Julia and the Caledonian women

Julia Domna

Sculptured portrait of a Roman lady, believed to be Julia Domna.

Anyone who seeks to discover Scotland’s early history through textual sources written more than a thousand years ago soon realises that ‘fake news’ isn’t a modern phenomenon. It has always served a useful purpose for its creators, as much in the first millennium AD as in our own era of digital communication and social media. Recognising false information for what it is, rather than taking it at face value, is likewise as much of a challenge when we’re reading an ancient chronicle as when we encounter an attention-grabbing headline on the internet. In some instances, even after having dismissed something written in the remote past as fake information – such as a legend masquerading as real history – we find it so fascinating that we want it to be true. This is what happened to me many years ago when I came across what seemed, at first glance, to be a curious fact – namely that the oldest known words attributed to a woman from Scotland were spoken to a woman from Syria.

The conversation in question supposedly took place sometime in the early third century AD, around the years 209/210. Our source is the Historia Romana (‘Roman History’), a multi-volume work penned by the contemporary historian Cassius Dio. At that time, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus was on active service in northern Britain, leading a military campaign beyond the Antonine Wall – the great turf barrier stretching between the firths of Forth and Clyde. His foes were unconquered native peoples in what are now Stirlingshire and Perthshire, specifically two large groupings or ‘tribal confederations’ – the Maeatae who lived adjacent to the Wall and the Caledonians to the north of them. These two had been causing a great deal of trouble, raiding southward into lands under Roman rule and returning home laden with loot. A recent wave of attacks had been serious enough to persuade the governor of Roman Britain to appeal directly to Septimius Severus for aid. The emperor had duly taken personal charge of a major effort to bring the marauders to heel. Arriving in Britain in 208, accompanied by his wife and their two adult sons, he led his huge army northward. His troops suffered considerable losses from guerilla warfare but eventually both the Caledonians and Maeatae negotiated peace treaties with him. Dio identifies one of the key figures on the Caledonian side as Argentocoxos, presumably a senior chieftain, whose Celtic name means something like ‘Silver Leg’. However, the ensuing truce turned out to be short-lived and a new round of hostilities soon began.

Severan campaign in Scotland

Severus in Scotland, AD 208 to 210, showing three of the many forts involved in his campaign.

According to Cassius Dio, it was during the brief period of peace that a conversation took place between the wives of Argentocoxos and Septimius Severus. The name of the Caledonian lady is unrecorded – perhaps Dio himself had no record of it. He certainly had no doubt about the identity of the other woman. She was Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of Severus and one of the most famous of all Roman empresses. Julia’s image was so well-known around the Mediterranean lands in her own lifetime that it can still be seen today on various coins, paintings and sculptures. Born c. 160 in the city of Emesa (now Homs) in Syria, she sprang from a high-status Arab family who seem to have had royal ancestry. Her father was a senior priest at Emesa’s Temple of the Sun, the main cult-centre of the Middle Eastern god Elagabalus. Charismatic and well-educated, Julia was a suitable bride for Severus when, as a childless widower in his early forties, he decided that he should be married again.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus, Roman emperor from AD 193 to 211.

Dio had a particular fascination with Julia and has left us a fair amount of information about her. As a career politician who served as senator and consul he was well-placed to obtain interesting snippets of information about members of the imperial family. He had rather less interest in barbarians like Argentocoxos, even when he could be bothered to name them. Like most Romans he no doubt regarded the inhabitants of ancient Scotland as a mob of wild, uncouth savages prowling beyond the Empire’s borders. As an author he nevertheless found them useful as caricatures of the stereotypical barbarian – simple, uncorrupted folk whose primitive ways of living could be amusingly contrasted with the immorality and hypocrisy of sophisticated Roman society. Drawing on such stereotypes, he informed his readers that the Caledonians and Maeatae ‘possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring’. It hardly needs saying that such a strange custom probably never existed among the contemporary inhabitants of Perthshire and Stirlingshire, nor are they likely to have viewed adultery and marital fidelity much differently from the citizens of Rome. The idea that they practised a kind of ‘free love’ may have originated as a joke or rumour among Roman soldiers stationed near the northern frontier – or perhaps Dio simply made it up. It appears in his narrative shortly before the meeting between Julia Domna and the wife of Argentocoxos and provides the essential moral backdrop to their conversation.

