Ava A Woman from Scotland 4,250 Years Ago

In February of 1987 William and Graham Ganson were working in a quarry at Craig-na-Feich near Achavanich, in Caithness, Scotland. Their machinery dislodged the capstone of a prehistoric short cist , slightly damaging the stonework on the south corner and consequently exposing human remains and ceramic vessel known as a Beaker. The Gansons contacted the local authorities, and the Highland Regional Archaeologist Robert Gourlay began a preliminary excavation on February 19, 1987.1)Hoole, M., Sheridan, A., Boyle, A., Booth, T., Brace, S., Diekmann, Y., Olalde, I., Thomas, M., Barnes, I., Evans, J., Chenery, C., Sloane, H., Morrison, H., Fraser, S., Timpany, S., & Hamilton, D. (2018). “‘Ava’: a Beaker-associated woman from a cist at Achavanich, Highland, and the story of her (re-)discovery and subsequent study.” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. 73–118. https://doi.org/10.9750/PSAS.147.1250. p. 73. Subsequently identified as Hoole 2018 with a page reference.

The cist contained the beaker, three pieces of worked flint (one small scraper and two flint flakes), and a cattle scapula, carefully arranged around the partial skeletal remains of what was once a young woman. She was lying on her side, with her legs and arms curled up. Robert Gourlay was unable to complete the study or publish his findings due to constraints of time and work. He passed in 2007, and his preliminary research languished until 2014 when Maya Hoole began to reconstruct Gourlay’s research from records at Highland Council Historic Environment Record. Hoole collaborated with other researchers to re-examine the excavation, the finds, and what they could tell us about the woman whose remains were so very carefully laid to rest. This particular cist was named the Achavanich Cist. The woman was later dubbed Ava by researchers, in allusion to the location where she was found, Achavanich.

A cist2)A cist is “A stone-lined grave, especially a tomb consisting of a pit lined with stones and often having a lid of stone or wood.” It derives from Welsh cist faen, stone chest. Welsh borrowed cist from Latin cista, box. s.v. cist <a href=”https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=cist”><cite>American Heritage Dictionary</cist>. is a four-sided stone structure made by stacking stones to form walls and then covering the structure with a capstone. They were generally associated with burials. This cist was itself placed into a pit deliberately made in the underlying stone; this is an unusual feature. The contents of the cist were a carefully constructed and decorated beaker, of the sort constructed by the European cultures referred to as Beaker people because of their habit of creating decorated ceramic beakers often found in burials. It is likely that Ava was placed in the cist shortly after her death, in a tightly curled, contracted position.3)Hoole 2018, 90–91]. You can see an attempt at a 3D reconstruction by

Skeletal analysis determined Ava’s sex; skeletal analysis coupled with dental analysis lead researchers to decide that Ava was between 18–25 years at the time of her death. DNA analysis of a bone sample supported the conclusion that Ava was female. Ava’s DNA aligns more closely with Bell-Beaker peoples from inland Europe not with DNA from Scottish Neolithic samples (Hoole 2018, 86). Researchers concluded that Ava’s ancestors arrived in Britain only a few generations before she was born, and that Ava’s ancestry was in Continental Europe. In short:

Ava was a relatively recent descendant of a population of Beaker users who migrated into Britain from continental Europe around 2500 bc (Hoole 2018, 88).

Facial reconstruction of Ava by Hew Morrison

Further analysis of DNA associated with skin pigment caused researches to conclude that Ava “probably had a somewhat intermediate level of skin pigmentation, darker than what is normally observed in most modern British individuals, and possibly something more like modern individuals from southern Europe” and likely had black hair and brown eyes (Hoole 2018, 87). Facial reconstruction artist Hew Morrison was able to use careful measurements and DNA data to create a likely facial reconstruction for Ava.

The flint scraper and the two flakes disappeared in the transfer of the cist finds between museums. The cattle scapula was analyzed and researchers concluded that it doesn’t appear to have been used as a tool, and that it was most likely deposited with flesh on it, as a food offering in the form of a shoulder of beef.

Decorated pottery Beaker found with Ava.

Beaker buries with Ava; Image: Maya Hoole

The beaker separated into pieces shortly after it was found and removed from the cist. Because it was removed by the stone workers, researchers can’t be sure how it was placed in the cist, though it seems likely that it was upright. It was created by layering “straps” of clay (flattened coils of clay) which were then placed on a clay base, and then smoothing the clay. The way the shards broke suggests that the exterior was smoothed up, and the interior down. The pot was decorated using combs; three or four different combs were used to create designs in specific areas (Hoole 2018, 97).

