Ancient Pictish Cross Stone Slab ‘Complicates History’
A rare stone carved around 1,500-years-ago has been discovered in a Scottish cemetery. Showing a bull, pelicans and script from a bygone alphabet, cross-slab was created by the ancient “painted people” of Scotland - the Picts.
The Picts were Scotland’s indigenous people and are the ancestors of the modern Scottish nation. The newly discovered illustrated cross slab was unearthed in the Old Kilmadock cemetery near Doune, Scotland, last month. Stirling Council archaeologist Murray Cook told Live Science that the stone was carved by the Picts between 500 AD and 700 AD and that it “shines new light on the historic interaction between heritage and faith in the northern U.K.”
A Stone That Complicates An Otherwise “Tidy History”
The Picts are thought to be the descendants of the Caledonii peoples and other Celtic tribes recorded by Roman historians. And it was Roman writers who coined the name “Pict,” describing the people’s legendary tattoos and war paint which helped unify disparate indigenous forces in the battle against the Romans’ conquest of northern Britain.
Measuring 119 centimeters (47 inches) high and 82 centimeters (32 inches) wide, the so-called “Old Kilmadock stone” was created by the Picts who lived in northern and eastern Scotland in the early medieval period. The artifact features a rounded top, animal decorations and a strip of Ogham script (a medieval alphabet).
Mainstream historians generally agree that soon after the Picts sent the Romans home in the late 5th century, in 685 AD, they drove all remaining Britons out of Scotland. It is believed they consolidated and defended their Pictish empire until Vikings took hold in the northeast around the beginning of 10th century. However, this cross slab was found on the border of the Roman and Pictish empires: a fact which “complicates that tidy history.”
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The Pictish cross slab has an area on its underside containing what is thought to be ancient Ogham script. (Stirling Archaeology)
Evidence Of A Lost Pictish Monastery?
The researchers suspect the Pictish cross slab survived the course of time because it was later reused as an ornate grave covering in the Old Kilmadock cemetery. The cross slab is not only the first one unearthed in this region of Scotland, but the site archaeologists say it served “multiple functions,” which are indicated by three specific features. Kelly Kilpatrick, historian and Celticist at the University of Glasgow told Live Science that while the stone resembles a gravestone, “its rounded top and circular, knotted cross make the Old Kilmadock stone a rare type of Pictish cross slab.”
The stone also features an Ogham inscription, which most often records the names of powerful social elites. However, Kilpatrick said he will only be able to interpret the inscription once the stone is lifted because the ogham is currently face down in mud. Dr Cook did say the presence of the Ogham script reflects the “influence of Irish Christians' and he suspects it perhaps signifies a lost “Pictish monastery".
Pictish cross-slab found in Old Kilmadock cemetery, Doune, Scotland. (Rescuers of Old Kilmadock)
Deep-Diving the Symbols of the Pictish Cross Slab
The team of researchers say carefully carved birds represents pelicans, which illustrate the esoteric traditions of a pelican chewing its own flesh to provide food for its starving young. Cook explained that this symbol reflects “Christ and the Last Supper which becomes the Eucharist." Furthermore, a four-legged beast is probably a bull, representing “a family, an area or an old god".
The archaeologists think that the cross slab was originally “used as a public statue erected by a wealthy patron to celebrate both their Pictish heritage and their Christian faith.”
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The stone slab symbolism encompasses both Pictish and Christian themes. (Murray Cook / Stirling Council)
It was only in March this year that I wrote an Ancient Origins news piece on the discovery of another Pictish stone in Angus, Scotland, that was dubbed “the find of a lifetime.” Dr. James O’Driscoll of the University of Aberdeen said this stone was carved sometime between 500 AD and 800 AD and that it displays “a clash of classically pre-Christian Pictish symbols with newer Christian iconography”.
Similarly, the newly discovered stone stands testimony to transitional times in Scottish history when ancient Pictish symbols were given new Christian interpretations. While the Romans left Britain in the late 5th century, their most enduring legacy, Christianity, was scratched onto ancient Pictish stones in what was essentially a tool of conversion. For a smoother transition, early Christians didn’t change the Pict’s beliefs, they simply asked for a reinterpretation of their indigenous symbols. But when they got this figurative foot in the door, the floodgates of change opened and the Pictish empire eventually collapsed under Christianity, and invading Vikings, at the beginning of the 10th century.
Top image: Archaeologists excavate the Pictish cross slab in September 2022. Source: Murray Cook / Stirling Council
By Ashley Cowie