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Folio 7v contains an image of theVirgin and Child.

The Golden Age of the Christian Picts: Evidence for Religious Production at Portmahomack- Part 2

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(Read Part I)

The "Golden Age" of artisan efforts at the Tarbat monastery did not last nearly as long as the monastery of Iona; the industrial locations were burned in a site wide fire in the eighth or ninth century, indicating they had only been utilized for a couple centuries before the sites were rendered unusable. The artisan workshops were the first aspect of the monastery to suffer from the flames that would serve as the beginning of the end for the Pictish establishment identifiable by "multi-colored deposits—white, pink, red, orange, black, the garish remains of straw, heather and timber consumed by fire at high temperatures". It is believed that this fire was not accidental, as the numerous, despite that the hearths for vellum-production in Sector 1and those of the iron workers in Sector 2 would have made this likely. Rather, archaeologists believe this fire was intentional due to the historical records of raids along the eastern coast of Scotland during this time, and because the fragments of sculptured stones, such as the "Calf Stone", appear to have been broken and burnt almost immediately after they were completed, implying an act of violence. The most widely considered reason for the fire is one of the earliest raids of the Norsemen.

Tarbat Old Church near the Tarbat monastery

Tarbat Old Church near the Tarbat monastery (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Following this raid, the Parchment Maker's Hall in the Northern Quarter and the Smith's Hall in the Southern Quarter were repurposed for new practices—still intended to maintain both the ecclesiastical value of the site as well as the economic prominence, though the economic endeavors appear to have far outweighed the religious ones based on a different assortment archaeological evidence dated from the 9th century forward. Vellum production came to a grinding halt in Sector 1 after the fire, and was replaced by a new smithing workshop, "suggested by the crucibles, the moulds and the metals worked—is equivalent to the metal-working of the monastery in the southern field" though what the "objects suggested by the moulds have few allusions to sacred vessels, and more to personal ornaments such as pins". Furthermore, these new metalsmiths focused their endeavors in a different, simpler medium—by examining "the chemistry of the crucibles shows that objects were being cast in bronze and silver and…hints that gold was included in the repertoire". The shift of focus from iron to bronze in particular likely indicated that those who had taken over the industry at Portmahomack had a preference for simplicity instead of skill, implying a movement away from religious use in favor of secular utilitarian items.

Excavating the mill at Tarbat

Excavating the mill at Tarbat (Martin Carver)

Meanwhile, Sector 2's former Smith's Hall workshop was replaced by a new agricultural endeavor called a Kiln Barn, a "bag-shaped" area with a hearth providing evidence of a flue lined with stone and "six pairs of internal double-posts that supported the roof at the round east end" with a porch on the north side. What archaeologists have gathered from this architectural design is that the Kiln Barn was likely intended as a place for "the laying out, drying and malting of barley", transforming the previously religious industrial space into something more akin to a secular farm.

It has been postulated that following the attacks of the Norsemen in the 9th century, Portmahomack's religious purpose was replaced by a more commercial one—trade and industry became the primary focus of the inhabitants over meditative endeavors. While this theory is subject to controversy, the abrupt shift of production lends to the possibility: for example, if the monks had indeed been making their own manuscripts, the end of the Parchment-Makers' Hall certainly would have inhibited such a process. Following the fire at Portmahomack, the Norsemen became consistent players in northern Scotland, and what is known as the Viking Age took off soon after. Portmahomack's peninsula location would have made it an ideal port for trade or docking, and since those remaining at Portmahomack did not immediately rebuild the church as well, it is likely Portmahomack's purpose became far more secular, geared toward trade over religion.

                 Tarbat Ness Portmahomack Lighthouse

Tarbat Ness Portmahomack Lighthouse (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Though this paper specifically focuses on two particular sectors of Carver's excavation, these sectors provide an interesting hypothesis on the political and economic impact on Portmahomack at the end of the 8th and beginning of the 9th centuries (i.e., the end of Period 2 into Period 3 according to Carver). During this transition, the Norsemen of Scandinavia raided numerous monasteries of Britain and Ireland—Iona and Lindisfarne two of the most well-known. Portmahomack, however, was struck after the Norsemen had already taken control of the Orkney and Shetland Islands in the north of Scotland and Caithness, and was likely caught in the middle of the Norse-Pictish battles that took place in the "war zone" of Moray, a short distance south of Portmahomack. Thus an interesting question arises from the raid on Portmahomack and the Norsemen slowly gaining territorial footholds around the site. Was Portmahomack's shift from religion to commerce at the behest of these northern invaders?

Bishoprics in Medieval Scotland

Bishoprics in Medieval Scotland (CC BY-SA 3.0)

It certainly cannot be ruled out. As the fire appears to have been intentional rather than accidental, based in part on the newly finished charred and broken fragments of sculpture from the 8th and 9th centuries, it is not without merit to postulate that the monks left alive at Portmahomack shifted their endeavors to appease the Norse to avoid further harm. It should be noted that during this time Pictland was entirely Christian yet the Norsemen had not yet converted to Christianity. Thus, while rather tolerant of foreign religions, it would not be surprising if the surviving Pictish craftsmen turned their endeavors away from religion to ensure they were "not disposed to die with their former employers" (i.e., the monks), so that Portmahomack could maintain a necessary place and important role in Pictland despite the shifting politics that surrounded them.

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These postulations regarding the impact of the Norse on the abrupt shift of Portmahomack's industries cannot be proven with any certainty as evidence of Portmahomack in the historical records is nonexistent. Certain locations, such as "Torfness"—believed to be a reference to the Tarbat peninsula as a whole—have been considered possible references to the site, but Portmahomack is not definitively mentioned by name. However, radiocarbon dating and excavations, together with contemporary accounts of Norse invasions provide a strong likelihood for a northern influence on the affairs of Pictland.

Map of Pictland.

Map of Pictland. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Following the raid in the 8th or 9th century, the focus of the production sites became more concerned with items applicable to trade and manufacture. With the changing political tide in the 9th-11th centuries, it was likely invaluable to maintain Portmahomack's position as a coastal port to those who continued to dwell there after the Norse intrusion. As strangers in a strange land, the Norsemen would have gained far more from Portmahomack as an agriculturally focused site rather than religious, as the monastery was ideally located between various sites falling under Norse command. Food would have been far more important to the Norse than the parchment produced on site during the previous centuries. By the time the Norse earls of Orkney came to be the dominate power at the Tarbat peninsula in the 11th century (Christians by then), Portmahomack had long been subjected to Norse influence.

Top image: Folio 7v contains an image of theVirgin and Child. Source: Public Domain

By Riley Winters


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Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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