A study of human bones found in their thousands more than 30 years ago is set to determine whether Christianity had a foothold in Scotland before St Columba landed on Iona.
Experts believe the bones, found in a mass burial ground in Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway, could prove Christianity was being spread on the south west coast of Scotland before St Columba arrived on the island in the mid 6th Century.
Evidence already exists of a major Christian settlement in the Whithorn area, with finds including the Latinus Stone, the earliest Christian memorial in Scotland, which dates to 450AD. Remnants of Christian burial and feasting have also been discovered.
Now, the latest forensic techniques will be applied to the bones to confirm who was buried in Whithorn - and, most crucially, when.
Julia Muir Watt, development manager at the Whithorn Trust, said: “It could confirm what people in Whithorn already believe, that it is the true cradle of Christianity in Scotland.”
As well as dates, it is hoped the bone analysis will shed information of the diet and migration patterns of those buried at Whithorn.
Analysis of lead and other minerals in the bones can help reflect the composition of drinking water consumed by those being examined and the likely geographical location of that water source.
An award of £60,000 to the research project from Museums Galleries Scotland was announced this week.
A spokesman for MGS said: “Advancements in research and analysis techniques since the collection was excavated mean that it is likely that the project will result in some radical discoveries in relation to dates and interpretation.” Backing has also been secured from the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund and the Dumfries and Galloway LEADER programme.
Archaeologists have been drawn to the Whithorn area for centuries, given the Venerable Bede’s reference to St Ninian, who has a long association with the area.
St Bede wrote in the 8th century of a holy man named Nynia who introduced the Christian faith into a significant part of the land now known as Scotland long before the coming of Saint Columba.
Along with evidence of early Christian practice, archaeologists have found evidence of 16 centuries of continued occupation in the Whithorn area. Northumbrians and the Vikings are amongst those known to have settled there.
Excavations unearthed a range of 8th-9th century Northumbrian ecclesiastical buildings including a church, burial chapel, children’s graveyard and monastic site.
By AD 900, Christian Norse settlers had joined the mixed population of the Whithorn area, with the Viking rule of Galloway coming to an end around 1100.
Archaeological excavations in 1984 revealed a range of evidence from this period, including a stake-built house similar to those found in Viking York and Dublin. Evidence also suggests that cats were farmed for their skins and finely decorated antler combs were manufactured.
More than 42,000 bones were collected at Whithorn by the late archaeologist Peter Hill in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the collection judged to be of national significance.
It is hoped the bones will lead the way in understanding key points in Scotland’s history.
Ms Muir Watt said: “Experts have numerous theories to test in relation to Whithorn’s chronology.
“The fact that the religious site has existed continuously for 1,600 years, with a graveyard at its centre for much of that time, means scientists can investigate critical points in its history – such as the Northumbrian monastery – using this huge latent dataset. It is hoped that this project re-examining human bone can be used as a pilot for other national collections of medieval bone, such as Aberdeen’s.”
A small portion of them will be used in the research project.