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].

December from the Da Costa Hours

We often think of December as the entry to winter and to Christmas. In the middle ages, typically, winter featured much more dramatically than Christmas. The calendar pages in Books of Hours showing the labors of December most often feature an image of hog butchering, a boar roast, or a boar hunt (sometimes they feature an image of St. John boiling in oil, or the baking of bread) as December labors of the month.

showing a boar being butchered

Morgan library MS M.399, f. 13v Belgium, Bruges, ca. 1515; Simon Bening. Image credit: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria.

This wintery scene is a detail from the December calendar page from the Da Costa Hours (Belgium, Bruges, c. 1515) now in The Morgan Library. (MS M.399, f. 13v). The landscape is snowy, and the people are dressed warmly. In the front, a man is slitting the throat of a boar with a knife, while to his right a woman is catching the blood, “bleeding out” the butchered pig. (Today it’s more common to suspend the the pig head-down; medieval images often show the boar on the ground, or on a low trestle table, or yes, suspended.) Behind the woman catching the blood, another woman stands outside of an inn. The inn has a sign showing a star or perhaps a sun. The windows are lined with three people watching the pig slaughter. In the distance, there’s a man with a team of horses and a wagon. The distant scene looks very cold; there’s some show-through of the art on the reverse of the page.

The boar was an important food source, though largely for the wealthy, especially the domesticated boar. The other popular image for December calendar pages was of the boar hunt. While the head was regarded as a trophy, nothing was wasted, and all was used, from the bristles to the trotters.

 

 

 

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.

November from the Da Costa Hours

The traditional labors of November are knocking down acorns for swine to feed, or hog butchering. This November calendar image from The Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours MS M.399, fol. 12v shows neither. Instead, it shows a farmyard and people preparing flax (though there are some pigs grazing in the background).

Flax is a fiberus plant grown for both the seeds (for food for people and animals) but more importantly, for the fibers, used to make linen. While wool was the most common fabric in the Middle ages in Europe, linen was also used for clothing and household textiles since it made durable light-weight cloth that was particularly suited for warmer weather and undergarments.

Harvesting and processing flax was usually done during June and July, though this isn’t the only November book of hours image to feature flax production. The two men in the fronts are beating flax that has been soaking in water for several days; this process was called retting. After retting the flax is beaten which loosens the fibers from the flax stems. Behind the two men, on the left, a woman inside a shed is using a scutching knife to scutch the flax, that is, remove the outer woody covering from the fibers. She’s sitting, and you can see two bundles of processed flax on the floor next to her. Although it isn’t shown, the next stage of converting flax to linen would be hatching, which meant drawing the flax through tines on a board, combing the long fibers so that they could be spun before being woven into linen.

Behind the shed and the woman scutching is another shed; possibly a threshing barn, since it looks the man standing in the doorway has a raised arm and is holding something, perhaps a flail?

In the center part of the image you can see doves and chickens scratching in the straw just outside what may be the threshing barn, as if the wheat straw and chaff had been discarded by the thresher. Across the way the top of the building is a dovecote, with the ground floor a barn for pigs. In the background, you see other pigs. In the very back in the center of the image is possibly a house with a fire, and figure before the fire warming, as a foreshadowing of winter and the labor of February which often shows someone sitting before a fire and warming themselves.

The Da Costa Hours were illuminated by Simon Bening (1483/84 – 1561); they were produced in Ghent, Belgium c. 1515. This image is strikingly similar to a November bas relief image in the London Rothschild Hours in the British Library (British Library Add MS 35313, f. 6v).1)British Library Add MS 35313 is variously identified as the London Rothschild Hours and the Hours of Joanna I of Castile.

I am not the only person to notice this similarity between November in the Da Costa Hours and November in The London Rothschild Hours.

The London Rothschild Hours BL Add MS 35313 f. 6v November calendar image. c. 1500.

The most obvious similarity is in the foreground figure of the two men beating flax; even the positions of the figure and hands on the implements is strikingly similar. Notice that one of the men is now bare-headed. The similarities do not end there; look at the pigs in the barn, the roaming pigs, and the man in the background that appears to be threshing grain with a flail inside a threshing shed. The woman feeding the pigs is unique, but the dovecote above the barn is strikingly similar. Behind the woman feeding the pigs swill from a bucket, to the right is a woman using a scutching knife to scutch flax, again, a similar detail.

