A Roman reference to Pictish tattoos

Stilicho

Flavius Stilicho, with his wife and son, portrayed on an ivory carving of c.395 AD, now in Monza Cathedral, Italy. (photograph from L’art Byzantin, 1932)


At the end of the fourth century AD, the western half of the Roman Empire was in serious decline. Barbarian invasions by Vandals, Goths and other Germanic peoples were a constant drain on imperial resources. Internal revolts likewise removed any hope of stability or recovery. The emperor Honorius, whose reign spanned the years 384 to 423, was barely able to cling onto power. He relied heavily on the support of his father-in-law and former guardian, Flavius Stilicho, a highly respected general who was himself of Vandal ancestry.

A prominent figure at the imperial court was the poet Claudian (Claudius Claudianus) who was close to both Honorius and Stilicho. He composed panegyric poetry in praise of both men, boosting their reputations while denigrating those of their political opponents. In modern parlance we would probably call him a spin doctor. In one poem, composed in May or June of 402, Claudian refers to a great gathering of Roman troops by Stilicho, who was preparing for a battle against Gothic invaders in Italy. Among the assembled forces was a unit that had seen service in Britain:

‘there came the legion, shield of the frontier Britons,
check of the grim Scot,
whose men had watched the life leave the tattoos on the dying Pict.’

Contemporary sources imply that there were many clashes between Romans and Picts, from the late third century to the beginning of the fifth. Several legions were part of the permanent garrison of Britain during this period and would have seen action on the northern frontier. Also, other legions came and went, usually to bolster the garrison in times of crisis or to participate in one-off campaigns. The identity of the legion mentioned by Claudian is therefore unknown.

But what makes these lines of verse especially fascinating is the reference to Pictish tattoos.

The precise meaning of the name ‘Picts’ (Latin: Picti) is uncertain. It seems to be connected with pictures of some kind and is usually translated by modern historians as ‘The Painted Ones’. The likeliest explanation is that it refers to a particular custom practiced by certain groups of people in northern Britain. Tattooing is probably the custom in question.

Pricking an inked design on the skin, as opposed to daubing or painting, had evidently been common practice in pre-Roman Britain, before the stamp of Mediterranean culture made it unfashionable. It may have been maintained thereafter among native communities living outside the Empire, in the untamed northern lands beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Further south, in the Romanised part of Britain, tattoos probably came to be regarded as old-fashioned and uncouth, a form of body ornamentation favoured by hairy savages who lurked beyond the reach of civilisation.

Pictish warrior

A Pictish warrior, from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

At some point, probably in the third century, soldiers in the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall coined the term Picti. This may have originated as a derogatory term for any group of suspicious-looking natives prowling on the far side of the Wall, whether they had tattoos or not. The name caught on, finding its way from army slang into highbrow literature. It eventually narrowed to describe the inhabitants of what are now northern and eastern Scotland. By c.600 AD, and for reasons unknown, these people were using Picti as a collective name for themselves. Despite its origins in the vocabulary of their ancient enemies, they presumably regarded it as a convenient label in their quest to establish a new ‘national’ identity. Whether any seventh-century Picts still tattooed their bodies is, however, a matter of debate. I’m inclined to think some of them probably did.

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Notes and references

Here is the original Latin text from Claudian’s poem:

venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis,
quae Scotto dat frena truci ferroque notatas
perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras

*ferroque notatas….figuras —> literally ‘iron-marked figures’

In another poem, Claudian seems to credit Stilicho with a victory over the Picts. There is no mention of such a campaign in other sources, so it might be an example of political ‘spin’. It is unlikely that Stilicho ever visited Britain. He was mainly concerned with Italy and the eastern Mediterranean.

I discussed Stilicho’s alleged Pictish campaign in an article published 20 years ago:
Tim Clarkson, ‘Stilicho, Claudian and the Picts’ Pictish Arts Society Journal, 6 (Autumn 1994), 27-30

My views were largely based on an earlier study:
Molly Miller, ‘Stilicho’s Pictish War’ Britannia, 6 (1975), 141-5
(Miller is probably better known to readers of this blog for her articles on the North British kingdoms of the sixth century)

The Scots mentioned by Claudian were as likely to have hailed from Ireland as from the ancestral Scottish homelands in Argyll. The Latin word Scotti seems to have been another ethnic term from the repertoire of Roman army slang. It was probably applied to any group of raiders who spoke Gaelic. I touched on this topic in an older blogpost on Scottish origins.

For a detailed analysis of Claudian’s poetry, see Alan Cameron’s Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford, 1970).

Chapter 3 of my book The Picts: a History includes a short discussion of Pictish tattooing. There I note that the seventh-century writer Isidore of Seville specifically states that the Picts were so named because they used needles to imprint designs on their skin.

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Early settlements in Orkney and Caithness

Map of Orkney & Caithness
Two fascinating archaeological projects have been going on in the far north of Scotland. Information can be found at their respective blogs via the links below.

