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The Collessie Pictish stone and an interpretation of the warrior depicted on it. Source: Historic Environment Scotland, University of Aberdeen

Pictish Stones Expose Ancient Scotland’s Warrior Ethos

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A new paper published by Cambridge University Press , presents evidence of a “heroic warrior ethos” that had spread across Northern Europe during the first millennium AD. The researchers say that while evidence from burials of later prehistoric to early medieval dates are exceptionally limited, a recently discovered carved monolith depicting a warrior with weapons reveals a “martial ideology and warrior ethos” in late Roman and post-Roman Europe. Powerful Pictish stones are slowly revealing their secrets.

Very few Iron Age and early medieval burials have been found complete with weaponry in northern Britain, but the researchers say the newly discovered Tulloch Stone expresses “materialisations of a martial ideology.”

Found in September 2017 by workmen upgrading the A85/A9 junction outside Perth in central Scotland, a Scotsman article detailed the recovery of the large Pictish carved stone which is decorated with a “big nosed warrior” holding a spear and a club; which Mark Hall, of Perth Museum & Art Gallery, said was a type of Pictish carving that “had not seen before in the area.”

The Collessie stone: warrior figure (right) and symbol on adjacent face (left). (© Historic Environment Scotland, images DP 027894 and DP 027896)

The Collessie stone: warrior figure (right) and symbol on adjacent face (left). (© Historic Environment Scotland, images DP 027894 and DP 027896)

Photogrammetry and 3D Imaging an Ancient Warrior

The warrior depicted on the Tulloch Stone appears to be wearing a cloak and shoes with a pronounced shaven front scalp, which suggests he was a powerful local noble. The stone was probably warning travelers that they were entering his territory.

The Tulloch stone: a) photogrammetric image; b) hillshade model; c) interpretation. (University of Aberdeen)

The Tulloch stone: a) photogrammetric image; b) hillshade model; c) interpretation. (University of Aberdeen / Antiquity Pubications Ltd )

Now, the new team of researchers say the Tulloch figure not only “dramatically adds” to the corpus of first-millennium AD representational art from Scotland, but that it also reveals a lot about the regionally specific deployment of a warrior ethos in late Roman and post-Roman Europe.

Weighing approximately one ton, the oblong stone measures 1.94 meters (6.36 ft.) in height and 0.70 meters (2.30 ft.) in width. The 1.02 meter (3.35 ft.) tall damaged carving has been subjected to photogrammetry and 3D imaging, revealing a spear with a kite-shaped blade and a doorknob-style butt. What’s more, a series of faint lines were detected at the ankles suggesting the warrior is wearing tight leggings, the scientists wrote.

Royal Centers Marked by Pictish Stones

The discovery of the Tulloch stone carved warrior, according to the researchers, “brings into new relief” (which just has to be a deliberate pun) similar stones depicting weapon-bearing figures from elsewhere in eastern and northern Scotland.

One example is the incised figure on the Rhynie Stone in Aberdeenshire, which according to Canmore is a 1.35 meter (4.43 ft.) high block of whinstone depicting a human figure around 0.78 meters (2.56 ft.) in height carrying a shield; and just like the Tulloch Stone, “a spear with a doorknob-shaped butt.”

Rhynie stone (3): a) flash photography (© Michael Sharpe); b) hillshade model; c) interpretation.  (University of Aberdeen)

Rhynie stone (3): a) flash photography (© Michael Sharpe); b) hillshade model; c) interpretation.  (University of Aberdeen / Antiquity Pubications Ltd )

While there is limited evidence for what the Tulloch stone meant or represented within its original landscape , the researchers say the other similar examples like the Rhynie Stone are useful guides. The Rhynie stone, described above, was found in the 19th century near a stone burial cairn which dated to between the 5th to 7th centuries AD.

200 meters (656.17 ft.) to the south of the cairn two large square enclosures were excavated in 2013 by the Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project ( REAP). Within two adjacent square barrows the partial remains of a skeleton were discovered, and the archaeologists said these enclosures were “high-status Pictish sites.” What’s more, the site was an “early royal centre.”

The Collessie stone: a) photogrammetric image; b) slope model; c) interpretation. (University of Aberdeen)

The Collessie stone: a) photogrammetric image; b) slope model; c) interpretation. (University of Aberdeen / Antiquity Pubications Ltd )

Detailing an Elite and Royal Warrior Class

Similarly, the Tulloch Stone was found at a location overlooking the final stretch of the River Almond, which was a later Pictish ‘royal centre’ thought to have been the legendary Rathinveramon, where King Domnall mac Ailpín, King of the Picts , died in 862 AD. Furthermore, across the River Tay, Scone Abbey and Palace was the royal coronation site of the medieval kingdom of Alba and later Scotland.

In conclusion, the scientists say their study of the carved figures on the stone discovered in 2017 in the north-east of Scotland can be viewed as part of a broader European phenomenon most commonly identified through the practice of depositing weapons with the dead , wrote the researchers.

King Domnall mac Ailpín. (Public Domain)

King Domnall mac Ailpín. ( Public Domain )

Also, it seems that clearly defined “martial values” were amplified in stone monuments in a very public fashion and they seem to have been associated with important burial sites of the Pictish elites , revealing a volume of new data about an ancient “warrior ethos” and of its regional deployment in late Roman and post-Roman Europe.

The full report, ‘Warrior ideologies in first-millennium AD Europe: new light on monumental warrior stelae from Scotland’ is published by Antiquity Publications Ltd, DOI:  https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.214

Top Image: The Collessie Pictish stone and an interpretation of the warrior depicted on it. Source: Historic Environment Scotland, University of Aberdeen / Antiquity Pubications Ltd

By Ashley Cowie

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