Another similar, almost identical scene, is in a breviary; Morgan Library MS M52. The November calendar page has a similar scene at the bottom of F. 7r:

November calendar page Morgan Library M. 52 f.7r. Breviary; Belgium c. 1500

This breviary image shares some details with the London Rothschild hours. The woman feeding the pigs, the barn and tower above the pigs, the clothing of the two men beating the flax, the threshing shed and the man with the flail in the background, are all strikingly similar to the November image in the Rothschild London hours. The woman clothed in green with the scutching knife on the left is strikingly similar to the woman clothed in green using a scutching knife in the Da Costa Hours November image. The hats on the two men beating the flax in the foreground are strikingly similar to the hats on the two men in The Da Costa hours image.

The British Library Add MS 35313 London Rothschild Hours or the Hours of Joanna I of Castile (sometimes called Joanna the Madc. 1500 has this attribution:

The miniatures in the Hours of the Cross and the Hours of the Virgin and perhaps the Calendar scenes are attributed to the Master of James IV of Scotland and his workshop; the miniatures in the Suffrages and prayers are attributed to the workshop of the Maximilian Master, both active at Ghent.

The Morgan Library breviary from Belgium M.52 has this:

M.52 (“Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal”), in Latin, Franciscan for Rome use (Ordo breviarii, calendar). Flanders, probably Ghent or Bruges, ca. 1500–1510, illuminated by the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian (Alexander Bening?) (A) and the Master of James IV of Scotland (Gerard Horenbout ?)

The Morgan Library description of The Da Costa Hours has this:

Ms. book of hours for indeterminate use (Hours of the Virgin) and the use of Rome (Office of the Dead); written and illuminated in Ghent, Belgium, ca. 1515.
Decoration: 75 full-page miniatures (including 12 calendar illustrations), 15 small miniatures, 12 historiated borders with zodiacal signs.
Artist: Simon Bening and workshop.

The British Library’s London Rothschild Hours and the Morgan Library’s breviary share two artists;the Master of James IV of Scotland and the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian. The Morgan Library also suggests that the Master of the Older Prayerbook of Maximilian may have been Alexander Bening (sometimes called Sanders Bening), the father of Simon Bening, the principle artist of the Da Costa Hours.

References   [ + ]

1. British Library Add MS 35313 is variously identified as the London Rothschild Hours and the Hours of Joanna I of Castile.

October from the Da Costa Hours

A village scene on a cobblestone street showing three men haggling over an ox, a woman watching a man on a ladder harvesting grapes

MS M.399, fol. 11v October from The Da Costa Hours, The Morgan Library Credit: Image courtesy of Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria.

Sometimes the calendar images in a book of hours departs from the more common labors of the month. This is the case with the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours image for October. The more common labors for October in books of hours finclude ploughing and sowing in colder climates, transferring the new wine into casks and barrels for aging in warmer wine-growing areas, or even, a late harvest of grapes in the warmer Mediterranean climates, which is one of the labors in this image from the Morgan Library’s MS M.399, fol. 11v, the October calendar image from the Da Costa Hours.

The Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours calendar image for October shows a village street with cobblestones. An ox is tethered to the wall of a building; three of the men appear to be discussing price; they are huddled together and one seems to be receiving coins from another man, who has his hand in his purse.

Immediately behind them, a man on a ladder is gathering grapes growing up a wall and over an arbor. A woman, her hands wrapped in her apron, watches somewhat anxiously from the street below the ladder. Beyond her, farther down the street, a man with a staff in hand and a basket on his back approaches a building with what appears to be a sundial set in the gable. The contents of the basket aren’t really clear; they appear to be yellowish brown, and round; possibly grapes, or even nuts or apples.

September from the Da Costa Hours

Image for September from the Da Costa Hours showing a man with a horse team plowing, a man seeding the field as crows eat the seed, and another man knocking down nuts from trees for the pigs below.