Dio tells us that the empress teased her companion by saying that Caledonian women indulge in a sexual free-for-all, sharing their beds with different men while making no attempt to conceal their adultery. To a respectable aristocratic lady like Julia, such brazen promiscuity would indeed have seemed worthy of comment. We then see the wife of Argentocoxos swiftly responding with what Dio calls ‘a witty remark’ of her own:

“We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.”

As with all ancient and medieval authors, we should be wary of taking Dio at face value. Although Julia Domna was very much a real person – and indeed one of his contemporaries – this did not deter him from portraying her in a way that suited his literary purposes. Modern scholars who analyse his writings believe that the Julia he presented to his readers was, to some extent, moulded to fit his narrative. There is no doubt that she plays a special role in the Historia Romana, particularly in those sections where Dio seeks to pass judgement on the moral and political issues of his time. In this instance, his target was not the allegedly shameless promiscuity of Caledonian women but the clandestine adultery of fine Roman ladies. The consensus view among present-day historians is that he simply invented the speech quoted above. Like a modern peddler of fake news, he took a piece of made-up information about a group of foreigners and ‘spun’ it to make a specific point. His readers – the wealthy, educated elite of the Roman world – would have got the message very clearly. Some of them probably raised a wry smile; others may have felt stung by the barbed jibe attributed to an anonymous northern barbarian.

I think it would be good if we could accept the story as true. Some parts of it possibly _are_ true, even if the conversation reported by Dio never happened – or at least not in the way he describes. It is not unrealistic, for example, to imagine Julia Domna visiting the imperial frontierlands in what is now Scotland. She was certainly no stranger to dangerous war-zones. One of her honorific titles was Mater Castrorum, ‘Mother of the Army Camps’, bestowed in recognition of her willingness to accompany her husband on military campaigns. Whether she met the wives of any barbarian leaders on such occasions is debatable, although not implausible. I’m inclined to think we can consider the possibility that she not only visited Scotland 1,800 years ago but had a face-to-face encounter with the wife of a local chieftain. Musing even further, we can perhaps imagine these two high-status women – one a Syrian, the other a Caledonian – exchanging a few words, not directly but through an interpreter. Whatever they said to one another, it is more likely to have consisted of polite greetings rather than the mockery and ‘witty remarks’ placed into their mouths by Cassius Dio.

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Epilogue

Julia Domna outlived not only her husband but also their sons, Caracalla and Geta. The brothers became joint emperors following the death of their father in 211 but their relationship was mutually hostile. Within months, Geta was murdered by Caracalla’s soldiers, dying in his mother’s arms. Julia detested Caracalla but relished the power and influence she acquired during his reign and chose to maintain a public image of maternal loyalty. The complicated relationship between mother and son even prompted rumours of incest, but Cassius Dio makes no mention of this and modern historians dismiss it as malicious gossip emanating from the imperial court. Caracalla turned out to be an unpopular emperor and his assassination in 217 came as no surprise, but his death deprived his mother of political status. Julia, by then in her fifties, suddenly found herself at risk of being exiled from Rome and ending her days in obscurity. This bleak prospect filled her with dread, especially as she had begun to nurture ambitions of ruling the Empire herself. She died soon afterwards, allegedly starving herself to death but – according to Dio – finally succumbing to the breast cancer that had afflicted her for many years.

Julia Domna

The emperor Caracalla with his mother Julia Domna.

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Notes & references

Julia’s second name or ‘cognomen’ Domna derives from an ancient Arabic word meaning Black. It distinguished her from her elder sister Julia Maesa, a woman of ruthless ambition whose own story is no less remarkable.

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The conversation between Julia Domna and the Caledonian lady is reported in Book 77, section 16, of Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana.

For this blogpost I used the Loeb Classical Library edition, available online at Lacus Curtius.

