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New Light on Portmahomack's 'Six-headed Chief'

Posted on 21 October 2020

Experts use ancient DNA analysis to “decode” the secrets of “highly unusual” 14th-century burials in the Scottish Highlands.

A facial reconstruction based on a skeleton excavated at Portmahomack, Tarbat Ness, Scotland

A recent project, supported by Historic Environment Scotland, has allowed a fascinating insight into a group of ‘special’ burials excavated in the medieval Church of St Colman at Portmahomack, on Tarbat Ness, Easter Ross at the time of the warring clans. St Colman’s Church was excavated in 1997 by the University of York and FAS Heritage, and 88 13th- to 16th-century burials were revealed, including one nick-named the ‘six-headed chief’: a man who had died in violent conflict and who was interred in the centre of the nave. He was buried with four extra skulls - belonging to a young woman and three men - set in two pairs to either side of his head. His grave was later reopened to bury a second man, displacing the skull of the first, and a while later a third man was buried in a separate grave close by.

The four ‘extra’ skulls and full burials were targeted for detailed scientific research: C14 dating,stable isotope analysis, ancient DNA analysis and facial reconstruction. The results of the C14 dating place the deaths of all the individuals bar one in the late 13th to early 15th centuries. The exception dates to the 8th to 10th century, and probably belonged to a Pictish monk from the monastic cemetery that lies beneath the Church of St Colman.


Ancient DNA analyses undertaken by scientists at the David Reich Lab, Harvard University suggest the full burials and three of the skulls represent several generations of a single family. The two extra male skulls were father and son, and in turn, grandfather and father of the second man to be buried in the grave. The skull of the young woman was the second man’s mother. In time, his son was buried at his side. 

You can read more about the Tarbat Discovery Programme here.