Painted Pictish Pebbles

Painted Pictish Pebbles - Sling-shots or charm stones?

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Painted pebbles are a class of Pictish artifact found in northern Scotland dating from the first millennium AD. They are small rounded beach pebbles made of quartzite, which have been painted with simple designs in a dye which is now dark brown in colour. On Culture 24 , Stonemason Robbie Arthur and researcher Jenny Murray explore the meaning behind the archaeological enigma of the Pictish painted pebbles.

“Pictish painted pebbles are a bit of a conundrum. These decorated, white beach-worn quartz pebbles dating to the first millennium AD, have been the subject of much thought and discourse since the 19th century,” explained the researchers.

One theory regarding their use is that they were used as sling-stones that were thought to be of magical nature by the picts, a tribal confederation of Celtic peoples during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods living in ancient eastern and northern Scotland. The markings may simply have identified the owner of each stone.

However, local traditions suggest that they were 'charm-stones', often known as 'Cold-stones'. Such stones were used within living memory (1971) to cure sickness in animals and humans. Painted pebbles may have been one element of a Pictish shaman’s equipment, attributed with ancient magic powers.

In the Life of St. Columba it is recorded that Robert Burns, a famous Scottish poet, visited King Bridei in Pictland in around the year 565 AD and taking a white stone pebble from the River Ness he blessed it and any water it came into contact with would cure sick people. It floated in water and cured the king from a terminal illness. It remained as one of the great treasures of the king and cured many others.

Robbie Arthur and Jenny Murray carried out an experimental study on the material used in painting the pebbles and the methods of application of the design. They theorized that the stones had been painted with a dark substance resembling pitch, produced from the burning of peat, which gathers on the inside of stone-built flues in open hearths. In most areas where painted pebbles have been found, peat was generally used for domestic fires and also for smelting and smithing, due to the dearth of wood resources.

Arthur and Murray used the substance on quartzite stones and found that the colour matched that seen on Pictish stones.  The pebbles were left to dry overnight before the stability of the pigment was tested by scrubbing the stone with a coarse pot-scourer in hot water. The marks on the pebbles remained exactly the same and did not fade with further scouring.

While the experiment may have found the answer to how the stones were produced, the question still remains as to their purpose. Interestingly, painted pebbles have also been found in large numbers in the cave of Le Mas-d'Azil, Ariège department, France, and in the Pyrenees, south-western and southern France, and southern Italy. They have been date from a phase at the very end of the last Ice Age called the Azilian, between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Painted pebble Stage - Azilian

Painted pebble Stage: Azilian (9 500 to 12,000 years ago) Locality: Le Mas-d'Azil, Ariège. Source: Wikipedia

The numbers of Pictish painted pebbles in the archaeological record appears to have been limited perhaps suggesting they were of revered significance, held by a certain few within communities, explained Arthur and Murray. It is hoped that further discoveries may offer new clues about the origin and purpose of these intriguing artifacts.

Featured image: Painted Pictish pebbles. Source: Wikipedia

By April Holloway


It's remarkable that Robert Burns was able to join St Columba on his travels, considering that he was born in 1759 and Columba went on his wanders around 565AD.
I would have hoped for a bit more editorial rigour than this.

oonyuudou's picture

Glad I wasn't the only one slightly confused by the time travelling element but you never know, those charm stones could be more powerful than they look :)

ओं मणिपद्मे हूं

angieblackmon's picture

the way that they painted them reminds me of Henna. 

love, light and blessings


Justbod's picture

Really interesting! Particularly the method of painting the stones.

I like the 'charm stones' idea - would be interesting to know the context in which the stones have been discovered.


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