The residue on and in the beaker was analyzed for pollen traces and other chemical clues to the use and contents of the beaker. No cereal pollens were found (despite an earlier analysis that reported cereal pollens). Tree pollens (birch, alder, pine and hazel) were present, as were heather, meadowsweet, marsh St. John’s-wort and sphagnum moss pollen, among other grass and herbaceous plant pollens. These were likely present in the area when the cist was built and the beaker was placed inside. Meadowsweet was used a flavoring and a medicinal plant, as was marsh St. John’s-wort, suggesting to the researchers that their presence may have been medicinal. The presence of microscopic charcoal grains in high levels may be because of burning used to clear the area where pit was cut into stone, or as a residue of a ritual practice. The general assumption is that at the time Ava’s body was placed in the cist, the cattle scapula was fully fleshed, and probably cooked, and the beaker contained liquid; both then were meant to sustain her in the afterlife.

The woman who has been dubbed “Ava” had been between 18 and 25 years old when she died, at some time between 2275 and 1945 BCE based on radio carbon dating of fragments from the cattle scapula and from Ava’s bones. Ava had been 1.71m tall with brown eyes, black hair, a complexion similar to that of modern individuals from southern Europe {Hoole 2018, 106–07). Ava descended via both parents from immigrants into Britain, possibly from what is now the Netherlands, but probably grew up within the Caithness region. Her ancestors likely arrived a few generations earlier; this is supported not only by the DNA analysis but with the style of the Beaker found in her cist (Hoole 2018, 107).

Once Maya Hoole managed to re-assemble the remaining records of the original 1987 excavation, she was able to engage the interest of other archaeologists and researchers, as well as the public. You can see the initial 2016 BBC coverage Effort to unlock secrets of 3,700-year-old woman ‘Ava’, the updated 2018 BBC coverage Giving life to a woman found in a 4,250-year-old grave in Caithness, the Website Maya Hoole created to share information with the public regarding The Achavanich Beaker Burial, and the research paper (cited throughout this post) “‘Ava’: a Beaker-associated woman from a cist at Achavanich, Highland, and the story of her (re-)discovery and subsequent study.”

Maya Hoole is active on Twitter as @MayaHoole.

References   [ + ]

1. Hoole, M., Sheridan, A., Boyle, A., Booth, T., Brace, S., Diekmann, Y., Olalde, I., Thomas, M., Barnes, I., Evans, J., Chenery, C., Sloane, H., Morrison, H., Fraser, S., Timpany, S., & Hamilton, D. (2018). “‘Ava’: a Beaker-associated woman from a cist at Achavanich, Highland, and the story of her (re-)discovery and subsequent study.” Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. 73–118. https://doi.org/10.9750/PSAS.147.1250. p. 73. Subsequently identified as Hoole 2018 with a page reference.
2. A cist is “A stone-lined grave, especially a tomb consisting of a pit lined with stones and often having a lid of stone or wood.” It derives from Welsh cist faen, stone chest. Welsh borrowed cist from Latin cista, box. s.v. cist <a href=”https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=cist”><cite>American Heritage Dictionary</cist>.
3. Hoole 2018, 90–91].

Celtic Chariot Burial Discovered in Wales

Terret ring still showing enamel traces. The lines pass through the terret rings, preventing them from tangling with each other.

This burial in Pembrokeshire is the first such discovered in Wales. Mike Smith was using metal detection equipment when he discovered the chariot. Smith, beginning in February, discovered several pieces of Iron Age Celtic metalwork, including parts of a horse harness, bronze bridle fittings, and a brooch. Several of the items still had bright red enamel. After Smith informed the National Museum of Wales of his find, the Museum and Dyfed Archaeological Trust began an excavation in June. The discovery of two iron (and rusted) chariot wheels confirmed that the site was a ritual chariot burial. These burials, which typically include the chariot, the fittings, the driver, sometimes the horses, and various necessities for life in the next world, were reserved for aristocratic burials. You can see more pictures in this BBC article.

Ötzi the Iceman’s Last Meal

Ötzi is the name given to a 5,300-year-old European glacier mummy, the frozen remains of a hunter from the Copper age. He is thought to have been about 45 years old when he died, probably from blood loss after an arrow to the should, some 5,300 years ago. When he died Ötzi was wearing a woven grass coat with wore leggings and shoes of leather. He has some line tattoos that may have been spiritual or medical in nature, and carried a copper axe, a knife and flint-tipped arrows.

The first in-depth analysis of the hunter’s stomach contents reveal that half of his last meal consisted of animal fat, primarily from a wild goat species known as the Alpine ibex.

While researchers have previously studied remnants of food in Ötzi’s intestines, a more complete picture of his final feast was delayed because they could not find his stomach. It was finally located by a CT scan, tucked up under his ribcage near his shrunken lungs.

