Celtic Art & Archaeology

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.[ref]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.[/ref]

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 cist[ref]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>.[/ref] 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.[ref]Hoole 2018, 90–91].[/ref] 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.