In Orkney, this year’s summer excavation at The Cairns on South Ronaldsay ended a couple of weeks ago. The Cairns is the site of a substantial Iron Age settlement near Windwick Bay on the eastern side of the island. At its heart are the remains of a broch – a huge stone tower – which may have been built as early as the fourth century BC. The broch’s walls are 5 metres thick, making it one of the largest examples of its type. In recent years, archaeologists have been unearthing new pieces of evidence and joining them together to build up a history not just of the broch itself but of the entire site around it. What has emerged is a remarkable insight into how this place was used by successive generations of inhabitants over a period of several thousand years, from Neolithic times to the Iron Age, and from the era of the Picts and Vikings to c.1150 AD.

Link The Cairns Project

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In Caithness, a project to locate and investigate the remains of prehistoric settlements is shedding light on a previously little-known period in the area’s archaeology. Laser-scanning with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) has enabled archaeologists to identify previously unrecorded features that traditional aerial photography might otherwise fail to pick up. This new technology is revealing a rich Bronze Age landscape of hut circles, mounds and other sites which can be surveyed on the ground. The sites will now be studied alongside the chambered cairns – long regarded as the primary prehistoric evidence from Caithness – to build up a more detailed picture of how local people interacted with the land 3000 years ago.

Link Bronze Age Caithness

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Dunadd

Dunadd

The River Add from the summit of Dunadd (Photo © T Clarkson)


Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the hillfort of Dunadd. Some of you will have walked up the stony path to the famous carved footprint on the summit. It’s an enthralling place, with great views from the top and a rich aura of history all around. I’ve been there a couple of times, though my last visit was at least ten years ago.

Today I’m writing about Dunadd because I’ve recently been reminded of why it’s one of my favourite Dark Age sites. The reminder came in an article by Jo Woolf, over at her website The Hazel Tree. Jo’s reports on her visits to historic places always capture the essence and atmosphere, and her article on Dunadd is no exception. It’s worth checking out for the photographs too, which give a virtual tour of the hill and the surrounding landscape.

Jo refers to Dunadd’s importance as a place of ritual where early Scottish kings were inaugurated. She writes about the footprint, which would have played a central role in the royal ceremonies, noting that the original carving lies protected beneath a modern replica. She also mentions the carved image of a boar, which is often identified as Pictish. In AD 736, as Jo observes, an army of Picts attacked Dunadd during a major war with the Scots. At that time, the main territory of the Scots was Dál Riata, a region comprising much of Argyll and the Isles. The later kingdom of Scotland lay a couple of hundred years in the future.

Dunadd

The Pictish army in 736 was led by Óengus, the mightiest warlord in northern Britain. His main enemies in Dál Riata belonged to a royal family known as Cenél Loairn (‘Descendants of Loarn’) whose name still survives in the district of Lorn around the town of Oban. This family was at the height of its power in the early eighth century and probably used Dunadd as a major stronghold. The fortress was no doubt a key target for Óengus, whose attack upon it was noted by contemporary annalists. The record in question, written in Latin, is preserved in the Annals of Ulster:

Oengus m. Fergusso, rex Pictorum, vastavit regiones Dail Riatai & obtenuit Dun At & combussit Creic & duos filios Selbaich catenis alligauit, .i. Donngal & Feradach; & paulo post Brudeus m. Oengusa filii Fergusso obiit.
[‘Óengus son of Fergus, king of the Picts, laid waste the territory of Dál Riata and seized Dunadd and burned Creic and bound in chains two sons of Selbach, i.e. Dungal and Feradach; and shortly afterwards Brude son of Óengus son of Fergus died.’]

Not only was the fall of Dunadd a massive setback for Cenél Loairn, the capture of Selbach’s sons deprived the family of two prominent military leaders. Óengus pressed home his advantage and, within a few years, had imposed his authority throughout Dál Riata, establishing a Pictish overlordship in the heartland of the Scots. This was not the end of the story: archaeological evidence suggests that Dunadd remained in use, at least into the early 800s. By then, however, the presence of Viking raiders in the western seaways was already putting pressure on the Scots, prompting some of their leading families to migrate eastward into Pictish territory. In such circumstances, Dunadd is unlikely to have retained its status as a crowning-place of kings.

Click the link below to go to Jo Woolf’s blogpost.

Dunadd: behold the king!

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Brunanburh on the Fylde?

Originally posted on Strathclyde & the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age:

Vikings

In Chapter Five of Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, I suggested that the battle of Brunanburh (AD 937) might have been fought somewhere in North Lancashire. I specifically highlighted Amounderness, the district between the rivers Lune and Ribble, as a possible ‘conflict zone’ containing the battlefield. Amounderness was a possession of the West Saxon king Athelstan, who granted it to the Archbishop of York in 934. Athelstan had previously purchased the territory for a considerable sum from landowners who were most likely of Viking stock.

I take the view that Amounderness was the most northwestern part of Athelstan’s ‘England’ at the time of the battle of Brunanburh. Beyond it lay Lonsdale – the valley of the Lune – and the future county of Westmorland (which I suspect was under the authority of Anglo-Scandinavian lords who answered to York rather than to Athelstan). Beyond Westmorland lay the…

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Coastal brochs

Dun Carloway broch

Dun Carloway broch on the Isle of Lewis (from a photograph by James Valentine, c.1870).


