Rosemarkie Man: A Pictish Murder or Sacrifice
In 2016, a team of volunteers digging on Scotland’s The Black Isles made a most unexpected discovery. The volunteers were part of the Rosemarkie Caves Project, whose aim was to gauge human occupation of the isles over the last 2000 years. In one of the caves, well below the last known levels of human activity in the early twentieth century was the well-preserved skeleton of a male in his thirties. Radiocarbon dating placed his death between 430-630AD, during Scotland’s Pictish era.
The man had been laid to rest in a nook of the cave, well away from work areas that appeared to be dedicated to iron working. Although he lay on his back, his body was in an unusual position. His legs were crossed and, like his arms had been weighed down with large rocks from the nearby beach. Once his remains had been covered, someone had lain the butchered remains of animal on top of it as a finishing touch.
Rosemarkie man’s burial may have been careful and reverential and precise- however, the manner of his death was violent. Forensic anthropologists studying his skull have reconstructed the attack that killed him. Using an implement, Rosemarkie man’s assailant began his attack with a blow to the right side of his victim’s face that was so hard it shattered his teeth. A follow-up blow to the left broke his jaw. This second blow also sent Rosemarkie man flying backward, causing him to fracture the back of his skull on a hard object on the cave floor.
While Rosemarkie man lay prone, his assailant finished him off by driving the same weapon used to disable him straight through his skull. Then, even though he was now dead, the assailant drove another implement through the top of the head with such force that it fractured the skull.
This postmortem injury, coupled with the violent ‘overkill’ of Rosemarkie man’s death has led excavation leader Steven Birch to speculate that his death had a ritual element. The multiple blows to the head and pinning of the body are reminiscent of the death and burials of bog bodies found in northern Europe. The final blow to the head could have been a way of releasing Rosemarkie man’s spirit. Or it may simply be that the murdered Pict’s body was pinned down to prevent the vengeful spirit of the dead man from pursuing his killer.
An unusual eleventh-century burial on Siberia’s Yamal peninsula also raises questions about ritual in medieval society.