You can read more about Ötzi’s meal here. The original research was published in the journal Current Biology, July 12, 2018.

While Ötzi isn’t a bog body and probably didn’t speak a Celtic language, his history is still interesting.

1867 Stonehenge Pictures

Image Credit: Colonel Sir Henry James, Director General of the Ordnance Survey 1867 via TimePix

 

The image above, which was recently made public by the photo research company TimePix, is from 1867, and is part of the first known photographic sequence ever taken of Stonehenge. (There are older individual photographs, in the Royal Collection.) It’s from a book called Plans and Photographs of Stonehenge, released by the U.K.’s Ordnance Survey and written by the department head, Colonel Henry James.

Très Riches Heures for November

Calendar page for November showing astrological symbols for November at the top, with a pastoral scene of peasants harvesting acorns for pigs grazing beneath the tree.

Très Riches Heures Musee Cluny MS. 65 f. 11v Calendar page for November Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The November calendar page for the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Cluny Musee MS 65 F11v) is one of the pages in the book of hours that the Limbourgs did not complete before they, and their patron Jean Duc de Berry, died June 15 1416 in Paris. Charles I, the Duc de Savoie, commissioned Jean Colombe to finish the central image of the November calendar page sometime between 1485-1489.

The traditional labor of the month for November is gathering acorns to feed pigs. You can see a similar image for the month of November in the British Library’s St. Mary’s Psalter Royal 2 B VII f. 81v.

 

Detail for the month of November showing peasants harvesting acorns for pigs

Detail for the month of November showing peasants harvesting acorns for pigs

The central panel features a pastoral scene of peasants harvesting acorns from oak trees, for the benefit of swine grazing beneath the trees. In the background on the left a château is partially visible on the bank of a river. The château has not been identified; it’s possible that Colombe relied on his imagination in depicting the château; it’s also possible that it’s not extant and therefor unrecognized.

The peasant on the left looks poised to hurl his stick into the trees, striking the ripe acorns so that they would fall on the ground to be consumed by the waiting pigs. Farther back, in the middle distance, two other peasants accompanied by sticks and pigs are engaged in watching the pigs, and in assisting the acorns to fall.

You’ll notice that the oak trees are very straight, and have had their lower branches lopped off in a practice known as pollarding. It was common in the middle ages in Europe to pollard oak and hazel nut trees by lopping off the lower branches every year or so; these could be used for firewood, and the tree would still grow and bear nuts. It also allowed more trees to be planted, because they could be planted closer together without lower branches inhibiting the growth of nearby trees.

November in Europe has a rich tradition of feeding acorns to pigs, and not just in the Mediterranean countries; Ireland and Britain both relied on acorns (and hazelnuts and hawthorn haws) as important fodder crops. The medieval Brehon laws of Ireland have specific restrictions and protections for the use of mast, particularly acorns. They were crucial in particular in terms of fattening pigs or “finishing” pigs before butchering. Green acorns were hazardous to horses and cows, and not really helpful to swine, hence the practice of harvesting ripe acorns, with the aid of stick or flail.

Acorns are still used to “finish” pigs destined for a later appearance as ham, even now.

 

September Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry

September from the Très Riches Hueres Cluny MS. 65 F.9_v Photo Credit: ©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda via Wikimedia Commons.

This grape-picking scene from the Très Riches Heures is one that was completed after the death of the book of hours’ original owner, Jean Duc de Berry. The Duke died in 1416, as did the three Limbourg brothers. In 1485, the Duc de Savoie, who acquired the unfinished manuscript, had the artist Jean Colombe finish half of September. Jean Colombe relied on a placeholder sketch previously made by the original artist. The top portion of the scene, featuring the Château de Saumur, was completed earlier.

In the warmer wine-producing parts of Europe, September, even now, brings the grape harvest. Peasants took to the fields in September to pick the grapes, engaging in the standard labor of the month depicted in the the calendar pages of books of hours for the month of September (at least in warmer climates).

If you look at the detail from the central portion of this calender page for Sepetember, you can see that the Château has a mote, with what appears to be a small draw bridge before the entry. A woman with a basket on her head is entering, and a horse (surprisingly it does not appear to be a donkey) with panniers is leaving. Between the Château and the grape vines is an enclosure that served as a tilting ground for tournaments. Just to the right of the tilting ground stands an ox.

