Archaeologists in Scotland investigate the mystery of the Rhynie Man
In 1978 a farmer ploughing his fields discovered a 6 foot (1.8 meter) high carved stone depicting a man carrying an axe. The monumental carving turned out to be an ancient Pictish artifact which was given the name ‘the Rhynie Man’ by local people after the name of the village nearby. However, since the discovery of the stone, archaeologists have largely remained mystified about its origins and history.
The six–foot boulder depicts the a man clad in a sleeved garment. He seems to be walking and carrying an axe. The art is believed to date back to about 700 AD. Credit: Rhynie Community Facilities Development Charitable Trust
Detail, The Rhynie Man stone. Credit: University of Aberdeen
Fortunately, a team of archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen is leading a dig to discover more about the stone in the area where it was originally found, at Barflat. Near the site is the Craw Stane, another Pictish standing stone.
The "Craw Stane", a Pictish symbol stone depicting a salmon and an unknown animal. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
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It’s believed that the stone dates from the fifth or sixth century. The figure depicted on the Rhynie Man stone is bearded, has a large pointed nose and wears a headdress.
“We did significant work at Rhynie in 2011/12 and identified that the area was a high-status and possibly even royal Pictish site” said Dr Gordon Noble, a Senior Lecturer in archaeology at the university. “We found many long distance connections such as pottery from the Mediterranean, glass from France and Anglo-Saxon metal work with evidence to suggest that intricate metalwork was produced on site. Over the years many theories have been put forward about the Rhynie Man. However, we don’t have a huge amount of archaeology to back any of these up so we want to explore the area in which he was found in much greater detail to yield clues about how and why he was created, and what the carved imagery might mean.”
Some people think that the Rhynie Man may have been a depiction of Esus, a Celtic god associated with trees and forestry . Some of the Pictish stones in the area also have ogham inscriptions on them. Later stones, dating from the sixth to ninth centuries were carved as Celtic crosses, remnants of the time when the Picts converted to Christianity.
The Picts themselves were a mysterious people about whom not much is known, despite occasional references in works by classical scholars. They have gained a popular reputation as savage and wild warriors, but when the Norse peoples occupied the northern regions including what is now Scotland, the Picts had already long passed into mythology as part of Celtic ‘fairy’ lore. As with another mysterious indigenous group, the Druids, the Picts never wrote anything down, which means there are no written records to assist archaeologists involved in investigating them.
However, the Roman orator Eumenius wrote that the Britons regarded the Picts, alongside the Irish (the Picti and Hiberni), as enemies and that they went into battle semi-naked. It is more likely that the word Pict derives from a blanket term applied by the Romans. Its literal meaning is ‘painted people’ on account of the Pictish tradition of tattooing their bodies or painting themselves with blue woad warpaint.
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A Pict looking out to sea as depicted in a 19 th century book ( Wikimedia Commons )
Pictland was never a unified region but was more likely formed from a series of kingdoms or federations, each with its own ruler.
The team of archaeologists have been excavating the site since August 20 and will present previous finds at a public open day on August 29, as well as discuss some of their initial ideas about the site. The Rhynie Man may have stood at the entrance to the fort but the archaeologists want to try and identify the exact location in the hope it will provide some insights into what exactly the role of the stone was.
One clue is that the type of axe that the carved figure carries is of a type that has previously been linked to ritual animal sacrifice. This means the stone may have been the focus of ceremonies and rituals at particular events held for high-status individuals. This in turn may help to provide some further clues about the imagery.
According to Aberdeenshire Council Archaeologist, Bruce Mann, the investigation is also helping people to learn about the history of Aberdeenshire including what part the Picts may have played in the early development of the area.
Featured image: The countryside of Scotland, formed originally by the joining together of a number of smaller kingdoms – such as those of the Picts, Dalriada, Strathclyde and others. (Arjayempee, Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 ). Detail, The Rhynie Man.