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Face of man in Portmahomack 'six-headed grave' mystery is revealed by boffins after 'captivating' reconstruction

By Hector MacKenzie

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An image of what the man may have looked like.
An image of what the man may have looked like.

EXPERTS have reconstructed the face of a man who was part of a “highly unusual” burial in Easter Ross centuries ago.

St Colman’s Church in Portmahomack was excavated in 1997 as part of the Tarbat Discovery Programme and 88 burials dating to the 13th to 16th century were revealed.

Excavation of the church took place in advance of its conversion into the award-winning museum, The Tarbat Discovery Centre.

He was the second occupant of a grave which originally belonged to a man who had died violently by the sword and was buried with four further skulls set around his head.

This "six-headed" grave was in the most prominent position in the church – in the centre of the nave at the front of the entrance to the medieval crypt.

Both men are believed to have died during a time characterised by localised conflict between clan-based groups. During the late 15th century, St Colman’s Church was burnt down followed by a battle nearby between the MacKay and Ross clans. It is likely that the men in the six-headed burial were involved in hostilities.

Experts have recreated the face of a medieval man from a “highly unusual” burial using specialist software based on a 3D scan produced commissioned by FAS Heritage.
Experts have recreated the face of a medieval man from a “highly unusual” burial using specialist software based on a 3D scan produced commissioned by FAS Heritage.

Speaking ahead of an eagerly anticipated local talk next month, Cecily Spall from FAS Heritage said: “The facial reconstruction of this man is absolutely captivating. The Tarbat Medieval Burials project is aimed at understanding the lives of these men in as much detail as possible. The facial reconstruction brings them to life for us all and allows us to feel a renewed connection and understanding of them."

The reconstruction forms part of a wider collaborative project involving specialists in archaeological science who will analyse this burial and three adjacent male burials. Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers, University of Bradford, is leading the osteological and dietary analysis of the skeletons.

The project, which is supported by a grant from Historic Environment Scotland, will see the burials radiocarbon dated, undergo stable isotope analysis to understand diet and origin, and ancient DNA analysis to understand genetic heritage and explore possible familial relationships. The team hopes to shed more light on the emergence of clan organisation.

The facial reconstruction was commissioned by FAS Heritage as part of the Tarbat Medieval Burials project and was funded by a generous grant from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Dr Jessica Liu and Dr Sarah Shrimpton at the Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University produced the reconstruction. Based on a 3D scan of the skull, produced by Visualising Heritage at the University of Bradford, researchers in Face Lab were able to create a 2D facial depiction guided by average facial soft tissue depth measurements from a modern European dataset. Using high-resolution facial textures, individual features were created based on the morphology of the skull.

A talk on the project by Cecily Spall will take place at Carnegie Hall, Portmahomack on October 4 at 7.30pm. Tickets priced £4 will be available on the door. The talk is part of the Highland Archaeology Festival.

A temporary exhibition will also be mounted at the Tarbat Discovery Centre.

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