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Scotland's 'bodies in the bog' traveled hundreds of miles to die in a toilet

A facial reconstruction of one of the Cramond "bodies in the bog" shows a young, medieval wanderer.
A facial reconstruction of one of the Cramond "bodies in the bog" shows a young, medieval wanderer. (Image credit: University of Aberdeen)

Researchers have uncovered new details about the lives and violent deaths of the "bodies in the bog" — a group of medieval skeletons discovered in 1975 in a former Roman-era latrine in Cramond, Scotland. (In the UK, "bog" is also slang for a toilet.)

The buried individuals, who received stunning digital facial reconstructions based on their skeletons in prior research, include nine adults and five infants who lived in Scotland in the sixth century. Now, a new analysis of the isotopes (different versions of elements) in the bones and teeth of the skeletons reveals that several members of the group traveled from far-flung corners of Scotland before arriving at their ultimate burial site in the ancient toilets of Cramond.

This new analysis could add more details to the murky portraits of who these people were, where they were born and what kinds of lives they led, according to the authors of a new study, published March 24 in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (opens in new tab)

"Tooth enamel, particularly from teeth which form between around three and six years of age, act like little time capsules containing chemical information about where a person grew up," study author Kate Britton, a professor of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, said in a statement. "Food and water consumed during life [also] leave a specific signature in the body, which can be traced back to their input source."

The analysis showed that six of the individuals bore chemical markers suggesting they were locals of the Cramond area. (The village sits on the North Sea, just west of Edinburgh.) However, two of the individuals — one man and one woman — showed evidence of very different life histories.

According to the researchers, the female's isotopic signature (the precise combination of elements in her teeth and bones) suggested she had come from the West coast of Scotland. Meanwhile, the male contained isotopes "more typical of the Southern Uplands, Southern Highlands or Loch Lomond area, so it is likely he came to Cramond from an inland area," Britton said.

These chemical signatures suggest that the two individuals grew up elsewhere, before migrating hundreds of miles to Cramond at some later date, the researchers said. Given that roads would have been few and far between at the time, these findings could have important implications about the socioeconomic status of the two well-traveled individuals.

"Previous studies have suggested that those buried here were of high social status, even nobility," lead study author Orsolya Czére, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Aberdeen, said in the statement. "What we can say from our new analyses was that these were well-connected individuals, with lives that brought them across the country."

The fact that two travelers with potentially noble backgrounds ended up in a communal grave with seven other men, women and children who may have been complete strangers to them underscores the hardship of these times, the researchers added.

That fact is brought into even sharper focus by the injuries present in two of the bodies; according to previous research, one woman and one child deposited at the burial site seemingly died from fatal skull injuries. Both skulls showed evidence of being struck by a blunt object, possibly the butt of a spear, which would have killed the individuals very quickly, the researchers said.

"This evidence provides important confirmation that the period in question was characterized by a high level of violence," study co-author Angela Boyle, an osteoarchaeologist at the University of Edinburgh, said in the statement.

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon has been a senior writer at Live Science since 2017, and was formerly a staff writer and editor at Reader's Digest magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.