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20 March 2011
Skulls in ancient Scottish tomb show signs of violent death

Scientists discovered that human skulls buried in the famous Tomb of the Eagles (Orkney, Scotland) displayed signs of serious wounds inflicted by weapons. Archaelogists who studied all 85 skulls from in and around the 5,000-year-old tomb said 16 contain 'clear evidence' of trauma. The findings give the lie to the long-held belief that the people who lived in Scotland in the Neolithic were peaceful farmers and that the human race did not turn murderous and warlike until later in pre-history.
     The skulls - both male and female, children and adults - showed injuries caused by one or more severe blows to the head inflicted by a weapon. Orkney-based archaeologist David Lawrence, who led the investigation and revealed his preliminary findings, said it was likely that many died of their injuries.
     Isbister Chambered Cairn - better known as the Tomb of the Eagles - sits on the south-eastern tip of South Ronaldsay. Alongside 16,000 human bones, 70 talons from the white-tailed sea eagle were found within it. It is believed the magnificent birds, once common in Orkney, were perhaps a totem of the people who built the tomb. The tomb, accidentally discovered in 1958 by local farmer Ronnie Simison, is 3.5 metres high and consists of a rectangular main chamber, divided into stalls and side cells.
     Mr Lawrence said: "By checking if the wounds were healed or not, we can see if someone suffered from severe head trauma just around the time if their death. To say with absolute certainty if they actually died from it, is very hard, but some attacks were so severe that the whole skull has split in two horizontally. Other wounds are very subtle and are most easily observed inside the skull, where splinters have been bent inwards. Some were caused by a blunt force, like a stone or a mace. Other cases were caused by pointed objects, like a bone headed arrow and there were also traumas caused by edged objects, like an axe". Mr Lawrence added: "Some wounds did heal. There is a skull of a woman that has three healed wounds which were caused by blows from a blunt object. She also had a dislocated jaw which was badly healed. She must have suffered terribly, as it would have been very difficult for her to chew properly. It is likely she also had problems speaking."
     Mr Lawrence is convinced that the people in the Tomb of the Eagles were not ritually killed: "It's very unlikely that they were killed in some kind of ritual. I think it is very likely that some of the head injuries were suffered during fights face to face. I can't say if they were fighting each other or different tribes. It is hard to tell who these particular people were, and why they were buried in this tomb. There is still a lot of carbon dating to do, but most of the bones seem to date from the fourth millennium BCE, though some are from the third." He concluded saying, "This tomb was in use for a very long time - maybe even more than a thousand years - and in that time, 85 burials is not that much. One plausible theory is that it was a grave for people who had suffered 'unaccepted' deaths - people who were murdered, died by accident or who were from other tribes."

Edited from The Daily Mail (9 March 2011)

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