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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. 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=””><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. 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=””><cite>American Heritage Dictionary</cist>.
3. Hoole 2018, 90–91].

Intact Tomb of a Celtic Noblewoman Found in Heuneberg

image of a decorated, ornate gold ring from the Heuneberg excavation Photo by Patrick Seeger dpa/lsw

An intact aristocratic tomb of a Hallstatt-era woman was discovered in Heunenberg, Germany in December of 2010. Heuneberg (near Herbertingen in southern Germany) is a known center of Hallstatt and La Tène cultures, generally lumped together as “Celtic.” Excavations in and around the Heuneberg hillfort and the earlier middle Bronze-age (c. 15th to 12th century BCE) site began in the 1800s, and have resulted in a museum. The area is known for several cemetery mounds, many of which have revealed rich grave goods including imported Greek vessels, amber, gold, and a strikingly decorated local style of ornamented pottery, with scored lines and punching decorations carefully pigmented.

The December 2010 excavation discovered an intact four by five meters enclosed tomb, complete with intact oak floor timbers. After a preliminary excavation, the entire site 80-ton site, including surrounding soil, was extracted and moved to a laboratory in Ludwigsburg where microscopic examination of small pieces of organic matter and fragments of clothing could take place. The site has resulted in not only richly decorated jewelry in gold, amber and pearls, but textiles, pottery, and tools. The excavation is under the direction of Dirk Krausse. It is likely, given the care in excavating the site, that it will prove even more important than the Hochdorf prince’s grave.

The oak was preserved so well by the boggy soil that it has allowed the site to be dated to c. 7th century BCE, the height of the settlement’s activity, 2600 years ago. The trees used to make the floor were felled 2,620 years age.

The tomb contained the skeletal remains of a woman and a child. If we assume the trees were cut specifically for the tomb, the woman would have died in 609 BCE. She appears to have been between 30 and 40.

Lady Charlotte Guest

Portrait of Lady Charlotte GuestThe Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s “Life of the Week” post this week is a biography of Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion, including the four mabinogi proper, as well as the three Welsh tales, and the four Arthurian romances, as well as several other tales, including the prose Taliesin fragment from the sixteenth century, edited by Patrick Ford as the Ystoria Taliesin in 1991.

Lady Guest’s translation, with the accompanying notes, is actually quite wonderful; it was the first translation I ever read, and it still remains well-worth reading. It has become fashionable to sneer at her—and imply that she wasn’t responsible for the work. She was; I’ve seen some of her handwritten notes, and while she has, quite understandably, Victorian sensibilities, she had a scholarly frame of mind. I wish that her notes from the first editions were still printed; they are well worth reading, and in fact her translations of the four romances, particularly Gereint (the Welsh version of the tale Chretien called Erec et Enide) inspired Tennyson’s take in Idylls of the King.

You can read more about Lady Charlotte Guest here and here. Angela V. John has written a solid biography: Lady Charlotte Guest. An Extraordinary Life

Bridget Cleary, Sex, Death, Fairies and Other

Bridget and Michael Cleary
Bridget and Michael Cleary

This is the third in a series of posts about fairies as other. I promised, in my first post, to concentrate on fairies as other, particularly in the context of sex and death, because, as MacAllister Stone notes “other is all about sex and death.” Last time I looked at the tragic death of Bridget Cleary, burned because her husband Michael thought Bridget was the victim of a fairy abduction. This time I want to look at the story of Bridget Cleary in the context of sex and death.

In Bridget Cleary we have a woman who is seen as other, an outsider in her community because of her differences, differences which are particularly marked for a woman in nineteenth century Ireland where an assertive, opinionated and financially independent woman without children is very much seen as an anomaly. In the March 29, 1895 >Cork Examiner special report on her death, the reporter, having interviewed locals, describes Bridget as

“a bit queer” in her ways, and this they attribute to a certain superiority over the people with whom she came into contact . . . Her attire . . . is not that of every woman in the same social plane (Bourke 2000, 43).

