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Outline of a Pictish burial found near Muir of Ord, Black Isle, Scotland.           Source: Tarradale Through Time

1,400-year-old Pictish Remains Finally Unearthed in Scotland

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Human remains found at what is thought to be a Pictish-era cemetery near Muir of Ord on the Black Isle in the north east of Scotland, have led archaeologists to believe they belong to an ancient Pictish woman. The discovery came as something of a surprise as the scientists say they did not expect to find any human remains in the acidic soil at the site, and the discoverer talked to press about his “eureka moment”.

The dig was conducted by the North of Scotland Archaeological Society ( NOSAS) and archaeologist Steven Birch told The Scotsman that his discovery had been made on the final day of the dig. He had been working at one particular grave and said he was “certain there had been something there”.

Aerial view of trench 3 where the remains were found. (Andy Hickle / Tarradale Through Time)

Aerial view of trench 3 where the remains were found. (Andy Hickle / Tarradale Through Time )

Eureka!

It’s really kicking off in the north of Scotland. In August this year I wrote an Ancient Origins news piece about archaeologist Anne MacInnes discovering a massive Pictish symbol stone buried within an early Christian church in Dingwall, less than 10 miles away. Then in September I wrote another article discussing a  new study  published by researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute and MRC Human Genetics unit which presented the first comprehensive genetic map of Scottish people’s DNA showing genetic links between modern Scots and the Picts.

Now, after aerial photographs suggested the presence of a burial ground , archaeologists from NOSAS spent two weeks uncovering barrows (earthen mounds) over ancient graves to get to the remains of the Pictish person. Mr Birch says he found the human remains near blackened patches in the soil which enticed him to trowel back at that level and to his “astonishment” the faint outlines of the Pict’s skeleton emerged after 1400 years.

The faint outlines of a Pict emerged form the dirt. (Tarradale Through Time)

The faint outlines of a Pict emerged form the dirt. ( Tarradale Through Time )

Mr Birch told reporters “I was able to find the legs and the feet, which appear to have been bound together before burial”. He then identified the spinal column, the upper arms and shoulders and then the relatively well preserved skull which had partly collapsed. Mr Birch added that he has been an archaeologist for a long time and over the years he has made some important discoveries, "but this was a real eureka moment for me.”

High Status Woman?

This Black Isle excavation is one of the largest Pictish cemeteries in Scotland and is located within the old Pictish province of Fortriu which existed between the 4th and 10th centuries. While traditionally Fortrui was thought to have been located in and around Strathearn in central Scotland, James E. Fraser suggests it was in the north of Scotland, centered on Moray and Easter Ross, where most early Pictish monuments are located.

Professor Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen is an advisor at the excavation and he told press that Tarradale is one of the largest recorded Pictish barrow cemeteries known about and that the Tarradale Through Time project did a “fantastic job” revealing and excavating part of the cemetery. It is known that the Picts were a matrilineal society and it is thought maybe this person was a woman of “high status” for she had been buried in what NOSAS say would have been a “very large and imposing barrow.”

It is thought this person was a woman of high status. (Tarradale Through Time)

It is thought this person was a woman of high status. (Tarradale Through Time )

Highland Quickening

I always find it funny when scientists play with such wholly unscientific subjects such as fate, destiny and superstition. In this instance, Dr Eric Grant, the leader of the archaeological project, told the Scotsman “It is a bit of a joke amongst archaeologists” that the best finds "always come on the last day” and suggests this outcome has been proved on many occasions, he said “A few years ago the remains of a Pictish man was discovered in a cave at Rosemarkie , again on the last day of the dig.”

And it is not only in the far north of Scotland that archaeologists are adding to our understanding of the Picts, for according to a report in  The Scotsman  (on "August 23rd” 2018) Aberdeen University archaeologists discovered a “very significant Class I Pictish symbol stone ”, similar to the one discovered in Dingwall, featuring carved symbols including a triple disc with cross bar, a mirror, and a notched rectangle with two internal spirals.

Pictish symbol stone found in the River Don in Dyce, Aberdeen, Scotland. (Image: HES)

Pictish symbol stone found in the River Don in Dyce, Aberdeen, Scotland. (Image: HES)

With human remains being recovered in the north , symbol stones being found in the south and DNA being studied by computers , we are experiencing a “Quickening” in our knowledge of how these Highland Picts both lived and died.

Top image: Outline of a Pictish burial found near Muir of Ord, Black Isle, Scotland.           Source: Tarradale Through Time

By Ashley Cowie

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