September from the Da Costa Hours Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 10v Credit: The Morgan Library and Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria

The traditional labors of September shown in books of hours are harvesting and treading grapes in warmer regions and ploughing and sowing (and sometimes, threshing) in colder climates. In this detail of the September calendar image from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours (MS M.399, fol. 10v), in the foreground a man ploughs with the aid of two horses. Behind him another man is sowing seeds by casting. The seeds are probably winter wheat, and there are more of them in the basket of grain resting on the ground.

Behind him and to the left, a man with a stick is knocking down nuts for the swine below the trees; this is typically the labor for November, but as an actual activity it took place as soon as nuts began to ripen.

The birds eagerly gobbling the seeds are probably European crows, sometimes called Carrion crows, or Corvus corone. Crows in medieval bestiaries are associated with longevity, and warning humans of ambushes. Pliny mentions crows’ habit of dropping nuts on rocks to crack them. Actual crows today do in fact make a racket when the see predatory birds or animals, and that includes humans, and Carrion crows really do drop nuts on rocks and other hard surfaces, like paved roads and sidewalks, to crack them.

August from the Da Costa Hours

The August calendar image from the Da Costa Hours, Morgan Library showing peasants harvesting wheat

Detail from The Da Costa Hours for August Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 9v Image: The Morgan Library

 

This is a lovely but also fairly traditional book of hours calendar image for August from The Morgan Library’s MS M.399, fol. 9v The Da Costa Hours, showing the customary labor of August, threshing grain, as well as the last reaping of grain. In the front on the left, a woman is finding the cut wheat into sheaves for drying. Front and center a double-flail wielding man is beating the ripened grains from the stocks. To his right another man with a sickle is reaping the ripe grain. In the middle distance on the left a cart drawn by two horses (one with a rider) is hauling away a load of sheaves of grain, perhaps destined for a threshing barn. In the distance beyond the cart is what looks like a man reaping on the side of a hill.

Detail from Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 9v The Da Costa Hours showing flowers growing between stalks of wheat

Detail from Morgan Library MS M.399, fol. 9v The Da Costa Hours Image credit: The Morgan Library

In the foreground, where the one men is threshing and his neighbor is wielding a sickle, the standing wheat and the bundles on the ground both have small brightly colored flowers of some sort. I can’t help but wonder is some of them are Cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus (Bachelor buttons in North America). Cornflowers take their name from their European habitat; they tended to grow in fields of grain, or “corn” in British English, including wheat, rye and oats. Cornflower blossoms are most commonly blue in color, but purple and pink blossoms are also possible. Other possible candidates  for the flowers include the Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), Corncockle (Agrostemma Githago). These meadow and field flowers are often featured in the borders of books of hours, particularly those from Flemish workshops.

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.

July from the Da Costa Hours

Det. from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours MS M.399, fol. 8v mowing hay, the labor of July

This image shows the common labor of July, haying, from the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours, MS M.399, fol. 8v. In the front on the right, two men are using scythes (note the long handles) to mow the grass. On the left is a wagon (or haywain) with a team of draft horses. I consulted a draft horse expert (Hi Jenni!) who tells me that “the tongue on the wagon is what’s called a ‘stiff tongue.” When the horses aren’t attached to it, the tip remains suspended in the air rather than drop to the ground. . . .  The horses [in this image] don’t have to hold the end of the wagon tongue in the air via a neck yoke.”

The horse are wearing wooden neck yokes that are strikingly reminiscent of those used today, and blinders.

A man beside the horses is lifting a stack of dried hay up to the top of the wagon where a second man is placing it on the other hay. In the back, beyond the short fence, you can see mounds of hay that, after drying, have been raked into stacks—a woman is in the process of raking, in fact. In the middle a woman with a basket on her head and a jug on her hand (perhaps the bearer of lunch) is approaching.

In the distance a horse pulling a cart filled with grain sacks at the base of a hill is being driven from behind by a man on foot. They are followed by a man on horseback. Above them on the hill is a grain windmill, the ultimate destination of the cart. You can see more sacks at the base of the windmill, and a man at the foot of a ladder that leads up and inside the windmill. My assumption is that the sacks contain grain from the previous harvest to be ground into flour; but that’s an assumption. The mill was likely owned by the local lord; he owned most of the grain, and charged a percentage of the flour for any grain anyone else ground. The miller also charged a percentage for his services.