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Take a Virtual Tour of a Mysterious Pictish Cave in Scotland

Archaeologists have created a 3D model of the fascinating, but hard-to-access Sculptor’s Cave

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On the northern coast of Scotland stands an isolated cave that has fascinated and confounded archaeologists for decades. A rich deposit of material objects dating as far back as the Late Bronze age have been found there, as have hundreds of human bones. But the cave is perhaps best known for the Pictish symbols that were carved into its entrance, leading the site to be dubbed “Sculptor’s Cave.”

As Tom Metcalfe reports for Live Science, Sculptor’s Cave, which is nestled into an inlet known as Moray Firth, can only be safely visited during low tide. This in turn makes it difficult for experts and the general public to access the site. So archaeologists at the University of Bradford in the U.K. have created the first-ever 3D model of Sculptor’s Cave. You can take a Youtube tour of the 3D animation now. Researchers plan to give the interactive animation of the model to the Elgin Museum in Moray for use in its exhibitions and on its website, according to Will Peakin of FutureScot.com.

Archaeologists Ian Armit and Lindsey Büster have been studying Sculptor’s Cave since 2013. Accessing the site with ropes and ladders, they used 3D laser-scanning equipment to create their map of the cave. More specifically, Metcalfe of Live Science explains, they relied on “a terrestrial laser scanner to map the cave's main chamber and twin entrance passageways and higher-resolution techniques such as structured light scanning to capture features in detail, such as the Pictish symbols."

The resulting model replicates the cave in intricate detail, illuminating the ripples of its stones, its narrow passageways and its mysterious carvings. 

“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 says, according to a University of Bradford statement. “It also ensures that we can preserve the cave and the carvings digitally for future generations to study.”

Since the late 1920s, archaeologists have been exploring the long and rather macabre history of Sculptor’s Cave. Starting in about 1000 B.C., the site appears to have been used as a repository for precious objects, according to the National Record of the Historic Environment. Coins, rings, pins, bracelets and other valuable goods have been discovered there, dating from the Late Bronze Age to the Roman Iron Age. Archaeologists have also unearthed vast quantities of human bones, many of them belonging to children.

Researchers believe that Sculptor’s Cave was a mortuary site where bodies were left to decay naturally. Kathryn Krakowka of Current Archaeology reports that at least one bone showed signs of “deliberate defleshing,” which may indicate that mortuary rituals took place at the cave. “[W]e've got evidence of cutting and polishing on some of the bones," Armit tells Metcalfe of Live Science. "So we think people went back and visited these bones."

The stone carvings date to around 400 A.D. and were made by the Picts, a loose confederation of tribes in northern Scotland who are perhaps best known for their clashes with the Romans. The Picts left behind hundreds of stone carvings adorned with elaborate symbols that researchers do not fully understand. At Sculptor’s Cave, the carvings include a fish, a “V” shape and a crescent. Archaeologists have speculated that these symbols represent personal or tribal names. It is also possible that they were inscribed to mark the closure of Sculptor’s Cave, which was abandoned in the early 5th century.

Before the cave fell out of use, it was the site of a bloody killing. Cut-marks on one group of bones indicate that at least six people were decapitated at Sculptor’s Cave—whether as part of an execution or a human sacrificial ritual researchers do not know. 

Much of the history of Sculptor’s Cave remains obscure. But with the new 3D model, researchers and amateur historians can take a virtual tour through the caverns and passageways where the dead—and perhaps the murdered—once lay.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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