cut-marks, and associated stake alignments, suggesting activity (i.e. the laying out and processing of bodies) similar to  that taking place within the Sculptor’s Cave. AMS dates confirm the contemporaneity of the two sites. Preliminary analyses indicate differential element representation between the two bone assemblages, suggesting that the caves may have had complementary roles. The human remains from Cave 2 are especially important given the loss of so much material from the Sculptor’s Cave.

Significantly, this year, we have also identified evidence for much earlier activity in Cave 2.  Early Bronze Age activity is indicated by Beaker pottery, a flint thumbnail scraper, and an AMS date obtained from a fragment of human bone. Equally unexpected was the discovery of in situ Neolithic deposits containing significant quantities of preserved wood. A well-preserved leaf-shaped arrowhead confirms the anthropogenic nature of this activity.

Our current work is revealing the existence of a Late Bronze Age coastal mortuary complex encompassing Cave 2, the Sculptor’s Cave, and potentially many other caves along this stretch of the Moray coast. Furthermore, it shows that these caves were places of significance for human communities from the Neolithic onwards.

Dr Lindsey Büster

Bradford University

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