Substantial portions of the original text of the Historia Romana have not survived, the lost material being known from an abridged version written by the Byzantine scholar John Xiphilinus in the eleventh century.

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Some journal articles I have found useful:

Riccardo Bertolazzi, ‘The depictions of Livia and Julia Domna by Cassius Dio: some observations’ Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae vol. 55 (2015), 413-32

Andrew Scott, ‘Cassius Dio’s Julia Domna: character development and narrative function’ Transactions of the American Philological Association vol. 147 (2017), 413-33

Christopher T. Mallan, ‘Cassius Dio on Julia Domna’ Mnemosyne vol. 66 (2013), 734-60

Caillan Davenport, ‘Sexual habits of Caracalla: rumour, gossip and historiography’ Histos vol. 11 (2017), 75-100

Julia Domna

Julia Domna and Septimius Severus with their sons Geta and Caracalla (Geta’s face has been deliberately erased).

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Columba – Pilgrim, Priest & Patron Saint

Columba - Pilgrim, Priest & Patron Saint

My biography of St Columba, first published in 2012, now has a re-designed cover. I received half a dozen free copies of the new version last week and am very pleased with how it looks.

The publishers – Birlinn of Edinburgh – have moved the book from their academic imprint ‘John Donald’ to their main stable. Two of my other books – The Picts: A History and The Makers Of Scotland – made the same migration some years ago. It means a slightly reduced size (the John Donald format tends to be larger) but otherwise the book is unchanged.

Columba by Tim Clarkson

Five of my six free copies, posing for a photo after their journey south from Scotland.

The new cover incorporates an image of Columba that I think is one of the most evocative. For me, it captures the saint in a moment of serious reflection, perhaps when his mind was lingering on a matter of sorrow or regret. The image was created in stained glass by Karl Parsons (1884-1934) for a window in St Michael’s Church at Sulhamstead, Berkshire.

Credit for the re-designed cover goes to James Hutcheson of Birlinn whose creative skills are responsible for the covers of all my books.

Columba by Tim Clarkson

The back cover ‘blurb’ and design credits.

Here’s a link to the book’s page at the Birlinn website:
Columba: Pilgrim, Priest & Patron Saint

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The Govan Stones: new discoveries

Govan Stones 2019
A major archaeological find at Govan has been causing quite a buzz in the past week or so. No doubt many of you will already be aware of the news from social media and other sources. The find is indeed exciting: three early medieval carved stones, long assumed to have been lost forever, have been rediscovered in the graveyard of the old parish church.

The discovery happened during a community archaeological project called Stones and Bones which is run by Northlight Heritage, a charity closely involved with the conservation of the church (known as ‘Govan Old’) and its collection of early medieval sculpture. The significance of the new find becomes clear when we look back at the long history of the Govan Stones.

wr_gopc

The story begins a thousand years ago, in the Viking Age, when Govan was a centre of royal power in the kingdom of Strathclyde. In those days, the site of Govan Old was occupied by a church that served the spiritual needs of Strathclyde’s rulers – a powerful dynasty of Britons whose realm extended northward to Loch Lomond and southward across the Solway Firth. The kings with their families and other members of the local elite worshipped at Govan, burying their dead in the churchyard and marking the graves with elaborately carved stones. After the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde in the eleventh century, the line of local kings came to an end but the gravestones remained. In later times, when the old kingdom of the Britons was barely a memory, many of the stones were re-used by prosperous Govan families as memorials for their own deceased. Hence we see the initials of people who died in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries inscribed on a number of stones, overlaying the Viking-Age carvings of crosses and interlace patterns. In the early nineteenth century, the churchyard still contained more than 40 ancient monuments. Most were recumbent cross-slabs, designed to lie flat over graves, but there were other types too, the most impressive being 5 hogbacks and (after its discovery in 1855) a magnificently carved sarcophagus.

