Solving Scotland's oldest murder mystery

A COLD-case murder investigation has uncovered new evidence of a killing - 2,000 years after a man's remains were dumped in a shallow grave.

The discovery of the human skeleton was made last year in the remains of an Iron Age workshop near Mine Howe, an underground chamber in Orkney.

Subsequent tests have shown the man, who was aged between 25 and 35, met a violent end and was probably stabbed to death, before his body was disposed of in a rubbish tip.

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Archaeologists are now considering whether he was a battlefield hero or if he was slaughtered as a sacrifice.

The man was found in a crude grave barely big enough to contain him. The toes of his right foot had been bent back and protruded over the side of the pit. Other toes were hacked off and found under his back.

Bradford University's archaeology department has carried out an examination of the body. Bone specialist Vikki Ewens found a diamond-shaped puncture wound in the man's left shoulder blade. Yesterday, Nick Card from the Orkney Archaeological Trust, said radiating fractures extending from this wound indicated it was created by a high-velocity blow, perhaps caused by a spear or arrow.

He said: "Cut marks were clustered on the left side of the body, on his ribs, shoulder, hand and arm. These seem to have been delivered by a sharp, metal weapon, probably a short sword or long dagger, wielded with some force.

"It was these cuts that probably resulted in the man's death, as the position of the marks on the bones implied damage to his thorax, left lung and kidney." The investigations have helped experts build up a picture of the final moments of the man's life.

Mr Card said: "The concentration of injuries to the man's left side indicates an attack to the defensive side of his body, suggesting the victim was armed when the attack happened. It seems likely that the projectile injury was the first wound, inflicted from some distance behind, perhaps to slow him down. The spear or arrow may have pinned the shoulder bone, damaging muscles, but did not penetrate deeply enough to be fatal."

However, as the victim was staggering away from the blow, his attacker moved in for the kill. Mr Card added: "Standing beside or slightly behind him, he slashed at the victim who raised his left arm in a final attempt to fend off the blows."

Archaeologists can only speculate on a motive for the killing. Mr Card said: "We don't know whether he died on a battlefield or whether he was murdered at Mine Howe. He might have been killed as a sacrifice or offering to the gods of the underworld."