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Date May 2017

Event ID 1038192

Category Descriptive Accounts

Type Note


Sculptors Cave: a place of ritual importance

Sculptor’s Cave is located in north-east Scotland on the south shore of the Moray Firth, close to the village of Covesea. It is almost inaccessible, except at low tide, which requires a scramble along the beach before climbing up to the twin entrances at the mouth of the cave.

The symbols, which include multiple crescent and V-rods, a mirror, a fish, pentacles, a triple oval, and a flower (Fraser 2008, 106) identify this as an important place, but it turns out much of the activity came long before this.

The cave was first excavated by Sylvia Benton between 1928 and 1930, when the peeling back of the layers of sand deposited on the cave floor revealed burnt deposits of black and red soils, and evidence for stone-built hearths. A substantial number of objects were discovered within these layers, which suggested that people were using the cave from the Late Bronze Age through to the medieval period. Many of these finds were quite spectacular, including a distinctive Late Bronze Age metal assemblage as well as a rich collection of finds from the Roman Iron Age (Benton 1931; Armit and Schulting 2007). The site also yielded a significant amount of human remains, predominantly those of children, but their significance to our understanding of the use of the cave had not yet been realised.

In the late 1970s, supported by Historic Scotland and Grampian Regional Council, archaeologists Ian and Alexandra Shepherd undertook rescue excavation of the remaining deposits within the cave. Their excavations showed the soil deposits to be complex, with potential evidence for structures within the cave itself. They also discovered additional Late Bronze Age metalwork and yet more human remains.

The human remains discovered within the cave entrance deposits strongly suggested to the excavators that the cave had been used for ritual purposes. Benton had discovered evidence for at least 28 individuals, to which the Shepherd’s had added a few more. The bone included fragments of skulls, jaw bones, leg bones and parts of the spine, with some of the cervical vertebrae (the bones of the neck) displaying cut marks which are consistent with decapitation. It has been suggested that these bones are evidence for the curation and display of human remains, which might be viewed as part of a tradition which can be seen throughout prehistoric Europe.

Recent work by Ian Armit et al. (2011) has significantly improved our understanding of the human remains from this cave. The researchers have shown that most of the human bone can be dated to two distinct periods of activity; the first and most intensive use is in the Late Bronze Age, between the 12th and the 10th century BC; a second concentration is in the Roman Iron Age, between the 1st and the 4th century AD. The decapitations, which are focussed in the second phase, have been interpreted as executions ‘carried out in a place of ritual importance at a time of rapid political change’ (Armit et al 2011).

Caves are dark and damp places, often located at the dynamic zone between the land and sea. Their use in ritual activities is attested at other cave sites in Scotland, such as High Pasture Cave on the Isle of Skye, and throughout Europe. These sites, their location, and the atmosphere within the cave, has led to the suggestion that they are seen as a liminal places, perhaps an area for people to make contact between this world and another.

This site remains key to understanding ritual activity in prehistoric Scotland and, with this in mind, the HES Archaeology Programme is funding further work on the site archive, to be finalised in 2018. This will include the collation, analysis and publication of the previous excavations, and is being led by Professor Ian Armit and Dr Lindsay Büster from the University of Bradford. Additional support from Aberdeenshire Council will facilitate the use of innovative techniques, including laser scanning, acoustic modelling, and ground-penetrating radar, to help us gain a better understanding of the use and significance of this site, and to place it within its European context.


Armit, I, Schulting, R and Knüsel, C 2011 ‘Decapitation and display? The Bronze and Iron Age human remains fromthe Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea, NE Scotland’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 77.

Benton, S 1931 ‘The excavations of the Sculptor‘s Cave, Covesea, Morayshire‘, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 177-216.

Fraser, I (ed.) 2008 ‘The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland’, RCAHMS.

Shepherd, I A G 2007 ‘“An awesome place”. The Late Bronze Age use of the Sculptor’s cave, Covesea, Moray’, in Burgess, C., Topping, P and Lynch, F (eds) 2007 Beyond Stonehenge: Essays on the Bronze Age in Honour of Colin Burgess. Oxbow Books: Oxford, 194-203.

Dr Lisa Brown - Archaeology Manager, Archaeology and World Heritage Team

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