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Striking Pictish Dragon Carving Discovered During Storms in Orkney

Striking Pictish Dragon Carving Discovered During Storms in Orkney

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An 8th century carving of a Pictish dragon (also called a Pictish beast) has been discovered on an eroding cliff face in Orkney, Scotland. The stone decoration is one of the most beautiful Pictish artifacts discovered in recent years.

The BBC reports that the stone is a rare find. The carving was created by a Pictish artist. The Picts were especially active in these lands between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD.

Kristy Owen, HES Senior Archaeology Manager, believes that the proper excavation of the stone provides archaeologists with a great opportunity to better understand the site’s development. The discovery may also help researchers understand other stones made by the Picts, and the symbols depicted upon them.

Three carvings of the Pictish dragon

Three carvings of the Pictish dragon: Martin's Stone (Val Vannet/CC BY SA 2.0), Maiden Stone (CC BY SA 3.0), and Strathmartine Castle stone. (Catfish Jim and the soapdish/CC BY SA 3.0)

Discussing the discovery, The Archaeology Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands wrote:

“A dragon motif tantalizingly peered out from the emerging stone slab and pointed to a possible Pictish (3rd-8th centuries AD) origin, but further examination was difficult due to the location. This carved stone was clearly significant and needed to be quickly recovered before the next forecast storms that were due to hit the following weekend.”

Time was short, but the erosion of the cliff caused by the stormy sea which surrounds Orkney made the archaeological site very dangerous. Nonetheless, the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), with support from Historic Environment Scotland, completed the difficult mission of recovering the artifact. The archaeologists needed to follow weather changes and track storms while carefully working to extract the unique stone.

The discovery was made by archaeologist Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark while he was examining the site of the East Mainland coast after it had been hit by a storm. During his explorations, he saw the stone, which had been ''excavated'' by the sea.

The stone discovered at the site.

The stone discovered at the site. (UHI Archaeology Institute)

Nick Card, Senior Projects Manager at ORCA told the Scotsman more about the stone’s importance. He said:

“Carved Pictish Cross Slabs are rare across Scotland with only 2 having been discovered in Orkney. This is therefore a significant find and allows us to examine a piece of art from a period when Orkney society was beginning to embrace Christianity.   Now that the piece is recorded and removed from site, we can concentrate on conserving the delicate stone carving and perhaps re-evaluate the site itself.”

The stone has been removed from the coastline and is currently scheduled for conservation. It may be put on display in the future, but this is uncertain. Archaeologists are seeking funding to re-evaluate the site and they hope that future discoveries will help to fill in the blanks in the history of this artifact.

An illustration of an archaeological "Pictish Beast" symbol from Scotland.

An illustration of an archaeological "Pictish Beast" symbol from Scotland. (Struthious Bandersnatch/CC BY SA 1.0)

Researchers find fascinating items related to the Picts every archaeological season. Knowledge about this mysterious culture is also increasing with the intensified work. Another great discovery related to Picts was made this past June. As Natalia Klimczak reported for Ancient Origins:

Archaeologists discovered a hoard of 100 silver items, including coins and jewelry, which come from the 4th and 5th centuries AD. The treasure belongs to the period of the Roman Empire’s domination in Scotland, or perhaps later.

Almost 200 years ago, a team of Scottish laborers cleared a rocky field with dynamite. They discovered three magnificent silver artifacts: a chain, a spiral bangle, and a hand pin. However, they didn't search any deeper to check if there were any more treasures. They turned the field into farmland and excavations were forgotten.

The surviving objects from the nineteenth-century Gaulcross hoard find.

The surviving objects from the nineteenth-century Gaulcross hoard find. (National Museums Scotland)

Archaeologists returned to the site and discovered a hoard (a group of valuable objects that is sometimes purposely buried underground) of 100 silver items. According to Live Science, the treasure is called the Gaulcross hoard. The artifacts belonged to the Pict people who lived in Scotland before, during, and after the Roman era.

The artifacts were found by a team led by Gordon Noble, head of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. When they started work in the field, they didn't think to search for more artifacts, but were trying to learn more about the context of the discovery made nearly two centuries ago. The researchers claim that the field also contained two man-made stone circles - one dating to the Neolithic period and the other the Bronze Age (1670 – 1500 BC).

Top Image: The front face of the Pictish Cross Slab. Source: Dr. Hugo Anderson-Whymark

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