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.

Bronze Age Pollens found in Beaker

Archaeologist Ms Hoole said:

“Of the pollen recovered the majority were from trees and shrubs including birch, pine – most likely Scots pine – hazel and alder.

“Heather was also identified, as well as grasses, meadowsweet and St John’s wort.

“The inclusion of meadowsweet proves interesting as it has also appeared at other Bronze Age burials elsewhere in Scotland.

“The presence of both meadowsweet and St John’s wort may represent a deliberate inclusion of flowers within the burial. Interestingly, both of these plants are also considered to have medicinal properties.”

The archaeologist added:

“The presence of several different species of plant which are considered to have medicinal properties raises interesting questions: was this intentional, and was it in any way related to whatever caused the death of this individual?”

What is known about Ava?

What is known about Ava is that she was part of a much wider European group known as the Beaker people.

Short and round skull shapes were common amongst this group, but Ms Hoole said the Achavanich specimen is exaggerated and of an abnormal, uneven shape.

The archaeologist said:

“There has been much debate amongst the archaeological community for many decades about the shape. Some argue it is a hereditary trait, whilst others think there may have been a practice of head-binding which creates the distinct shape.

“Perhaps this site can contribute more to the debate if further research is undertaken.”

She added:

“She has been fondly nicknamed ‘Ava’, an abbreviation of the place she was found.

“Although potentially a controversial decision, I want people to remember that this is not just a cluster of bones, but that she was once a human being, with a name, an identity and a place in a long lost community.”

BBC Scotland: Highlands and Islands Source 1
BBC Scotland: Highlands and Islands Source 2
The Smithsonian

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