Govan Stones

Hogbacks and cross-slabs in the churchyard of Govan Old, c. 1900 [T.C.F. Brotchie]

In the late nineteenth century, Glasgow landowner and politician Sir John Stirling-Maxwell arranged for cast replicas to be made of the early medieval stones. These were then individually photographed, with the images being published by Sir John in 1899 under the title Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan. Some years later, the sarcophagus was placed inside the church for safekeeping, to be followed in 1926 by many of the other stones. The rest remained outside. A plan of the churchyard, drawn in 1936 (see below), shows 19 stones lying in a line along the east wall. On the other side of the wall lay one of Govan’s famous shipyards.

Govan Stones

Govan Stones 2019

Aerial view of Govan in the 1930s, showing the churchyard (highlighted in green on this copy of the original), the River Clyde at upper right and the Harland & Wolff shipyard in the centre.

And so we come to one of the darkest chapters in the story of the Govan Stones. In the early 1900s, the shipyard erected huge sheds right up against the churchyard wall. These enormous buildings were demolished in 1973. Unfortunately, the demolition work brought debris crashing down on the ancient stones lying beside the wall. At the time, it was believed that nearly all of these precious monuments had been reduced to shattered fragments amongst the rubble. A few survived, though badly damaged, and are now inside the church.

Fast forward through four decades to 2019 and the Stones and Bones ‘community dig’. One of the dig’s local volunteers was Mark McGettigan, age 14, a pupil of Lourdes Secondary School in Cardonald. Mark was using a probe to search for objects buried beneath the surface near the eastern edge of the churchyard when he made a remarkable discovery:
I was just prodding the ground to see if there was anything there and suddenly it made a noise and I realised I had hit something. Myself and two of the archaeologists worked out the area of the object and started to dig it out and clean it. I wasn’t too sure at the start what it was. But then we checked with the records and we realised it was one of the lost Govan Stones. I am extremely happy, in fact I’m ecstatic at what I helped to uncover.”

The stone turned out to be a cross-slab from the Viking Age, carved in the 10th or 11th century. Nor was it a lone discovery: another two slabs were also found. All three have been matched to their corresponding photographs in the Stirling Maxwell survey, published 120 years ago, and identified as ’30’, ’38’ and ’40’ according to Sir John’s classification of the Govan monuments. The composite image at the top of this blogpost shows the three photographs grouped together (by me) but in the original 1899 publication they appear on separate pages.

Conservation and analysis by specialists are the essential next steps for these important relics of Scotland’s ancient past before they can be put on public display. In the meantime, it is quite possible that other stones – hitherto thought to have been reduced to rubble – survived the disaster of 1973 and still await rediscovery. We shall see what happens in the coming months but these are certainly interesting times for Govan’s ancient heritage.

Below are some photographs of the new finds, reproduced here by kind permission of archaeologist Ingrid Shearer from Northlight Heritage.

Govan Stones 2019

Uncovering one of the three cross-slabs (Mark McGettigan kneeling at top right).


Govan Stones 1899

Frazer Capie (Riverside Museum) and Ingrid Shearer (Northlight Heritage) using the 1899 survey to identify the three slabs.


Govan Stones 2019

An early medieval masterpiece revealed (the stone shown as ‘No. 40’ in the picture at the top of this blogpost).


Govan Stones 2019

Photogrammetric recording by Dr Megan Kasten of the University of Glasgow.

Finally, a message for those of you who enjoy getting out and about to see Pictish stones and similar ancient stuff. If you haven’t yet visited the collection at Govan Old, you’re missing out on one of Britain’s premier ‘Dark Age’ attractions. The Govan Stones are an absolute must-see for anyone who has an interest in Viking-Age sculpture, Celtic art or Scotland’s early history. Govan was the capital of the kingdom of Strathclyde, the last realm of the Cumbri or Northern Britons. Hardly anyone seems to know about this kingdom, even though it was a major player on the turbulent political stage of the ninth to eleventh centuries. Its inhabitants are the most obscure, the most enigmatic of Scotland’s early peoples. If you think the Picts and their symbol-stones have an aura of mystery, see what you make of the Northern Britons and their hogbacks. Stepping inside Govan Old feels like entering the heart of a strange, forgotten realm that somehow got left out of the school history books. The exciting new discoveries by Mark McGettigan and his fellow community diggers have brought a little bit more of this long-lost kingdom into focus.

