A Human Touch: Is this 1500-year-old Hand Print a Pict, a Viking or Another?
Scottish media is reporting a remarkable find of hand and knee prints that may have belonged to an individual from an enigmatic civilization. It is believed that the prints are those of a Pictish smith and were discovered in the remains of his workshop. The find was uncovered in the island of Rousay in the Orkney Islands off the Northern coast of Scotland. This discovery is being hailed as unique and allowing us to have a better understanding of a key archaeological site.
The Knowe of Swandro
The discovery was made in the Orkney Islands which were very important in the Iron Age in Britain. It was later part of the mysterious Pictish kingdom, which ruled much of modern Scotland for centuries. The Picts are best known for resisting the Romans and they appeared to have developed a very sophisticated society in the wind-swept Orkney Islands. The islands have a rich archaeological heritage and in recent years archaeologists have unearthed an important settlement, the Knowe of Swandro. This is an extensive settlement that was first built in the Neolithic period and later occupied by the Picts, Vikings, and Norse.
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A chambered tomb that is being investigated at the Knowe of Swandro. (Image: Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust )
The discovery of the prints
The knee and the handprints were discovered by a team under the direction of Dr. Julie Bond and Dr. Stephen Dockrill, both of the University of Bradford. Many of the team are students from Bradford University and the project is being funded by the Swandro Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust with the help of sponsors and donations. At present experts are excavating and recording the settlements with great urgency before it is inundated by the sea. The site is particularly at risk from the many Atlantic storms that batter the island in the long winter, months.
The imprints were found in a half-ruined 1500-year-old smith’s workshop. It is a small cellular building, partly set underground and it was entered via a curved flight of steps. This was to minimize the heat in the smithy during the metalworking process, and it was curved to lessen the light that came into the room to allow the smith to see the color of flames. The workshop was dominated by a set of upright stones that formed the hearth, where an intense fire would have burned. The building is generally well-preserved and many of the fittings, that were made of stone, such as the pivot stone, have survived.
The metal workshop with anvil stones and hearth is likely 1500 years old. (Image: Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust )
STV reports that Stephen Dockrill stated that work by an expert on ancient metalworking “has demonstrated that a coppersmith worked in the building”. This was based on tests on the residue and debris on the floor of the stone building. The analysis of these together with their distribution allowed the experts to establish that the smith worked mainly near the hearth in between two stones that served as anvils. As it was predominantly copperwork with just some iron work, it allowed expert Gerry McDonnell to postulate that the site must have been pretty substantial in order to support copper work which produced mainly decorative items.
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The hand print is clearly visible on the left of the stone. (Image: Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust )
The imprints were uncovered under one of the smith’s anvils. The Scotsman Newspaper reports that when the team ‘’lifted the larger stone anvil and cleaned it; we could see carbon imprints of the smith’s knees and hands.” The sooty outlines of the prints are probably related to the man’s work. A chemical analysis of the prints is expected to help us understand what was on the smith’s hand and how they became imprinted on a stone. Archaeologists believe that the find is an exciting one, Dr. Julia Bond is quoted by the Heritage Daily as stating that the ‘handprint is so personal and individual that you can almost feel the presence of the coppersmith’. There needs to be a further investigation of the imprints that would allow them to be dated but the working assumption is that they are from the period of Pictish control of Orkney. The analysis of residue from crucibles that were found gives several possibilities for who was the smithy. It could have been a Viking smith making brass in a Pictish building or a Pictish smith working with zinc when it was not known to be in the area.
The significance of the carbon prints
The discovery of the prints was one that was totally unexpected and helps to bring a human touch to the history of the island. It helps us to understand the working life of a smith, one of the most important trades in ancient societies. The archaeologists are now in a race against time to record as much as possible about the smithy before it is submerged by the sea.
Top image: The anvil stone from Isle of Rousay with handprint. Source: Swandro - Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust
By Ed Whelan