As was reported on the 28th of June, human remains were found eroding from the machair at Machrins on the west coast of Colonsay by Mr Kevin Byrne. These remains were excavated by Alistair Becket of GUARD on the 1st and 2nd of July, under the terms of Historic Scotland's Human Remains Call-Off Contract, and a report outlining the results has now been received.
Initial assessment of the bones indicated that they comprised a fairly well preserved and mostly complete skeleton, with preliminary analysis suggesting that these were the remains of a male of Middle Adult (35-49 years) age. Several pathologies are identifiable on the bones, some possibly linked to degenerative changes and some related to trauma, further consideration of which will require detailed analysis. Disarticulated bones were also found in close proximity to the burial, indicating the presence of more than one body: these appear to be the remains of a young child (3-12 years) or possibly an old infant (birth -3 years). The child was represented by skull fragments and a vertebra fragment, suggesting that another burial may have existed in the immediate vicinity.
The articulated adult skeleton was orientated with the skull to the south and feet to the north, in a supine position, with the right arm flexed to place the hand at the right shoulder and the left arm lying across the abdomen. Although the skull and the left side of the mandible had been moved prior to the arrival of GUARD, the right side of the mandible remained in situ, showing that the head had been facing to the east.
The body was accompanied by grave goods, which provide an important opportunity to recover significant information about the burial. A large bronze ringed pin was located behind the lumbar vertebrae, the ring to the east and the point to the west. From initial inspection, this pin appears to be an example of a plain-ringed polyhedral head type, thought to have been popular in the early-mid tenth century CE. Examples of this type of pin have has been found in large numbers in Dublin, but is also attested elsewhere, including York, the Isle of Man and Orkney. Ringed pins have also previously been discovered on Colonsay. A find from Machrins Farm (WoSAS Pin 43438) appears from the written description to be very similar to the current example, and thus likely to be of similar date, and was also found in relation to organic material, interpreted as textile. Another example of a ringed pin, albeit somewhat plainer in form, was found at Ardskinish, on the south-west peninsula of Colonsay.
Also found with the body were a bone pin and an iron object. These are likely to aid in the dating of the burial with further post-excavation analysis, although it is unclear at this stage whether these objects adorned the body or were placed within the grave as goods. The iron object may have been held within a wooden sheath, perhaps wrapped in leather, but further specialist analysis of the surrounding organic material will be required to categorically identify and fully understand this material. Similarly, further specialist analysis of organic material, which may represent a small bag and its contents, will be required to identify their character and significance. The survival of a tiny fragment of textile, significant in itself, also indicates the potential for further examples to survive within the organic deposits recovered from the site.
The north/south alignment of the burial, the inclusion of grave goods and the possible presence of a cairn/setting all suggest a non-Christian burial rite. The slightly unusual body position, while perhaps partially a consequence of post-burial movement and disturbance, may also relate to the method of burial. In this respect the location of the ringed pin relative to the body, potentially suggesting the existence of a shroud, may be significant as a shrouded body could have shifted within the wrappings, perhaps accounting for the body position. As the initial report of the 28th of June demonstrates, the discovery of human remains in the dunes at Cnoc nan Gall is not in itself particularly surprising, the area having been long known for the presence of burials. The proximity of the site to the Machrins settlement and burial is notable, although the ringed pin suggests a somewhat later date for the remains under discussion here. The grave goods recovered with the body however render this discovery of considerable interest and potential archaeological significance, and thanks are due to Special Constable Donald MacLeod for his handling of the initial discovery, Kevin Byrne for reporting the site, and (among others) Dr David Binnie, Dr Jan Brooks, Mary Carmichael, Carol MacNeill and Angela Skrimshire for local knowledge provided during the excavation.