New project to examine medieval burials in Scotland

The Tarbat Medieval Burials Project has been launched in northern Scotland, which will examine a set of burials from the 15th century.

They were discovered at St Colman’s Church, in the town of Portmahomack, where a Pictish monastery was excavated. The archaeologists also found a wealth of evidence relating to medieval Portmahomack. Excavation of the interior of St Colman’s Church in 1997 in advance of its conversion into the Tarbat Discovery Centre, revealed 88 burials dating to the 13th to 16th century while the remains of a smithy were found in the field adjacent.


The Tarbat Medieval Burials project is a collaborative project involving specialists in archaeological science who will analyse five male burials thought to date to the 15th century. The project, supported by grants from Historic Environment Scotland and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, includes facial reconstruction, radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis to understand diet and origin, and ancient DNA analysis to understand genetic heritage and explore possible familial relationships.

The five burials include a unique ‘6-headed burial’ belonging to two men, one of whom died violently by the sword, and both of whom were accompanied by four extra skulls. This burial is thought to be contemporary with an iron-working smithy which was at work in the field next to St Colman’s Church in the 15th century. The smithy was involved in the upkeep and production of bladed weapons, probably swords and other arms. The face of one of the men in the 6-headed grave has been reconstructed by specialists at the FaceLab, Liverpool John Moores University.


The face of a man who was part of a “six-headed” burial in the Scottish Highlands in the 15th century has been reconstructed by experts as part of the Tarbat Medieval Burials project. Image Credit: Face Lab, Liverpool John Moores University

Another burial in the group belonged to a man who had been buried in a wooden coffin wearing clothes. The remains of both his leather ankle boots and woollen leg hose were preserved. They represent a very rare survival and are the only known surviving example from the medieval period.

A pair of late medieval leather boots and woollen hose preserved on one of the medieval burials. Image Credit: FAS Heritage

A spokesperson from the Tarbat Historic Trust/Tarbat Discovery Centre explains, “The Tarbat Medieval Burials Project, based at Tarbat Discovery Centre, highlights what has already been achieved and continues to reap rewards for archaeologists all over the world. It is incredible to think how important the Tarbat Discovery Centre is in the world of archaeology. At a time when this museum along with all the other small Highland museums, are struggling to compete with newer more centralised projects for direct funding from Government, this project is putting this area back in the spotlight on a national and international level. People know us for our Pictish monastery, but these burials are from the later medieval period. They were excavated over a decade ago, but as research progresses they continue to reveal their stories and help us to see them as real flesh and blood people of their time. As a museum, we very much depend on income from visitors, so we very much hope that this exciting project will attract more people to visit the Centre.”

The Tarbat Discovery Centre, which was opened in 1999, has become an award-winning museum and continues to present the results of the excavation to a wide audience twenty years on. A temporary exhibition will be mounted at the centre providing more details on the project and preliminary results. A talk on the project by Cecily Spall will take place at Carnegie Hall, Portmahomack on the 4th October, 7.30-9.00pm (Tickets £4) as part of the Highland Archaeology Festival.

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