Hillfort Revealed As One Of The Largest Pictish Settlements in Scotland
The Tap o' Noth is a whale-backed hill about 20 miles west of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, close to the village of Rhynie in Scotland, and on its summit is the second highest hillfort in Scotland, by the same name. Enclosed by a well-preserved vitrified wall measuring approximately 100 x 30 meters (328 x 98 ft) archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have announced that this spectacular hillfort, thought to be abandoned in the Iron Age, was actually also a Pictish settlement and has been revealed as one of “the largest ancient settlements ever discovered in Scotland.”
Having excavated evidence suggesting more than 4,000 people may have lived in over 800 huts, radiocarbon dating suggests the fort was constructed in the fifth to sixth centuries AD, and that the settlement on the hill may date back as far as the third century AD. This means the fort was built by the Picts, the confederation of Celtic-speaking peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.
And while Pictish history is generally only inferred from early medieval texts and elaborately carved Pictish stones. At the height of this fort, the archaeologists say it “rivaled the largest known post-Roman settlements in Europe.”
The "Craw Stane", a Pictish symbol stone depicting a salmon and an unknown animal, with Tap o’ Noth in background. (Ray Berry / CC BY-SA 2.0)
An Iconic and Gargantuan Defensive Ancient Structure
Consisting of two main components; a massive rectangular fort and surrounding wall, the former is located at the summit of the hill and is today a mound of rubble about 15 meters (50 ft) thick. And while the interior of the fort was quarried the rubble still stands to three meters high in patches.
According to Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland, from the summit of Tap o’ Noth the observer can see all the way to the Moray Firth to the north and to the North Sea in the east, which means this was a strategically significant prehistoric location. But what is called an “iconic hillfort” remains substantially unexcavated. In 1891 the first archaeological test trench was opened across the wall of the fort to establish its width, but the site remained greatly untouched until the 1980s and the site was excavated in 2011 and laser scanned by archaeologists at the University of Aberdeen in 2015.
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Researchers excavating around a construction at the Tap o’ Noth site. (University of Aberdeen)
Professor is “Absolutely Stunned” with “Mind Blowing Results”
Since 2011 archaeologists from the university have conducted extensive fieldwork in the surrounding area and Prof Gordon Noble, who leads the research, said samples had only been taken from the site to help place the most recent discoveries into a broader geographical context. Dr. Noble described the unexpected new results as the “most surprising” of his career and he said he was “absolutely stunned” when he read the “truly mind-blowing” results.
Why Dr Noble is so excited is because the realization that Tap o’ Noth fort is both Pictish and housed around 4000 people “shakes the narrative of this whole time period” demonstrating just how little archaeologists about how people lived at this settlement around the time the Pictish tribes consolidated.
However, while archaeologists are learning more about the size of Tap o' Noth fort, and now know it housed more than 4000 people, what remains a tightly-locked mystery is why or how the walls of the fort became fused together, or vitrified.
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Pictish Scotland Was A Vitrification Nation
The fort’s ramparts were originally constructed with stones interlaced with a timber frame but a large amount of vitrification is present, indicating that the walls had been set alight and the resulting intense heat had caused the stones to fuse together.
In a 2017 Canmore entry, Gordon Noble, Cathy MacIver and James O ’Driscoll of the University of Aberdeen said a large number of vitrified forts exist in Scotland but archaeologists “don't yet know why they were fired.” Many have suggested vitrification was a construction technique, but fusing stones with heat “did not uniformly make the walls stronger” according to the university scientists who suggest the vitrification occurred during a conflict, where a potent regional symbol was deliberately damaged. But whatever the reason for burning the fort, Gordon Noble says “it must have been an awe-inspiring sight.”
What the researchers must now do is figure out how the fort and its inhabitants interacted with the surrounding landscape and neighbors in the greater Pictish community, and in a BBC news article about the discovery, Aberdeenshire Council leader Jim Gifford said the find was of “huge significance.” The Councilor added he is hopeful that once the current COVID-19 restrictions start to be lifted visitors from far and wide will flock to Aberdeenshire to explore this incredible find.
Top image: Tap o’ Noth hillfort in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland is one of the country’s biggest. Source: University of Aberdeen
By Ashley Cowie