Picking Apart the Picts: The Value of Aberdeen's Newest Discovery
One of the greatest mysteries of Scotland lies in the northeastern portion of the country. Though named for the Scots because the titular medieval clan won a decisive battle, much of Scotland's history lies in the culture which thrived from the "Dark Ages" up until the medieval period (400-1000AD). This culture is the Picts, and unfortunately, outside of the United Kingdom, the name means little. Yet scholars continue in their determination to uncover the secrets of Pictish life and spread Pictish history beyond the British Isles. Most recently, excavations at Burghead in the northern region of Moray have provided exciting new information of Pictish domesticity.
Historical Clues of the Picts Damaged, Destroyed and Buried
The University of Aberdeen has been examining the site at Burghead since 2015 in the hopes of both learning more about the early medieval civilization, as well as salvaging what remains of the site from developmental damage inflicted in the 19 th century. The current town of Burghead was built atop the Pictish site, and the findings of the Burghead Bulls, Pictish artifacts and an underground well were unfortunately determined less important than the necessity of the new town and subsequent road. Because of this building program, archaeologists have feared that evidence of Pictish life at the site was likely damaged or destroyed, thus preventing archaeologists from examining the town in recent decades.
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Archaeological excavations at Burghead uncovered relics of the Picts. Credit: University of Aberdeen
More Than Just Any Pictish Fort
Yet the University of Aberdeen refused to lose hope. There was too much evidence that a treasure of Pictish life might still be buried in the dirt at Burghead. The remains of an upper enclosure, stone revetments and timber ramparts led to a belief that Burghead was more than a just any Pictish fort, but possibly the location of a northern Pictish stronghold called Fortriu. Medieval texts discussed Fortriu as highly valuable to Pictish politics, and the archaeological evidence of the Moray region seemed to indicate the likelihood of its position at Burghead. A minimum of four large stone carvings of Pictish bulls survived the 19 th century renovations of the town, and at least two dozen carvings resembling the Pictish style were uncovered in a pair of caves called Covesea only miles from Burghead. This literary and art historical evidence has long kept scholars from giving up the Pictish scavenger hunt at Burghead. Quite recently, efforts from the University of Aberdeen paid off, revealing the remnants of a Pictish longhouse.
The Pictish fort at Burghead, circa 6th Century AD. Reconstruction of the largest Pictish fort known ( megalithic.co.uk)
Domestic Life in a Royal Complex
The discovery of a domestic space within a royal complex might seem minute to those unfamiliar with excavations or early medieval political spaces. Aberdeen's Dr. Gordon Noble says it best, dictating that finding the longhouse may provide evidence of "how power was materialized within these important fortified sites." A longhouse within the complex of the Pictish leader indicates that the domestic and political spheres were connected, and that separation of the two would likely have been detrimental for reasons heretofore unknown. It is possible that the complex contained storerooms of cereals, grains and other agricultural produce necessary for survival; it might have incorporated an area for butchering animals both for meat and for hides, as seen at the monastery of Portmahomack. Though these two examples are suppositions by this author, the intention of posing the possibility of such undiscovered locations is to accentuate the point that a royal stronghold would have incorporated these more "common" and domicile aspects (and others), whereas a simple fort would have been much less inclusive as it would have not required the same necessities.
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Pictish bull carving, the "Burghead Bull", now in the British Museum ( CC by SA 3.0 )
What the University of Aberdeen has recently done is attempt to preserve the damage of these early discoveries, and search for finds that were not uncovered during the overhaul in the 19 th century and early 20 th centuries. Though the exterior perimeter of the site has been examined in the past, Noble points out that few scholars have attempted to examine the site's interior in recent decades. It was here the Aberdeen team chose to begin, and where the profound discovery of the Pictish longhouse was made a mere two years later. While most details of the Burghead longhouse still remain under wraps, there mere fact of discovery indicates that the secrets of the Picts may yet be buried in Scottish soils, waiting for dedicated archaeologists to strip away their covers and bring them into the light.
Top image: This is the "Celtic Cross" side of a Pictish stone in Aberlemno, Scotland. This stone dates from around 700AD, and the other side of it has some of the mysterious symbols used by the Picts, who lived in this part of Scotland at the time. ( Neil Howard / flickr )
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