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 that 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 new 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 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.
Archaeologists have been drawn to the Whithorn area for centuries given Venerable Bede’s reference to St Ninian, who has a long association with the area.
Venerable 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.
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.
A small portion of them will be used in the research project.