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Experts unlock secrets of highly unusual 'six-headed chief' burial place in the Highlands


By Val Sweeney

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The ‘six-headed chief' grave with the four skulls set at his head. Picture: FAS Heritage
The ‘six-headed chief' grave with the four skulls set at his head. Picture: FAS Heritage

Cutting-edge science has been used to help unlock a centuries-old mystery at a Highland burial place known as 'the six-headed chief'.

The grave, containing the body of a man who died in violent conflict, is among a group of special burials excavated at Portmahomack, on Tarbat Ness in Easter Ross.

He was buried with four extra skulls - belonging to a young woman and three men - set in two pairs to either side of his head.

His grave was later reopened to bury a second man, displacing the skull of the first, and a while later a third man was buried in a separate grave close by.

Recent DNA analysis suggests the full burials and three of the skulls represent several generations of one family.

The results place the deaths of all the individuals except one in the late 13th to early 15th century while the fourth skull dates from the eighth to the 10th century and probably belonged to a Pictish monk from the monastic cemetery of that date which lies beneath the Church of St Colman.

The project, supported by Historic Environment Scotland, has provided a fascinating insight into burials excavated in the medieval Church of St Colman, now the Tarbat Discovery Centre.

They happened at the time of warring between rival clans and since an excavation in 1997, archaeologists have been trying to discover more.

The latest results were obtained through ancient DNA analysis undertaken by scientists at the David Reich Lab at Harvard University.

The two extra male skulls were father and son, and in turn, grandfather and father of the second man to be buried in the grave.

The skull of the young woman was the second man’s mother. In time, his son was buried at his side.

There are a number of possible family relationships between the two men who shared the grave who are related to one another through the second man’s grandfather.

One possibility is that the grandfather is the uncle of the first man to be buried suggesting the two men who shared this grave could have been first cousins once removed.

This behaviour seems to point to efforts to group members of the family tree together in the same grave and suggests the importance of primogeniture – the descent of the family through the male line.

The contemporary skulls had no doubt been conserved or removed from previous graves, and the inclusion of the Pictish skull points to the deliberate inclusion of a prized relic.

Stable isotope analysis suggests the grandfather and parents of the second man grew up in the local area but he spent his childhood elsewhere.

The burials and extra skulls showing family relationships revealed by ancient DNA analysis. Picture: FAS Heritage
The burials and extra skulls showing family relationships revealed by ancient DNA analysis. Picture: FAS Heritage

The 14th century was a turbulent one seeing war, famine, animal plagues, the Black Death and environmental deterioration.

In the face of such challenges, holding and fighting for land territories – an important part of Highland life - would have been even more critical. The fertile Tarbatness peninsula was an ancestral prize worth fighting for.

Dr Lisa Brown, archaeological science manager at Historic Environment Scotland said: "It is fantastic to see the use of aDNA and isotopic analysis helping to provide an insight into the relationships between individuals in a complex multi-person burial.

"These are techniques that were not available when the excavations first took place.

"We have been delighted to support this project, which, through the application of cutting-edge science, has been able to tell the story of a family group buried in the nave of the church, one that can be presented to the public as part of the work of the Tarbat Discovery Centre."

The Tarbat Discovery Centre in Portmahomack. Picture: Philip Murray.
The Tarbat Discovery Centre in Portmahomack. Picture: Philip Murray.

Calum Thomson, chairman of the Tarbat Historic Trust, said: "This exciting development once again confirms the significance of the Tarbat peninsula to Scotland’s rich and diverse heritage.

"As an organisation, the Tarbat Discovery Centre is very proud to be a key part of the continued understanding of that history."


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