Scotland: 3,000-Year-Old 'Cave of the Dead' Infamous for Human Sacrifice Finally Mapped

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Sculptor's Cave. University of Bradford

A mysterious sea cave is finally becoming slightly less mysterious. Using 3-D imaging technology, archaeologists have mapped Scotland's "Cave of the Dead," an ancient location for human sacrifice, execution and dead bodies. Now, with the help of virtual reality, members of the public can explore the cave without ever stepping inside.

Beginning around the late Bronze Age (about 1200 B.C. to 500 B.C.), the Cave of the Dead, located on Scotland's northern coast, was used as a site for leaving dead bodies until they'd rotted to the point that the bones could be easily collected, according to Live Science, giving rise to the cave's moniker. That moniker also harkens back to an even grimmer use. Radiocarbon dating found that around 250 A.D. at least half a dozen people were beheaded there, according to a paper published in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society in 2011.

"[T]his is something very dramatic, an execution or sacrifice or something of that kind," Ian Armit, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, a co-author of that paper and who has been studying the cave for several years, told Live Science. The beheadings, which happened toward the end of the cave's use, were different to its prior activity, which gave archaeologists like Armit even more to unravel. "There are very few sites of that period where human remains are being found at all, so we don't have much to compare it with for that period," he said.

But such morbid scenes aren't all the cave is known for. Carved stone symbols adorn the entrance, giving rise to the site's other name, Sculptor's Cave, as it's been known for the last 150 years or so. The symbols date back to around 500 A.D. to 600 A.D, when they were carved by the Pictish people, who inhabited the region at the time. According to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Sculptor's Cave is the best-known of a series of sea caves along this part of the coast.

Armit told Live Science that the symbols include a fish, a crescent, and a 'V' shape. According to Armit, other archaeologists theorize the symbols might be names, but he believes that while the symbols definitely had a meaning, we're still unclear what that was.

According to the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework, the cave is normally inaccessible at high tide, which contributed to the air of danger and mystery that led prehistoric peoples to make it a symbolic site in the first place. That also makes it challenging for researchers and curious members of the public to visit. "The site is pretty hard to get to, so if people want to appreciate it and want to understand it, then the idea was to create a resource that was as close to being in the cave without actually having to get there," Armit told Live Science.

Along with fellow University of Bradford archaeologist Lindsey Büster, Armit explored the cave with ropes and ladders, using laser scanners to map the details. They also employed higher-resolution light scanning to pick up the Pictish symbols. According to FutureScot, an animation of the 3-D model is at the completion stage and will be given to the Elgin Museum in Moray, Scotland, next year.

"This walk-through animation allows us to study the carvings in detail, and to present this inaccessible site to the public through online and museum displays," Armit told the University of Bradford. "It also ensures that we can preserve the cave and the carvings digitally for future generations to study."

Those wishing to virtually explore the cave for themselves will be able to do so on the website of the Elgin Museum.