Scottish Achavanich Beaker burial skull
© M. Hoole
Skull shown in-situ prior to excavation at the Achavanich Beaker burial site.
In 1987, the remains of an 18-22-year-old woman, now dubbed Ava, were discovered at Achavanich in Caithness in the north of Scotland. The site was excavated by the Highland Regional Council Archaeology Unit, and the burial was later dated to the Middle Bronze Age. Although the discovery is interesting, and one aspect of it has been hotly debated by researchers, it was soon forgotten by most people. Now, an archaeologist is working to change that.

Archaeologist Maya Hoole hopes to renew public interest in the burial from about 3,700 years ago. As she told the BBC, "Like many others, I'm sure, I find skeletal remains completely mesmerising."

On Hoole's website, the Achavanich Beaker Burial Project, she explains her goal further: "I had one objective when I started this project: to change our understanding of this site and, over the last year, have been trying to make this happen." Hoole believes that a renewed interest and modern technology could make this happen, revealing much more about the secrets of Ava's life and death.

Many of the records about the excavation and analysis of the Achavanich Beaker burial have been lost, or perhaps they never existed. However, as Hoole shows, there was an extensive photographic survey of the excavation - these images provide vital information to modern researchers interested in the burial.
Excavation Achavanich Beaker burial site
© M. Hoole
One of the photos of the 1987 excavations.
It was undoubtedly a special burial. The remains of the young woman were probably interred in a crouched position in the unmarked rock-cut pit. This is rather odd, as most burials from the location and period were underneath a cairn or in a pit dug into soil. British History Online says that "most Beaker burials are inhumations, sometimes under round barrows, accompanied by a few grave goods."

Hoole agrees that she is only aware of a few other pits dug into solid rock in Scotland. She told the BBC: "A lot of time and energy was invested in this burial. It just makes you wonder - why go to all that effort? What was so unique about the individual buried here to receive such special treatment?"

One of the most interesting and hotly debated aspects about Ava's remains is her skull. Short and round skull shapes were supposedly common amongst the Beaker people, but Hoole's website shows that the Achavanich specimen is exaggerated and of an abnormal, uneven shape. She explained:
"There has been much debate amongst the archaeological community for many decades about the shape. Some argue it is a hereditary trait, whilst others think there may have been a practice of head-binding which creates the distinct shape. Perhaps this site can contribute more to the debate if further research is undertaken."
elongated skull achavanich beaker burial site
© M. Hoole
The skull of the Bronze Age woman found in the Achavanich Beaker burial.

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