Rhynie Man

Rhynie Man
This month, a team of archaeologists is hoping to shed light on an ancient carving known as Rhynie Man. This mysterious figure, carrying an axe over his shoulder, appears on a slab of stone more than six feet high. The slab was found in 1978, on a field in the Aberdeenshire village of Rhynie, near the site of a major Pictish fortress.

The archaeologists are currently excavating in the area, to see if anything can be learned of Rhynie Man’s original location and purpose. One possibility is that his stone was placed near the entrance of the fort – an entirely plausible setting for such an imposing image. The shape of his axe suggests a connection with sacrificial rites, so perhaps he represents a pagan priest of the sort who no doubt performed important ceremonies for the fort’s high-status occupants. This would fit with the pre-Christian context of the carving, which has been dated to c.500 AD, a hundred years before Pictish paganism began to retreat in the face of missionary activity from Iona and elsewhere.

I’m starting to wonder if Rhynie Man might even be a ‘Pictish druid’ like the ones encountered by St Columba near Inverness in the late sixth century.

The links below give further information about the archaeological excavation.

Rhynie Man’s blog at WordPress

Rhynie Man on Twitter

Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project

Celebrate ScotlandArchaeologists aim to uncover mystery of Rhynie Man

Press & Journal (newspaper) – New excavation seeks to unearth mystery of the Rhynie Man

The Herald (newspaper) – Dig may unlock secrets of ancient Pictish carving

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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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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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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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The Northern Picts Project

Tarbat Old Parish Church, Portmahomack

Tarbat Old Parish Church, Portmahomack, Easter Ross (© B Keeling)


The Northern Picts Project is a collaborative venture involving the University of Aberdeen and the Tarbat Discovery Centre in Easter Ross. The main focus of research is the archaeology of Fortriu, a major Pictish kingdom that was once believed to lie in southern Perthshire. In 2006, a groundbreaking article by Alex Woolf suggested that Fortriu lay further north, beyond The Mounth (the eastern part of the Grampian Mountains). Woolf’s revised geography has generally been accepted, with the result that the kingdom’s heartland is now seen as Moray and Easter Ross rather than Strathearn.

As well as investigating the archaeology of Fortriu, the Northern Picts Project also looks at the kingdom’s history. This is the topic of A Historical Introduction to the Northern Picts, written by Nicholas Evans and issued by the project as the first in a series of publications.

One area of particular interest for the project is the Tarbat Peninsula. This contains not only the major Pictish monastery of Portmahomack – reputedly founded by St Colman in the seventh century – but also a number of hillforts and carved stones. The site of the monastery is now occupied by Tarbat Old Parish Church, now home to the Tarbat Discovery Centre – an award-winning museum and heritage venue.

The wider context of the Northern Picts Project is an international study called Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North which encompasses a broad swathe of North European peoples and cultures. This larger project enables historians and archaeologists to consider how the early kingdoms of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere interacted with one another as they evolved during the first millennium AD.

Further information can be found via the links below.

Northern Picts Project
Tarbat Discovery Centre [follow on Twitter @TarbatMuseum]
Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North
A Historical Introduction to the Northern Picts [book by Nicholas Evans]
Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts [book by Martin Carver]

Reference:
Alex Woolf, ‘Dun Nechtain, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201.

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Picts at Dunnicaer

Pictish symbol stone Dunnicaer

Fish symbol and triangle on a stone from Dunnicaer.


Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have recently discovered a Pictish fort on the summit of Dunnicaer, a ‘sea stack’ near Dunnottar Castle. Dunnicaer lies approximately 1 mile south of the town of Stonehaven but is isolated from the mainland at high tide. A number of stone fragments inscribed with Pictish symbols were found there in the nineteenth century, suggesting that it was a significant place in early medieval times. However, with steep slopes and rugged cliffs, it is hardly the most accessible archaeological site in Scotland – which is probably why it had never been excavated before. The Aberdeen team needed the guidance of a professional climber to help them get to the top.

Dunnottar Castle, situated a quarter of a mile further south, stands on a prominent headland jutting into the North Sea. Built in the twelfth century, it served as a stronghold for Clan Keith from the 1300s to the 1700s and was an important strategic site. References in medieval texts show its frequent involvement in warfare and dynastic politics. Older sources relating to the Dark Ages refer to a fortress called Dun Foither (the Gaelic name for Dunnottar). Contemporary annals state that this was besieged twice in the seventh century – in 681 and 694 – probably during wars between rival Pictish kings. It has long been assumed that the fortress in question stood on the headland now occupied by the castle. However, excavations conducted thirty years ago failed to reveal any evidence of Pictish settlement, prompting a suggestion that the original Dun Foither might instead be Dunnicaer.

Dunnottar Castle
[Above and below: two nineteenth-century views of Dunnottar Castle]

Dunnottar Castle

The recent excavation at Dunnicaer has now confirmed that this remote sea-stack was indeed the site of a small Pictish fortress. It was built sometime between c.400-600 and comprised a timber house or hall defended by an outer rampart of stone. Upon this defensive wall the symbol-inscribed stones discovered in the nineteenth century were probably displayed. It is also likely that the occupants devised a more convenient method of access than a scramble up the steep sides. They may, for example, have built a wooden bridge as a link to the mainland.

Archaeological finds – including charcoal from a hearth in the house – are now being anlaysed by experts. These may give clues about how, when and by whom the site was used. Was it perhaps the residence of an important local family, or some kind of military lookout post?

Pictish stone Dunnicaer

An ornate double-disc & Z-rod symbol on a stone from Dunnicaer.

