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Pollens Found in Grave of Bronze Age Woman Paint Picture of Bygone Scotland

But do they shed light on the mystery of the woman’s death?

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

In 1987, a team of archaeologists unearthed a Bronze Age grave in Achavanich, an area in the county of Caithness, Scotland. Inside the grave, they found the remains of a young woman. They called her Ava, after the place where she lived some 4,000 years ago.

As Steven McKenzie reports for the BBC, archaeologist Maya Hoole has been leading a long-term research project into the site, hoping to uncover details about Ava’s life. Most recently, Hoole and her fellow researchers identified an array of pollens that clung to a clay beaker found inside Ava’s grave. These pollens suggest that Ava lived in a lush, forested region that was very different to the treeless landscape stretching across the area today.

In their analysis of the beaker, researchers identified pollens from several trees and shrubs—among them birch, pine, hazel, and alder. They also found traces of heather and grasses.

McKenzie writes that the presence of these pollens “likely” indicate that Caithness used to be covered by a mixture of heathland and woodland. According to the Scottish Natural Heritage, Scotland was once replete with natural forests, which began to decline “under the influence of early agriculture.” By 82 CE, when the Romans invaded Scotland, at least half of the country’s woodland had disappeared. Ava, it seems, lived before widespread deforestation drastically altered the landscape of Caithness, which currently contains no natural woodlands.

These findings paint a fuller picture of Ava’s world, adding to what we already know about the Bronze Age woman. The distinctive pottery in her grave indicates that she belonged to the Beaker people, who lived in northwestern and central Europe. In August, Jason Daley writes in Smithsonian.com, researchers enlisted the help of a forensic artist to reconstruct Ava’s face, shedding light on what she may have looked like. Tests have also revealed that Ava died between the ages of 18 and 22, McKenzie explains in another piece for the BBC.

The cause of Ava’s death, however, is unclear. So researchers were particularly intrigued by the discovery of pollens belonging to two flowers—St. John’s wort and meadowsweet—on the beaker in her grave. Speaking to McKenzie, Hoole notes that both “are considered to have medicinal properties.” Were these flowers placed deliberately in Ava’s grave because they are somehow connected to her death?

For now, Hoole can only say that the presence of these pollens “raises interesting questions.” While this research sheds new light on the landscape that Ava lived in, the circumstances of her death remain mysterious.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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