Bridget was perceived as an outsider, “a bit queer,” even by another outsider.

The attention paid to Bridget Cleary’s clothing and body in the descriptions of her “cure,” in the careful details about the extent of her clothing in the court testimony (presumably, as Bourke suggests, to remove any thought of sexual impropriety) underscore the sexual subtext of the situations. Bourke observes that despite the “prudery” in the eye witness accounts

the violence meted out to Bridget Cleary before her death has an unmistakeably sexual character. On Thursday, when he used a metal spoon, and again, on Friday, when his weapon was a burning stump of wood, Michael Cleary’s actions amounted to a kind of oral rape. On both occasions Bridget Cleary was pinned down and prevented from struggling free, while a substance was forced into her body. . . . [the inquest revealed signs of injury to her mouth and throat] The violence used in holding Bridget down was certainly not sufficient to kill her, but its scale and ferocity would have been enough to terrify her, and to show her and anyone watching just who was master (Bourke 2000, 120).

Michael Cleary may very well have felt he needed to assert himself, not only against the uncanny malice of fairies, but as a man with an assertive, financially independent wife, a wife who may well have had a lover. Most of all, he may have felt it was imperative to assert himself given community pressure regarding his relationship with a wife who had not born him any children, which would have been very much seen as a failing by the community. One reason Bridget was taken by the fairies might have been her childless state; the unvoiced assumption being that since she had no children, that there was some sort of sexual failure, a situation that wasn’t helped in the least by the fact that Michael was nine years older than Bridget and that they spent most of the first few years of their marriage apart except on weekends (Burke 2000, 96).

The standard academic way to refer to fairies taking mortal women is to call it fairy abduction, or, more commonly, fairy rape, particularly in medieval texts. Corinne Saunders, writing about Middle English romances that involve fairy abductions and rapes points out that “What is most striking in all these works is the association of the otherwold with sexual violence or desire for possession of the woman’s body” (Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001. 233).

Both Bridget Cleary and Heurodis are perceived as victims of a fairy rape.The fairy king threatens to tear Heurodis limb from limb if she doesn’t come willingly, and tells her that she’ll be taken to the otherworld even if they take her in pieces. Bridget is mistreated physically, dosed with “cures,” verbally abused, then doused with human urine before being burned. The overt physicality of the way Bridget Cleary was treated, the man-handling of her, is an inversion of the customary fairy threat to a mortal victim; with Bridget Cleary, we see mortals abusing what they think is a fairy changeling, though she is a mortal woman—her sex is a huge part of the reason she is treated his way.

Women who are assertive, and independent, who dress better than their peers, women who are financially independent, women who have no children, forthputting women who approach men, fairy mistresses and otherworld women like Rhiannon, these are other. They are potentially dangerous to the community, because they disrupt the natural order, or the perceived natural order. These women who like Heurodis are in the right place and the right time, and who, like Bridget, go to the forbidden liminal areas, are just as disruptive as the ostensible external agency, the fairies, who take them. It’s bad enough to have a child or lover taken by the otherworld, but what’s worse for those left behind are the mortals who go off with their fairy wooer, quite happily, and the abducted mortal women who choose to stay in the otherworld, rather than return to their mortal husband and children.

Bridget Cleary was perceived as dangerous and engaging in risky behavior; Michael Cleary objected to her going to the rath, and did all he could to “bring her back.” Underlying his frantic, desperate efforts, almost certainly, was the fear that Bridget might not want to come back. In court testimony from Johanna Burke, Bridget is said to have told her husband, shortly before he set her on fire, “Your mother used to go with the fairies, and that is why you think I am going with them.” Michael Cleary asked Bridget, “Did my mother tell you that?” She said, “She did; that she gave two nights with them” (Folklore 1895, 375). There’s a very definite sexual connotation to “she gave two nights with them,” particularly given the numerous references to fairies taking mortal lovers in medieval literature and folklore.

