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Ancient skeleton buried in the sand

An ancient murder mystery: Who was the Rosemarkie Man? 

Image: An ancient skeleton buried in the sand |

Located in the highlands of Scotland on the south shore of the Black Isle peninsula is a village called Rosemarkie. Just up the coast from there is a series of sea caves that, up until recently, have been largely unexplored.

When archaeologists and volunteers began investigating the caves, few would have imagined the gruesome discovery that lay in wait. Hidden beneath the sand were the remarkably intact skeletal remains of a man who’d suffered the most brutal of deaths.

Who was this man? When had he lived? And why had he died in such a way?

Discovery of the Rosemarkie Man

Soon after research began into the Rosemarkie caves, archaeologists uncovered evidence of human occupation. Some of the caves had been lived in as early as the 2nd century, whilst others as recently as the 20th century. A variety of artefacts gradually came to light ranging from 19th-century leather shoe soles to ancient animal bones. Along with these came several ceramics, stone tools, fish scales as well as worked bone objects.

Then in 2016, archaeologists uncovered what became known as the Rosemarkie Man. Found buried in a recess towards the back of one of the Rosemarkie caves, the man lay in a cross-legged position with large stones placed on top of him weighing him down; it was clear he’d been carefully buried at this site.

Who was he?

Radiocarbon dating on the man’s bones revealed he’d lived sometime between 430 – 631, placing him during the early-mid Pictish period.

Between the end of Roman rule in Britain during the early 5th century to the rise of the kingdom of Alba in the 10th century, Scotland was divided into a series of kingdoms. One of which was the Picts and given the location of the Rosemarkie Man, he lived during their reign and within their realm.

Bone analysis suggested he was most likely in his early 30s, around 5ft 6ins tall, well-built and, apart from poor dental hygiene, was in very good health.

In 2017, scientists at Dundee University made a facial reconstruction of the man and two years later, isotope analysis revealed he had a high-protein diet. This led to speculation he may have been of Pictish royalty since only those of high status ate so much meat. Supporting this theory was the fact that his body showed no signs of injury, meaning he wasn’t a warrior or engaged in any day-to-day hard labour. Genetic analysis also revealed he had links to the Orkney Islands.

How did he die?

Analysis of the bones of the Rosemarkie Man quickly revealed that he’d suffered a horrendous death. It seemed that archaeologists had a 1,400 old murder mystery to unravel.

The man’s skull showed evidence of multiple blunt force trauma. The first blow came to the right side of his mouth which shattered his teeth. It was likely made with a round implement that was used again to inflict the second blow, which crashed into the left side of his jaw. This led to the man falling to the ground and hitting the back of his head on a rock.

The next blow was the fatal one, as an implement (perhaps the same one as used before) was driven through the side of his skull from the left to the right. One final impact to the top of the man’s head took place next and most likely occurred after his death.

Why was he killed?

The exact reason behind the violent death of the Rosemarkie Man may never be known but some theories have been put forward.

If a single individual carried out the blows to the man’s skull, their reasons may well be due to interpersonal conflict. However, if murder was the motive, the careful way in which he was buried in the cave seems to contradict this theory.

If it was multiple assailants, then perhaps the attack had sacrificial or ritualistic motivations. Was the final blow made to the top of his head to let his spirit out? This would be consistent with other Iron Age examples.

If the death was indeed sacrificial, the Rosemarkie Man would likely have been a willing participant in the act. Perhaps the local people were suffering from a poor harvest and wished to appease the deities with this human sacrifice. Maybe the Rosemarkie Man put himself forward for the good of his community.

The location of his burial towards the back of the cave may have been to place his body towards an entrance to the underworld. The large stones holding his body down could be to prevent the man from returning to life and haunting the local community.

Further research as part of the Rosemarkie Caves Project continues to be conducted on both the Rosemarkie Man, as well as the caves in which he was found, and hope to shed further light on this fascinating portal into Scotland’s past.