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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Notes & Acknowledgments

My thanks to Frazer Capie for telling me about the discovery and to Ingrid Shearer for letting me use the press release images and other media information.

The Govan Stones and the churchyard have Scheduled Monument status and are protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. The Stones and Bones community dig has scheduled monument consent from Historic Environment Scotland.

The Govan Heritage Trust is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to secure the future of the church and its rare collection of early medieval sculpture. Anyone wishing to support the Trust can contribute via this link.

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Links

The Govan Stones Project has a website and can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

Other useful Twitter accounts for news and updates about the latest discoveries:
Northlight Heritage
Love Archaeology
Dr Megan Kasten
Dr Kasten has produced a superb 3D image of one of the newly unearthed cross-slabs.

And, lastly, a couple of media reports, one from Scotland and one from the USA:
Lost Glasgow
New York Post

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Tintagel and the Battle of Camlann

Tintagel Castle

Modern sculpture of King Arthur on the summit of Tintagel Island.

Although this blogpost briefly mentions Scotland it is mainly about the far south-west corner of England. It does however deal with the early medieval period and with another of the ‘Celtic’ regions of Britain. It is one of a number of non-Scottish posts that occasionally appear here at Senchus.

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A holiday on the north coast of Cornwall last year gave me an opportunity to visit a couple of places associated with King Arthur. One was Tintagel Castle, a strikingly impressive site that I was lucky enough to explore on a warm, cloudless day. The other was Slaughterbridge, a Cornish candidate for Camlann – the site of Arthur’s final battle where both he and his treacherous nephew Mordred were said to have perished.

Battle of Camlann

Arthur and Mordred in combat at Camlann, painted by William Hatherell (1855-1928)

The question of whether or not the Arthurian legend preserves the authentic story of a sixth-century warlord called Arthur/Artorius is, of course, a matter of debate. My own thoughts on this controversial topic appeared most recently as a chapter in Scotland’s Merlin, published by Birlinn Books in 2016. For the record, I currently favour south-west Scotland as a possible source of the Arthurian legend’s original core, but this does not necessarily mean that I see Arthur himself as any more ‘real’ than Batman. Maybe Arthur existed, maybe he didn’t. The question is not, in any case, a crucial one for historians of early medieval Britain. Hence, Arthur’s story is frequently absent from modern textbooks on the period, including my own study of the Britons of southern Scotland (The Men Of The North, published in 2010). I nevertheless retain an interest in Arthur’s legend – and Merlin’s too – especially at places with tangible ‘Dark Age’ connections. In Cornwall, both Tintagel and Slaughterbridge fall into this category, each of them being sites where objects from the sixth century – the time when Arthur supposedly existed – can still be seen today.

map_cornwall_map2

Tintagel Castle

Old engraving of Tintagel Island and the castle ruins.

Tintagel

The island of rock now crowned by Tintagel’s medieval castle formerly supported a substantial high-status settlement occupied in the ‘Arthurian’ era of the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Archaeological excavations have unearthed artefacts and structures from this period, ranging from pottery and glassware to traces of buildings. The pottery includes large jars (amphorae) that once contained wine imported from Mediterranean lands. These show that Tintagel’s inhabitants were involved in long-distance trading networks with other parts of what had once been the Western Roman Empire. Plenty of information about the archaeological finds is available online and I have included a couple of links at the end of this blogpost.

For many visitors, what attracts them to Tintagel Castle is its claim to be the place where Arthur was conceived. The claim derives from the twelfth century when Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain described how Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon, used deception to satisfy his lust for Lady Igraine, the beautiful wife of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. A potion concocted by Merlin enabled Uther to disguise himself as Igraine’s husband so that he could spend the night with her in the Duke’s stronghold at Tintagel. The offspring of this deceitful liaison was Arthur, who eventually succeeded to Uther’s throne.