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Links

These are a mixture of news items and database entries:

‘Significant’ Pictish fort found off Aberdeenshire coast (BBC News) [includes a video showing how the archaeologists scaled the steep sides of Dunnicaer]
Pictish fort discovered on remote sea stack (Daily Mail)
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the settlement at Dunnicaer
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the Dunnicaer symbol stones
Dunnicaer promontary fort (The Modern Antiquarian)
RCAHMS Canmore database entries for Dunnicaer and Dunnottar Castle

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References

Thomson, A (1860) ‘Notice of sculptured stones found at “Dinnacair”, a rock in the sea, near Stonehaven’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 3, pp. 69-75.

Alcock, Leslie & Alcock, Elizabeth (1992) ‘Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 1974-84; 5: A, Excavations & other fieldwork at Forteviot, Perthshire, 1981; B, Excavations at Urquhart Castle, Inverness-shire, 1983; C, Excavations at Dunnottar, Kincardineshire, 1984’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 122, pp. 215–287.

[Both articles can be accessed via the PSAS online archive]

dunnicaer_map

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Note: The two symbol-stone illustrations shown in this blogpost are from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1856).

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Pictish carvings at the Wemyss Caves

wemyssheader
East Wemyss is a former coal-mining village on the south coast of Fife. It is famous for a group of sandstone caves along the shoreline, these having been delved in some far-off time when the waters of the Firth of Firth were higher than today. The cave walls are adorned with ancient carvings, many of which are now hard to discern. A number of these have been dated to the early medieval period and were carved by local Picts in the sixth to ninth centuries AD.

map_fife2c

Damage to the caves by erosion, neglect and vandalism led to the formation of a group dedicated to preserving and conserving them. Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) was founded in 1986, after one of the sites – Jonathan’s Cave – was damaged by fire when a stolen car was driven inside and set alight. Since then, SWACS has been at the forefront of efforts to protect the caves and their unique carvings, co-operating with other organisations in projects aimed at increasing knowledge and raising awareness.

One of the latest projects is using high-tech scanning methods to produce 3D digital images and models of the caves. This began with Jonathan’s Cave and is now being extended to the others. One exciting result of the project is Wemyss Caves 4D, a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave with an interactive aspect giving detailed information. It allows the user to feel like an explorer, even giving an option to shine a torch for a better view of the carvings. This is great for those of us who have yet to experience an official tour with a guide from SWACS. See the link at the end of this blogpost if you want to try it for yourselves.

Although I’ve had a few holidays in Fife, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I visited the Wemyss caves for the first time. Even then, I only managed to get a brief look. In the fading light of early evening I followed the public path along the shoreline, passing the Court Cave and Doo Cave and having a quick peep inside. Unfortunately I was short of time so didn’t venture further along the shore to see the other caves, nor did I catch a glimpse of any ancient designs.

Back home, I consulted my copy of Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903) where the Pictish carvings in the Wemyss caves are described. Here’s an image from ECMS showing some of the Pictish symbols in Doo Cave, drawn by John Romilly Allen:

Wemyss Caves Pictish Symbols

I’ve selected the above symbols from Allen’s original sketch because they’re familiar and recognisable – unlike others which are more abstract or esoteric. My selection shows the double-disc & Z-rod (attached to an animal’s head), the Pictish beast or ‘swimming elephant’, the arch, the rectangle, the bird and four double-discs. All of these can be seen in variant forms on Pictish symbol stones, usually in combinations of two or more, and often with other symbols not shown here. Sadly, the double-disc & Z-rod was on a section of wall that collapsed when a gun emplacement was placed on top of the cliff during World War One.

The cave I’m most keen to visit is Jonathan’s Cave, mainly because I’ve done a bit of research on it from afar. It popped onto my radar in the mid-1990s, when I was gathering information on early medieval naval warfare for a PhD thesis. I was looking for images of Pictish ships and came across an article describing an oared vessel carved on the east wall of Jonathan’s Cave. Back then, I made a note to see this important carving for myself, little knowing that the visit would still be sitting on my ‘to do’ list twenty years later. It’s something I really should tick off before another decade slips by. A brief stroll along the shoreline at East Wemyss on a March evening, with little more than a hasty peek at two of the caves, has merely whetted my appetite.

Wemyss Caves

Looking west along the shore from Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Tree, sandstone cliff and warning sign outside Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

The entrance to Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

The entrance to Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Looking out across the Firth of Firth (© B Keeling).

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Notes & links

The place-name Wemyss (pronounced ‘Weems’) comes from the Gaelic word uamh meaning ‘cave’.

Jonathan’s Cave is named from a poor man who lived inside with his family in the late 1700s.
Court Cave was the site of the local baronial court in the Middle Ages. The nearby Macduff’s Castle was the seat of the earls of Fife.
Doo Cave, originally Doocot (‘Dovecot’) Cave, was once a place where pigeons were kept.
The other caves at East Wemyss are Well Cave, Sloping Cave and Gas Works Cave. Several more have collapsed.

Notices at the cave entrances warn visitors of the danger of entering. SWACS recommends booking a tour with one of their guides (see website below).

SWACS website (Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society)

Wemyss caves 4D [use the Explore option for a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave]

A blogpost from SCHARP (Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project) on the scanning project: ‘Wemyss Caves 4D continues…’

Information on Jonathan’s Cave at the RCAHMS Canmore database

From the Courier newspaper, an article on the threat of erosion: ‘Do they want to see them lost forever? — council told it needs to do more to protect Wemyss Caves.’

Lastly, the article that first drew my attention to the Wemyss Caves: Elizabeth le Bon, ‘The Jonathan’s Cave boat carving: a question of authenticity?’ International Journal of Nautical Archaeology vol.21 (1992), 337-42

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