A project called Scotland’s Coastal Heritage At Risk (SCHARP) has been running for the past three years. Its aim is to obtain information from archaeological sites threatened by coastal erosion.

The latest post on the project’s blog looks at the ancient stone towers known as ‘brochs’. These imposing structures were probably built around 200 BC and have been found in many parts of Scotland. Some were re-used in the ensuing centuries, with a number of them being occupied into early medieval times as places of power or refuge. Ancillary structures such as houses, courtyards and ramparts were sometimes attached to the original tower, turning it into the nucleus of an extended settlement.

I’ve only skimmed this topic in my own research on early medieval Scotland but I’m particularly fascinated by the popular idea that a broch is a ‘Pictish tower’. This not-quite-accurate label was promoted by historians 200 years ago but had probably existed in local folkore long before then. It belonged to the same bundle of legends that included the idea of the Picts as a secretive race of pigmies who hid themselves away during daylight.

The SCHARP blogpost is an excellent introduction to brochs. The illustrations are especially informative, using photographs to show how these huge towers were made and how they were added to over time. Click on the link below to read more.

SCHARP blogpost on coastal brochs
SCHARP is also on Twitter at @CoastArch

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Kirkmadrine stones return to Galloway

Kirkmadrine map
Last month, a group of early medieval sculptured stones returned to their home at Kirkmadrine in the Rhinns peninsula, a quiet corner of Galloway. They had spent some time at Historic Scotland in Edinburgh where they were cleaned by specialist conservators. This important work gave other experts an opportunity to re-examine the stones with new technologies such as laser scanning.

Three of the stones were carved in the sixth century and have long been recognised as among the earliest Christian monuments in Britain – perhaps even the oldest. All three are tall monoliths, possibly originating as prehistoric standing-stones. It is believed that they were erected by members of a religious community who established a major monastery at Kirkmadrine.

Two of these monuments commemorate named individuals: Florentius, Mavorius and Viventius. Florentius seems to have his own memorial but the other two appear together on one stone. While Florentius is not specifically identified as a cleric, Mavorius and Viventius are described as sacerdotes (‘senior priests’ or ‘bishops’).

Kirkmadrine stones

The sacerdotes and Florentius stones at Kirkmadrine (from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland).

Little is known of the early religious settlement at Kirkmadrine. Unlike the great monastery at Whithorn, situated on a neighbouring peninsula, Kirkmadrine has left no trace in the surviving chronicles. Yet its sculpture suggests that it was a place of considerable wealth and status. Its monks were overseen by high-ranking clerics who must have secured protection from a local ruler – probably a king whose realm included the Rhinns peninsula. The name of this kingdom, like the story behind the stones, is part of Galloway’s lost Dark Age history.

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Links

The Herald newspaper: Historic stones return to their origins
Historic Scotland: Kirkmadrine stones come home
Visit Scotland: Kirkmadrine Early Christian stones

My previous blogpost on Kirkmadrine: A major monastery?

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Remembering Aethelflaed

Aethelflaed of Mercia

Aethelflaed of Mercia with her young nephew Athelstan (a modern sculpture at Tamworth Castle).


Today is the 1097th anniversary of the death of my favourite individual from the Dark Ages.

I refer, of course, to the Anglo-Saxon princess Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and sister to his successor Edward the Elder.

Aethelflaed married Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia in the western midlands of England, and joined him in a programme of fortress-building that strengthened his people’s defences against Viking raids. After Aethelred died in 911, his widow became sole ruler and – unusually for a woman in those times – a commander of armies in the field. She led military campaigns in person and achieved several major victories. Working in tandem with her brother Edward, she not only held off the Viking menace but won back a number of conquered territories in eastern England.

As part of her wider anti-Viking strategy, she formed a three-way alliance with the kings of Alba and Strathclyde. This northern and Scottish dimension is one of the reasons why I have long been fascinated by her career. Another reason is her connection with Mercia, my homeland, which she governed and protected during a time of great peril and uncertainty.

She died on 12 June 918, at the ancient Mercian settlement of Tamworth.

I’ve mentioned Aethelflaed here at Senchus quite a few times and, six years ago, devoted a blogpost to her. Last year I wrote about her again, at one of my other blogs. Here are the links to those posts…
‘The Lady of the Mercians’ [Senchus blog, 2009]
‘Aethelflaed’ [Strathclyde blog, 2014]

Her alliance with the Scots and Strathclyde Britons is described in a medieval text known as The Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. The passage in question gives an idea of the high regard in which she was held by contemporaries in lands far beyond the borders of Mercia. The relevant passage, with an English translation, can be seen in my blogpost on the Fragmentary Annals.

I also recommend Susan Abernethy’s article ‘Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia’ and Ed Watson’s ‘Aethelflaed: the making of a county town’.

I discuss Aethelflaed and her relations with the northern kings in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (on pages 58-63).

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