Otherworld folk are not shy about making sexual conquests. Rhiannon is very much seeking Pwyll as her spouse when she comes to the gorsedd in the first branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, Pwyll Pendeuvic Dyfed. The fairy queen in Thomas of Erceldoune is more than willing to take Thomas as her lover, keeping him mute but with her in the otherworld for seven years, before returning him to the tree where she found him, saving him from becoming a human sacrifice. She leaves him with an unwelcome gift, the ability to prophesy, thus converting him from dangerous other, to magical other with a redemptive gift for the community.

In Sir Orfeo, Heurodis returns from the fairy otherworld because Orfeo rescues her, and both return to Orfeo’s kingdom. At the end we are told Orfeo leaves the kingdom to his faithful steward since Heurodis has no children and Orfeo has no heir. We rarely hear or read of otherworld folk having progeny, and when we do hear about fairy offspring, say the child of the Grey Selchie, the offspring are the result of liasons between mortals and fairies, or other otherworld residents, and the children usually come to a bad end. Pwyll’s otherworld bride Rhiannon is scorned by Pwyll’s people because she is childless. Later, when Rhiannon has a child, the child mysteriously disappears. Rhiannon is typical in being less than fecund; otherworld folk are seemingly sterile, and, perhaps consequently, obsessed with taking fertile mortal women, and young children. Just as with other Others, say Gypsies, or whatever a given community’s racial/ethnic minority is, or queers, in stories about fairies and otherworld intruders it’s a case of “They want our women, and our children, and our women want sex/more sex/better sex, and so they voluntarily go with these Others, and leave us, and sometimes, they refuse to come back.”

I think that fear—the fear that Bridget wants to be with the fairies, with the other, is what’s underlying the Bridget Cleary horror. It’s interesting to note, as Bourke does, that in the spring of 1895 that the Irish papers, and some of the English papers too, were carrying stories about the “witch burning” in Clonmel, Oscar Wilde was on trial for sodomy. It’s also the date of the first attested use of “fairy” to mean queer. Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang cite the following reference from theAmerican Journall of Psychology as the first use of fairy to mean queer, or as the OED has it ” A male homosexual”:

“The Fairies of New York” are said to be a similar secret organization. The avocations which inverts follow are frequently feminine in their nature. They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian, requiring the dressing in female attaire, and the singing in imitation of the female voice, in which they often excel” American Journal of Psychology VIII (1895): 216.

I’ve been looking at the connection between fairy and queer for a long time, and I think there are a couple of reasons for fairy being used to mean queer. First, I think it works because there’s an association between fairies and an absence of progeny despite their overt eroticism, and the assumption, for many, that being queer has to do only with sex, that it’s all about sex, and that it’s sex without fear of progeny, just like real fairies.

Next time, I’m going to look again at medieval fairies as ways of dealing with other, and sex, and death.

Here are some references to match my citations.

  • “The ‘Witch-Burning’ at Clonmel.” Folklore. Vol. 6, No. 4. (Dec., 1895): 373-384. JStor link.. This is an anonymous article that reprints the newspaper coverage of the court testimony.
  • Thomas of Erceldoune. Scroll down to the Appendix for the text as printed by Francis Child, as part of the versions of Child Ballad 57 “Thomsas the Rhymer.” You can find Murray’s 1875 edition of the romance here.
  • Ford, Patrick K. trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.
  • Bourke. Angela. The Burning of Bridget Cleary. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. This really is the best study; there’s another slightly more recent book that’s vastly inferior.
  • Saunders, Corinne J. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001.
  • Sir Orfeo with text and ms. page images from the Auchinleck ms.
  • Anne Leskaya and Eve Sedgewick’s annotated Middle English edition of Sir Orfeo.
  • A .pdf of a lightly modernized Sir Orfeo from the Norton Anthology of English Literature