In the lower portion of the scene, the grape pickers cut bunches of grapes from the vines and place them in baskets. If you look closely, the two pickers on the bottom left, both in grey, a woman wearing a white apron and a dark head-cloth and a man in grey, appear to be holding grape knives; these knives would also have been used earlier in the year to trim the vines.1)Called a billhook, this frequently used gardening tool had a double-edged curved blade and sometimes, an additional spike or point. It’s not that different from a modern grape harvesting knife. In Latin, the vineyard variety of a billhook was a falx vinatoria. Baskets of grapes are filled and placed in the panniers on the donkeys, or in the large barrels in the ox cart to the right. On the bottom left, a woman in blue and red with a adjusting her maroon head scarf and a white apron appears to be very pregnant. Just behind her, to the right, a young man in brown is sampling the grapes. In the middle right, a peasant is mooning the viewer.

Detail of the calendar page for September showing the Château de Saumur in the background, and peasants harvesting grapes in the foreground, the typical labor of the month in France.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Called a billhook, this frequently used gardening tool had a double-edged curved blade and sometimes, an additional spike or point. It’s not that different from a modern grape harvesting knife. In Latin, the vineyard variety of a billhook was a falx vinatoria.

Free Ebook from RIA: Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks

Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks was edited by Fintan O’Toole and Catherine Marshall. The book, available as an ebook and as a printed book, traces the story of Ireland’s creative output from the revolutionary period until today. The book consists of 100 artworks created from 1916 (the year of the Easter Rising) to 2015, using each year as a spring board to trace the cultural history of Ireland. The works include visual works (paintings, sculptures, architecture) as well as literary; images of the visual works are included. The literary works are represented only by allusion and discussion in the short essays accompanying each piece. It’s interesting, though I suspect more interesting the more you know; I’m woefully ignorant of the visual arts of modern Ireland.

Print copies of the book can be purchased from the Royal Irish AcademyModern Ireland in 100 Artworks is a project of the Royal Irish Academy, in partnership with The Irish Times. The ebook, in both Mobi and EPub formats may be downloaded here.

July from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

July calendar page from the Tres Riche Heures de Jean Duc de BerryThis is the July calendar image from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. It shows wheat being harvested in a field to the left, while on the right a man and a woman are shearing sheep. The labors of the month are so very dependent on local seasons, and the cooperation of the weather, that it’s not really surprising to see sheep-sheering as a labor for June and July.

In the background is one of the Jean de Berry’s many castles; exactly which castle is in question (only three of his many castles are still extant). If you look very closely at the bottom left of the image, and in the river in front of the castle in the back ground, you can see swans. The swan is one of Jean de Berry’s heraldic devices (the bear is another; and his arms bear the royal fleur de lys).

British Museum Exhibit: Celts: Art and Identity

This exhibit runs from September 24, 2015 – January 31 at the British Museum.Cover of the British Museum's exhibition catalog Celts: Art and Identity

The Battersea Shield, British Museum

The Battersea Shield, British Museum

Celts: Art and Identity is an exhibit created by the British Museum in partnership with National Museums Scotland.British Museum lead curator of the exhibit, Julia Farley (she’s the Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum) describes it as “the first major exhibition to explore the full history of Celtic art and identity.”

Ms. Farley writes about the exhibit on the British Museum’s blog: Who were the Celts?

The British Museum’s official Celts: Art and Identity exhibit page (where you can buy tickets!).

There’s an exhibition catalog (paperback and hardcover).

 

Farley, Julia and Hunter Fraser. Eds. Celts: Art and Identiy. British Museum Press, 2015.
ISBN-13: 978-0714128368
ISBN-10: 0714128368
You can buy it from:

Amazon.com
Amazon UK
Barnes & Noble
Book Depository

Celtic Beer

image of charred barley grains from Eberdingen-Hochdorf .

2,550 year-old barley grains, post malting, from Eberdingen-Hochdorf

Ogma was a brewer, and so was Goibhniu, the smith god. Brigid too was a brewer, and there are many references to the consumption of beer in medieval Celtic texts. In that context the recent find that six specially constructed ditches previously excavated at Eberdingen-Hochdorf a 2,550-year-old Celtic settlement, were used to make high-quality barley malt, an essential beer ingredient. (You may recall Hochdorf as a principle Celtic site, where among other important finds in the museum is the grave of the Hochdorf prince.)

Archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart has published a paper in which he discusses the results of chemical analysis of some of the thousands of charred grains of barley found in the six ditches. The paper, published on January 4, 20 in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences is titled “Early Iron Age and Late Mediaeval malt finds from Germany—attempts at reconstruction of early Celtic brewing and the taste of Celtic beer.”

You can read the abstract, linked above, or download the .pdf of the paper, but the analysis of the malt, in the context of what we know about early brewing in the La Tène Period, fifth –fourth century BCE, Stika suggests that the beer would like have been somewhat smokey in character, with a sour taste (keep in mind that beer in this era would not have used hops).