Faces from the past revealed at Whithorn

Talking 3D digital reconstructions of a young 14th-century woman and a cleric with a cleft palate  were unveiled as part of this year’s Wigtown Book Festival.

The Whithorn Trust Event, brought together three of the experts whose remarkable work is bringing us face to face with people buried at Whithorn Priory, in Galloway, in the Middle Ages.

The event, titled Bishops, Bones and Burials, also saw the first viewing of the recently completed third reconstruction, that of Bishop Walter of Whithorn, who died in 1235.

Dr Adrian Maldonado of National Museums Scotland, who leads the Cold Case Whithorn project, was joined by cranio-facial anthropologist Dr Chris Rynn and Dr Kirsty Dingwall of Headland Archaeology for the talk. All have been pivotal to a project which has been able to reveal fascinating insights into the lifestyles, diets and health of people from Scotland’s distant past.

But the research into the skeletons has raised as many questions as it has answered. For example, why was the young woman in her 20s buried on a bed of shells?

The unknown male has also challenged conventional wisdom. The positioning of his grave, in an area close to the high altar of the cathedral, suggests that he was a cleric of high status. Yet it was often thought that someone with a cleft palate would not be able to rise through the religious hierarchy because of the difficulty they would have intoning the Mass.


Why was this unknown man with a cleft lip buried near the high alter?

Dr Maldonado said: “The famous excavations at Whithorn were a huge leap forward in the archaeology of Christianity, and amazingly, they continue to bring new insights into life in medieval Scotland.

“These graves were discovered decades ago, when they could not have anticipated the kinds of questions we can now ask. In addition to generating critical new scientific data about health and diet in the past, the people of medieval Whithorn continue to inspire stories.

“What could be a better testament to the value of curating archaeological collections in museums?”

The project to reconstruct the faces began as part of a revisiting of Whithorn’s archaeological archive, known as Cold Case Whithorn. This has resulted in 52,000 items deriving from Whithorn’s excavation being re-housed and re-examined and, in some cases, studied in much greater depth.

This includes radiocarbon dating of some human remains carried out by Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, East Kilbride, stable isotope testing by Dr Shirley Curtis Summers (University of Bradford), ancient DNA analysis by the Crick Institute, London, and now facial reconstruction by cranio-facial anthropologist, Dr Chris Rynn.

The research shows that the man with the cleft palate, who was buried among priests and bishops, grew up locally and had a mainly terrestrial diet like other local folk, while the bishops had rich diets with lots of fish protein.

His grave was an elaborate mortared stone cist like the bishops around him, but if he was buried dressed or with other objects, they did not survive.

The woman has not yet been tested for diet and mobility. She was buried with the rest of the laypeople in what later became the Glebe Field.

Bishop Walter was a portly man, with a diet high in fish, and was found to have been raised in south west Scotland but was not local to Whithorn. He was buried dressed including a gold finger ring and a wooden crozier, marking his status as a bishop.

Bishop Walter dined well with high fish protein in his diet.

National Museums Scotland and Dumfries and Galloway Council Museums Service loaned the skulls of the three medieval people for 3D scanning by Dr Adrian Evans at University of Bradford. They were then reconstructed digitally and given lifelike faces.

Voiceovers were created by Urbancroft Films of Glasgow to accompany films of the faces. The new 3D animations will now go on show along with the one of Bishop Walter at the Whithorn Trust Visitor Centre which holds a remarkable collection of archaeological finds and tells the story of a burgh known as Scotland’s “cradle of Christianity”.

Julia Muir Watt, the trust’s Development Manager, said: “The chance to see and imagine that we can hear these three people from so many centuries ago is a remarkable way to help us understand our history and ancestry.

“It’s always a challenge to imagine what life was really like in medieval times, and these reconstructions are a brilliant way to engage with who these people from our past really were, of their everyday lives, their hopes and their beliefs.”

Whithorn Priory, through the pend, has been a key place of pilgrimmage for over 1000 years.

The event also saw the launch of a series tales inspired by the woman and the unknown cleric, some of which have been written by students from the Douglas Ewart High School as part of Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022.

The three winning stories were:

· Duncan from the high school imagines the man with the cleft palate approaching Whithorn on pilgrimage and the looks of people as they see his deformity; however he finds work in the cathedral as a gravedigger. The man finds peace and acceptance when a feather, representing his late mother, floats down from above onto the altar.

· The second is by Eloise, also at the school, who imagines the 20-year-old woman as a servant who falls in love with her mistress: they visit the beach and walk over the shells. As her young mistress is married off, she walks into the tide.

· The adult winner is Heidi Hunt, who builds her tale around a real historical incident in the 1430s in which a ship was nearly wrecked. The young woman is saved and reaches Whithorn to give thanks, but dies shortly afterwards and is buried on a bed of shells.

Whithorn is a place of immense historical significance – a place evidencing Christian practice from at least the 600s. The cult of St Ninian has flourished at Whithorn for over 1,000 years, attracting pilgrims, travellers, traders and royalty.

The priory, which is now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, was built by Premonstratensian monks in the 12th century. It later became a cathedral church – but its period of wealth and glory ended with the Protestant Reformation of the 1560s after which it became a parish church.

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