Whatever our opinions on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s value as a source of early British history, there is no doubt that he knew how to tell a good tale. His dramatic account of Uther and Igraine ensured that Tintagel would forever have a place in Arthurian lore. Needless to say, the teams of archaeologists who have excavated there (most recently in 2018) have found no trace of Geoffrey’s characters – despite the discovery in 1998 of a stone inscribed with the suggestive name Artognou. Yet the popular belief that this was a place well-known to Arthur and Uther 1500 years ago is still alive in the popular imagination.

The following photographs give an idea of what the modern visitor to Tintagel Castle can expect to see.

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle

Looking back from the castle ruins on the summit of Tintagel Island to the adjacent mainland.



Tintagel Castle

Looking along the coast of North Cornwall from the ruins of Tintagel Castle.



Tintagel Castle

The outlined shape of a rectangular building from the 5th/6th century settlement.



Tintagel Castle

Information board for a group of excavated ‘Dark Age’ buildings.



Tintagel Castle

A pair of early medieval buildings nestling on the slope below the summit.



Tintagel Castle

Looking down from the castle to a small cove and beach.



Tintagel Castle Merlin's Cave

In the cliffs below the castle lies Merlin’s Cave (the cave on the left).



Slaughterbridge

According to the ancient chronicle known as Annales Cambriae (‘Welsh Annals’), the year 537 witnessed the bloody battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Mordred were slain. The antiquity of this information is uncertain and cannot, on present evidence, be shown to pre-date the tenth century when the Welsh Annals were compiled. Two hundred years later, in the 1130s, Geoffrey of Monmouth placed Camlann in Cornwall, on the River Camel. Cornish tradition has long located the battlefield at Slaughterbridge near Camelford, some 4 miles south-east of Tintagel. Another candidate for Camlann is the Roman fort of Camboglanna (now Castlesteads) on Hadrian’s Wall. Camboglanna is a Celtic name borrowed by the Romans. It means ‘crooked valley’ in the old language of the Britons and could have become Camlann in medieval Welsh. However, there were no doubt many crooked valleys in Roman Britain, so the name Camboglanna might have been a common one. It is also possible that Camlann derives from a different name such as Cambolanda (‘crooked enclosure’).

At Slaughterbridge there is a fascinating visitor attraction called The Arthurian Centre which tells of the local Camlann tradition. The Centre has a tearoom, gift shop and plenty of information on Arthur, as well as a walking trail over part of the presumed battlefield beside the River Camel. The trail meanders through pleasant woodland and ends at a viewing platform above the river. Below the platform, and close to the water’s edge, lies a remarkable Early Christian gravestone from the sixth century. It is carved with a Latin inscription: LATINI IC IACIT FILIUS MA[…]RI (‘Here lies Latinus, the son of M…..’)

Along one edge of the stone runs another inscription, in the ancient Ogham script of Ireland. Although badly weathered, this has been interpreted by at least one expert as possibly containing the same name Latinus. Unfortunately, we have no idea who Latinus was. He may have been a local Briton, or perhaps an Irishman. Whatever his origins, he was clearly a person of sufficient importance to be commemorated in this way. It is interesting to note that the name also appears on another sixth-century memorial, the famous Latinus Stone from Whithorn in south-west Scotland, which marked the grave of a father and daughter.

Unsurprisingly, given the local connection with Arthurian legend, the Cornish Latinus stone has been seen in some quarters as a relic of the battle of Camlann. A separate belief associates it with a battle fought in 825 at a place called Gafulford, where the Britons of Cornwall clashed with the neighbouring West Saxons. Gafulford is thought by some historians to mean ‘Camel-ford’, but others interpret the name differently and place the battle elsewhere. The simple truth is that neither Camlann nor the ninth-century battle can be placed with certainty in the valley of the River Camel, or indeed in Cornwall.

During my visit I was saddened to learn that the inscribed stone is at risk of being harmed by floods. In fact, it has been placed on the At Risk Register, which is a matter of concern. We can only hope that this important monument will soon be protected, perhaps by standing it upright (as it formerly was) and moving it higher up the riverbank (which may have been its original position). Some kind of intervention certainly needs to happen before it is overwhelmed by the river.

Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

The trail from the Arthurian Centre, looking towards the supposed battlefield of Camlann.



Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

The sixth-century inscribed stone lying beside the River Camel.



Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

The Latin inscription.



Arthurian Centre in Cornwall

Information board on the viewing platform.



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Notes and Links

The images in this blogpost are copyright © B. Keeling.

Readers may be interested in an article by Professor Andrew Breeze: ‘The Battle of Camlan and Camelford, Cornwall’ Arthuriana 15.3 (Fall 2005): 75-90

The Arthurian Centre has a website and a Facebook page

The Tintagel Dig on Twitter

Information on Tintagel Castle at the English Heritage website

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A visit to Meigle

I’ve visited Meigle Museum several times (three times, if I recall correctly) but as with so many heritage sites in Scotland three visits isn’t enough and I’m long overdue a return trip.

Many of you reading this blogpost will need no introduction to this excellent Perthshire museum and its fabulous collection of early medieval sculpture. Even if you haven’t had a face-to-face encounter with the 26 Pictish stones you may have seen drawings or photographs of them in books or online.

Below are some photos from my last visit, which was probably a dozen years ago. I offer them here as a gallery of images without descriptive text. For those of you who are planning a first trip to Meigle in 2019 these images are just a ‘taster’ of the treasures that await.

At the end I’ve added a link to the Historic Scotland webpage for the museum, which gives useful information such as opening times.

Meigle Pictish Stones

Meigle 1

Meigle Pictish stones

Meigle 2 (‘Vanora’s Stone’)

Meigle Pictish Stones

Meigle 3

Meigle Pictish stones

Meigle 4

Meigle Pictish Stones

Meigle 5 (front)

Meigle Pictish stones

Meigle 5 (side, showing Pictish symbols)

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Link: Webpage for Meigle Museum

The images in this blogpost are copyright © B. Keeling

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The origin of the Pictish symbols

Logie Elphinstone Pictish symbol stone

Pictish symbols on a stone at Logie Elphinstone in Aberdeenshire (from J. Stuart: Sculptured Stones of Scotland)


Nothing epitomises the mysteriousness of the Picts so much as their symbols. I’ve written about these strange designs in a number of blogposts, as well as in my book The Picts: a History. Like many people I have a particular view on their possible ‘meaning’, while acknowledging that it might not be the correct one. It’s a topic that has always attracted competing theories, as can be seen in the comment threads here at Senchus and in a plethora of other places online. The symbols have been seen as representations of various kinds of objects or ideas – religious, agricultural, astronomical, and so on – or as a form of writing like Egyptian hieroglyphs. My own belief is that they represent the names of individual Picts in a pictorial way that to some extent imitates the Latin alphabet. The latter was adopted by the southern neighbours of the Picts, i.e. the Britons whose lands had been conquered by the Romans. I’ve long tended to assume that this imitation coincided with the appearance of Christian memorial stones among the Britons in the period c. 450 onwards, after the Roman withdrawal. The British memorials I had in mind were those typically inscribed in Latin with ‘X son of Y’ in commemoration of the deceased. It seemed to me that the pairs of symbols on many Pictish stones might be an attempt to replicate this kind of inscription, with the most frequent symbols representing the most common Pictish names. Where three symbols occurred together on a Pictish stone, I interpreted them as commemorating ‘X son of Y son of Z’. I always felt on fairly solid ground with this theory, mainly because I wasn’t alone in supporting it, but I continued to keep an open mind and listened to other explanations. A variant idea, for instance, saw the symbols as name-elements or components that could be combined in different ways to represent complete names.

Last month, the journal Antiquity published an article presenting new research on the chronology and purpose of the Pictish symbols. As one of the most significant contributions to the debate in recent years it has rightly received a lot of media exposure. To anyone with an interest in the symbols I strongly recommend reading this article (see the link below). Briefly, its authors propose that the symbols comprise a system of writing comparable to Irish Ogam and Scandinavian runes. It sees all three systems as responses by non-Romanised ‘barbarian’ cultures to the Latin literacy that had taken root among their neighbours inside the Roman Empire. As far as the Picts are concerned, the key point is that their symbols seem to have originated in the third and fourth centuries AD, contemporary with Ogam and perhaps slightly later than runes. This is a couple of hundred years earlier than the conventional chronology which has tended to place the origin of Pictish symbols in the sixth century, long after the end of Roman rule in northern Europe, rather than in a period when the Empire still flourished.

