Over Her Dead Body

The report last month of Britain’s earliest case of rickets in a Stone Age skeleton found in Balevullin made the national newspapers (and our own ‘national newspaper’). It was a fascinating story: a young girl had died with bone deformities which meant that she would have had to have been kept indoors all her life.

When a bunch of archaeologists had found her skeleton, they were chased off the island by local crofters, who were convinced the researchers were desecrating the township’s graveyard. Now some people living in the same township want the bones returned to Tiree so she can be buried again in home soil.

I wrote to Professor Armit in Bradford, who led the research, to get a copy of his original work, and did a little background reading. In the spring of 1912 a group of amateur archaeologists had been drawn to the Balevullin machair. They were probably financed by a successful 38 year old Glasgow businessman, wealthy enough to spend his summers assembling a huge archaeological collection. Andrew Henderson Bishop’s father had founded the grocers Cooper & Co. on the Great Western Road – and had built the magnificent Thornton Hall near Busby. Bishop, also a keen curler, had a floodlit rink built in the grounds of the hall and was rich enough to extend the platform of the local railway station to accommodate his private railway carriage. Also in the party were Bishop’s assistant Mungo Buchanan, another keen amateur, and Ludovic McLellan Mann, who had developed colourful theories about Scotland’s old stone markings and loved to see his ideas in the newspapers. The wind had opened up a section of the machair revealing the outline of a house and at least four skeletons. Bishop later explained what had happened:

‘These (burials) led to trouble with the Islanders who accused me of digging up their Ancestors and taking them to London to put in a museum. It was reported to His Grace of Argyll and we were requested to leave without any remains or other treasures. When the flints and hammer-stones were shown to the local Factor we were absolved and were permitted to take the finds.’

One of these finds was a skeleton of a 25 to 30 year old woman, which found its way to Glasgow University’s Anatomy Museum. She had been buried under a pile of stones with only a white quartz pebble the size of a walnut as company. Because an Iron Age hut had been found nearby it was assumed that the bones came from the same period, around 2,000 years ago. But when Professor Armit put a sample of her bones through the analyser he found they were more than 5,000 years old – from the Neolithic period. The skeleton, which had lain undisturbed in the vaults of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum for one hundred years, revealed a fascinating story. She had been a short woman even for her times: about 4 foot 10 inches tall. She had had a ‘pigeon chest’ (a deformity of the ribs and breast bone which stick out in a point) and bowed leg bones, making it highly likely that she had suffered from childhood rickets, caused by the lack of vitamin D.

Before the Balevullin discovery the earliest case of rickets in Britain had been found in an old skeleton from Roman times – 3,000 years later than the Tiree bones. This is therefore by far the oldest case of rickets that have ever been found in Britain. And when her bones and teeth were subjected to yet more tests, Professor Armit could show that she had been born and bred in the Hebrides, but pretty much had stopped eating fish between the ages of 4 and 14.

The main burials known from this period, the Neolithic, are usually found in splendid stone chambered cairns – presumably for chieftains and their families. The only other simple Neolithic cemetery in Britain was found in Oxfordshire. Possibly the stone pile on top of the grave was a way of honouring her, or a way of keeping the living safe from her troublesome spirit.

Rickets must have been rare in Stone Age Tiree. Half an hour in the sunshine every day, or a helping of oily fish gives you more than enough vitamin D. This young woman must have been kept indoors or worn heavy clothing all year round. Was she a slave? Was she a high priestess who lived all her life in a sacred hut?

Since the story broke, some people on the island have felt that this woman’s remains should be returned from their museum store to her ‘home country’ where she should be reburied, and there has been some correspondence to the relevant Scottish Government minister. On the other hand, although her skeleton has lain undisturbed for a century, she has told us a lot about life on Tiree thousands of years ago. And given us an intriguing puzzle to discuss. What do you think?

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