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The Burial

Human Remains, analysed by Paul Duffy (GUARD)

The person buried in the sand that covered the Iron Age settlement was a man between 50 and 60 years old.  He was of slender, gracile build and stood between 164 cm (5’4”) and 171 cm (5’6”) tall.  His skeleton carried no clues to the cause of his death, and it did not indicate a particularly hard life.  His teeth were only slightly worn, suggesting he did not dine often on coarse food.  He suffered some gum disease, probably through the continuous formation of plaque on his teeth, but he had not suffered any caries or abscesses.  Several small lesions on his spine, particularly in the lower back, are not uncommon in older people and would not have caused him any significant pain.  Likewise, small areas of age-related degenerative joint disease on other bones would not have generated much discomfort beyond the normal aches associated with ageing.  A radiocarbon date from the bone (calibrated to 2-sigma or 95.4% confidence) shows that he died between AD 130 – 390.

Objects with the burial, analysed by Martin Goldberg and Fraser Hunter (National Museums of Scotland)

Two yellow beads threaded onto a copper-alloy spring ring were found with the burial; the ornament lay between the left shoulder blade and the left upper arm. It might have been attached to his clothing, or even to his body - perhaps as a nipple ring.

The dappled silver-grey disc found beside the man's mouth was made of cordierite talc schist. It is beautifully made and polished, and almost perfectly circular. Stone discs like these have been found with other burials on Westray and Shapinsay in Orkney and at Helmsdale in Sutherland, and also at Iron Age settlements in the Northern Isles, throughout Scotland even Ireland. Perhaps they were intended as mirrors, or images of the moon? Another possibility is that they were palettes, used to prepare cosmetics or medicine. A sticky white deposit was found adhering to the underside of the Sandwick disc.

Rare earth element analysis has been carried out on the deposit by Professor Richard Jones at the University of Glasgow Archaeology Department and Professor Robert Ellam at  the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, but it has not yet been possible to establish its origins, other than confirming that it is not derived from steatite or talc, as was first thought.

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