Archaeologists are claiming a highly significant discovery in the Highlands in the form of a 4000-year-old sheepskin that is believed to be the earliest surviving example in Britain.

The find was recovered from a burial cist in Spinningdale, on the east coast of Sutherland, which was discovered when a septic tank was being installed in 2011. Since then archaeologists have been undertaking a sophisticated analysis of what they found and are only now publishing the resulting data.

Glasgow-based Guard Archaeology, which provides commercial archaeological services, found a Bronze Age burial site containing a skeleton in a crouched position, with the remains of a sheepskin that may have been wrapped around the body.

It was found in a stone cist, built within a substantial pit. The skeleton was that of a middle-aged adult female, aged 35-50 and with signs of spinal joint disease.

Iraia Arabaolaza, who led the Guard team, said: “A radiocarbon date of 2051-1911 BC and 2151-2018 BC was obtained from a bone and charcoal fragments respectively, placing the cist in the early Bronze Age period. […] A tripartite food vessel urn, of Early Bronze Age date, was placed to the west of her skull, but what made this burial a particularly extraordinary site was the discovery of sheepskin and wool recovered from under the skeletal remains”.

On the sheepskin, the archaeologist stated: “The sheepskin around the left arm is the first sample of this kind in Scotland and is the first known example discovered from a Bronze Age burial in Britain. […] There have been two other samples of Bronze Age wool found in the British Isles, but none of potential sheepskin are known. Findings of hide or fur are few and far between in Britain but are often assoc­iated with ‘rich burials’ of adult inhumations.”

The sheepskin might have survived as the depth of the pit had put it under or near the water table, not allowing it to be exposed to a greater degree to the air.

According to Ms Arabaolaza, the radiocarbon dating of the cist corresponded with the date of the food urn buried with the body. The vessel contained carbonised material of non-botanical origin, unidentified cremated bone and part of a small ring. “These were probably placed to assist the individual’s journey into the next world and indicate belief in the afterlife.”, she said.