Assigning precise dates to abstract carvings isn’t an easy task but the new chronology is based on scientific dating of archaeological material from recent excavations at a number of Pictish sites. In Aberdeenshire, at the high-status sites of Dunnicaer and Rhynie, the symbol-carved stones appear to be contemporary with material that can be dated to the third and fourth centuries AD. This is the very period when the Picts were first identified as a distinct group by Roman writers. One crucial piece of data from the excavations at Rhynie is that the main occupation phase lay in this early period. If, as seems likely, the symbol carvings are associated with this phase, we can infer that the symbol system was devised when the notion of Pictishness itself was taking shape, both developments being part of a cultural response to the Romanising, Latinising influences to the south. Like Ogam and runes, the Pictish symbols did not replicate the Latin alphabet but instead offered a home-grown alternative to it that was overtly (and probably deliberately) non-Roman in form. On the purpose of the symbols, the article notes their proximity to carved human figures on a number of later stones (from the eighth century) and suggests that they were ‘labels’ representing personal names in a non-alphabetic way. This fits with my own preferred interpretation as outlined above. Others will find that the article challenges rather than validates their ideas. On the chronology, however, there seems little reason to doubt that the new, earlier origin-date for the Pictish symbols is correct.

Reference and link:
Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg and Derek Hamilton: The development of the Pictish symbol system: inscribing identity beyond the edges of Empire Antiquity vol. 92, no. 365 (October 2018), pp. 1329-1348

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Pictish symbol stone discovered at Dyce

Pictish symbols

Pictish symbols: mirror (top), triple disc and notched rectangle.

A Pictish symbol stone has been discovered on the banks of the River Don at Dyce near Aberdeen. This exciting find was publicised today and is understandably attracting a lot of attention on social media. New discoveries of early medieval sculpture are as rare in Scotland as anywhere else, so the unearthing of a previously unknown Pictish stone is a significant event.

Photographs of the new stone published online show the carved symbols to be well preserved and easily identifiable. Archaeologists have recognised a triple disc, a notched rectangle and a mirror. The stone itself is an unshaped boulder with no overtly Christian carvings, so it falls into the category known as ‘Class I’. It was probably carved between the sixth and eighth centuries AD, before the influence of the Church led to Pictish sculpture becoming more sophisticated. Stones from the later classes tend to have regular shapes and Christian iconography. A common form of Class II, for example, is an upright slab with an ornate cross carved on one face and Pictish symbols on the other.

The new stone came to light because water levels in the Don had fallen after weeks of warm, dry weather. A fisherman spotted the stone and informed the University of Aberdeen, where the archaeology department is a renowned centre of research on the Picts. Historic Environment Scotland, the national archaeological body, subsequently became involved, together with the local authority and AOC Archaeology. A specialist team retrieved the stone from the river so that it can be conserved, studied and eventually put on display.

By the time my blogpost appears, the discovery of this stone will no doubt be well known in Scotland and beyond. I look forward to following the story in the weeks and months ahead. More information is sure to appear, with social media a good place to look for updates. With this in mind, I’ve included a useful and relevant Twitter account in the links below.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Dyce is already a familiar place on the Pictish sculpture map. At the ruined church of St Fergus are several stones, two of which stand out as fine examples of Class I and Class II respectively. The former is carved with two symbols while the latter has four. Common to both is the enigmatic ‘crescent and V-rod’ and I wonder if it might be significant that the Class II stone also shares the equally mysterious ‘triple disc’ with the new stone from the river.

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LINKS

The Scotsman newspaper: Stunning Pictish stone discovered in river by fisherman

Twitter: Bruce Mann (archaeologist for several local authorities including Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire) I regularly retweet news from Bruce Mann at my own account Early Scotland

Pictish stones at Dyce, St Fergus’ Church (Canmore database)

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