Art & Soul, BBC Two Scotland

Monday 15 January 2007, 9pm

An ancient Scottish temple cave – dedicated to the child-dead – has been “brought to life” for new BBC Scotland series Art & Soul, starting on Monday 15 January 2007.

According to archaeologist Ian Shepherd, 3,000 years ago, people from across the North of Scotland, the islands and possibly even Ireland, may have brought their dead children to Sculptor’s Cave, near Lossiemouth, Moray.

His excavations have led him to believe not only was the cave dedicated to children, but ancient people placed some of the heads of their beloved infants on poles at the doorway.

Ian Shepherd says: “The graphics in the BBC’s Art & Soul series are, as far as I know, the first time modern eyes will have seen a depiction of the cave as it would have been 3,000 years ago.”

The graphics for BBC Scotland show the opening of the cave – with the indicators of its religious significance, the severed heads of dead children – and into its dark interior to a sacred pool strewn with Bronze age treasures.

Presenter Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, says: “Our earliest religions, our earliest rituals, are dark in every sense. This cave on the Moray coast hides a ghoulish, 3,000-year-old secret.”

Although the severed heads are a macabre memorial to modern eyes, there is no sign that these were ritual killings.

Ian Shepherd says: “From what we can tell, these were simply people mourning their dead children.”

His excavation in 1979 uncovered skeletal parts from six children, including skull parts in the doorway, which from the way they lay indicated there had at one time been fleshy heads on poles.

An excavation 50 years previously in 1929, by classical archaeologist Sylvia Benton, uncovered thousands of bone parts largely, she noted, from juveniles.

However, it wasn’t until Ian Shepherd’s dig that the purpose of the cave became apparent.

Called the Sculptor’s Cave because of ancient inscriptions at the entrance, the location of the cave has been known since Victorian times, but it is very remote.

It can only be accessed from the land at low tide along a mile of shingle beach or by scaling the cliff face. The BBC Scotland production team accessed it from the water by boat.

Three thousand years ago it may even have been an island, which would have reinforced its spiritual status.

Richard Holloway says: “Getting into the cave from the sea was exhilarating, if a little scary, but it underpinned the amazing sense of this place.

“It’s a story that both thrills and appals. Yet it seems to demonstrate an early fascination with what came after death.

“Three thousand years ago, our ancestors came to this dark, foreboding cave to consecrate their child-dead.

“In the depths of the cave, there’s the first glimpse of the trapped pool of water – this was the bridge to another world, the high altar of a Bronze age basilica.

“The standing stones at Callanish are older but they suggest a multitude of interpretations, and for me the picture about spirituality and ancient Scottish religious art becomes clearer in this cave.

“We know this place had spiritual meaning and we know it was decorated by human hand.”

Bronze artefacts found in the cave originally come from both the eastern and western areas of Scotland, even possibly Ireland, indicating the cave was probably sacred to people from across the North of Scotland.

Other artefacts placed there originated in Continental Europe, which suggest these were a sophisticated trading people.

Art & Soul, a three-part series, traces the often explosive relationship between Scottish art and religion from the Picts to Protestant destruction of Catholic art, from Howson to Bellany, from standing stones to photography.

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