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Meet Ava, a Bronze Age Woman From the Scottish Highlands

A forensic artist has recreated the face of a woman alive 3,700 years ago

A reconstruction from the 3,700-year-old remains of Ava, a woman unearthed in the Scottish Highlands (Hew Morrison)
smithsonian.com

Back in 1987, archaeologists in the Scottish Highlands uncovered an unusual grave at an area known as Achavanich. Unlike other Bronze Age burials which were dug in soil and marked with a pile of stones called a cairn, this grave was cut out of solid rock. It contained the 3,700-year-old remains of a woman aged 18 to 22, who was dubbed Ava after the place she was found, Steven McKenzie reports for the BBC.

Scottish archaeologist Maya Hoole has been digging into Ava's story, studying her remains, which are kept at the Caithness Horizons Museum in the town of Thurso in northern Scotland. Recently, Hoole enlisted the help of talented forensic artist Hew Morrison to reconstruct Ava’s face, McKenzie reports in a separate story for BBC.

Morrison, who normally works on missing persons cases, used sophisticated software and tissue depth charts to digitally add muscle and skin to scans of Ava’s bones, writes McKenzie. Based on the condition of the enamel on the teeth and size of the teeth, he estimated the size of Ava’s lips. He had to make an educated guess about her jaw, which was missing. He then used an image database of facial features to create a photo-realistic, high-resolution image of the 3,700-year-old woman. It’s a great guess as to what Ava looked like, but Morrison admits some details may be wrong. “Normally, when working on a live, unidentified person’s case not so much detail would be given to skin tone, eye or hair color and hair style as none of these elements can be determined from the anatomy of the skull,” he tells McKenzie. “So, creating a facial reconstruction based on archeological remains is somewhat different in that a greater amount of artistic license can be allowed.”

That’s not all we know about Ava. She stood about 5'5'' tall, and her skull has an abnormal shape. As Hoole writes on Facebook, that could be traced to many causes—she might have had a habitual sleeping position as a child or a birth defect.

Most importantly, a large beaker-shaped pot was found with Ava's remains, indicating that she was part of the Bell-Beaker culture which lived on mainland Europe. The Beaker folk, as they are colloquially referred to as, are thought to have introduced metal working to the British Isles. They built mounds, intermingled with the stone-age farmers they encountered and produced some sophisticated pottery and metal weapons.

Hoole says that very few stone burials have been found at Beaker culture sites, meaning Ava may have been an individual of special importance. There are also signs that her death may have been due to a long illness. “It would have taken a huge amount of time and resources to dig this pit and create the stone-lined cist,” Hoole tells Ben Taub at IFLScience. “If Ava died very suddenly, I wonder if there would have been time to dig the pit. However, if they had known she may be going to die, the pit cist may have already been made.”

Hoole will continue to find out more about Ava and her life through her non-profit Achavanich Beaker Burial Project, which is currently looking for residue and pollens from the beaker pot found in Ava’s grave and investigating the techniques used to decorate the pot.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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