The ancient Picts of northern and eastern Scotland were as enigmatic to their contemporaneous neighbors as they are to modern-day scholars. Nevertheless, despite the shadowy and wild stereotypes that still abound in popular imagination, recent archaeological excavations across Scotland have revealed astonishing works of art, impressive fortifications, and evidence of strong links with continental Europe.
In this exclusive interview with the Ancient History Encyclopedia, James Blake Wiener speaks to Dr. Gordon Noble, an archaeologist and professor at Aberdeen University, about these recent archaeological discoveries and how we should best understand the Picts in the history of ancient Britain.
JW: Dr. Gordon Noble, welcome to the Ancient History Encyclopedia! We are very excited to be speaking to you about the enigmatic yet intriguing Picts of ancient Scotland. Aside from sparse and biased Roman, Irish, Briton, and Anglo-Saxon descriptions of Pictish life and society, we know very little about the historical Picts.
The “Venerable” St. Bede (c. 672-735 CE) and several ancient Irish legends substantiate “Scythian” origins for the Picts, but more recent scholarship has suggested other theories. Some scholars believe that a “Pictish Confederation” was formed in response to the growth of the Roman Empire.
What are your opinions regarding these matters? Is there any archaeological evidence, which would tip the scale in favor of one idea or another?
GN: Many of the early medieval groups of the north have elaborate origin myths associated with their ethnogenesis. All the evidence points to the Picts being indigenous to northern Scotland. I believe that they began to coalesce during the late Roman period and formed some of the most powerful kingdoms in northern Britain in the early medieval period. By the 10th century CE, the Pictish kingdoms seem to have been amalgamated with the Scots to form a Gaelic Kingdom of Alba, which was the forerunner to the medieval Kingdom of Scotland.
JW: In Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the Picts were routinely characterized as tattooed “barbarians,” “pirates,” and simply as “butchers” as the Briton cleric Gildas (c. c. 500-570 CE) opined. However, the Picts utilized the Ogham script, and some would contend that they surpassed their Anglo-Saxon neighbors in artistic production and design.
What are the most widely held misconceptions of the Picts that you routinely encounter as a researcher? Have recent archaeological excavations done anything to change these erroneous perceptions amongst the public?
GN: Most often, simply that they were mysterious and unsophisticated. Our archaeological work at Rhynie has found a sophisticated Pictish power center dating to the fifth and sixth centuries CE, where the Picts were importing wine from the Mediterranean and glassware from Roman Gaul. Dr. Martin Carver’s excavations at Portmahomack has found evidence of a Pictish monastery and the production of illuminated manuscripts. Clearly, the Picts were no more barbaric than their warlike neighbors, and the Pictish legacy includes some of the most dramatic artistic achievements of the early medieval north.
JW: Dr. Noble, there is recent evidence of watermills and kilns — which were used for drying kernels of wheat or barley — in the areas the Picts inhabited. Additionally, the Picts built impressive forts at strategic points inland and along the North Sea.
What do archaeological remains in Scotland tell us about the material and martial culture of the Pictish people?
GN: This was a stratified society where hill forts and other defended settlements played an important role. The fifth-sixth centuries CE witnesses a rebirth of the phenomenon of building forts, and this seems to be an important marker of power and kingship in this period. Some of the few historical references to the Picts also make it clear that forts played important roles in territorial disputes and claims to power. It is only in the last few decades that people have begun to find more about the daily lives of the Picts with the discovery of more “everyday” settlements.
JW: The Picts are distinguished in British history for having defeated both Roman and Anglo-Saxon invaders. At the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685 CE, they defeated the Northumbrians, thereby preserving their independence and limiting Anglo-Saxon influence in northern Britain.
However, their relationship with the “Scotti” was more nuanced. The Picts alternately cooperated, intermarried, and fought with the Gaels of Dál Riata over the course of 400 years. Do you believe the Scots — through a process of Gaelicization — ultimately absorbed the Picts? Is there an archaeological explanation for their so-called “disappearance”?
GN: This is indeed a topic of major debate, but it seems clear that even with the creation of Alba and the Gaelicization of Pictland, that the Pictish identity was still recognized at least for a few generations. What this change seems to represent is an increasing amalgamation of Picts and Scots – probably because of increasing Viking pressure on the native kingdoms of northern Britain.
JW: Over the past two years, you have been working on a very unique archaeological project: “The Sands of Forvie: The World Beneath the Sand.”
This landscape study analyzes the extensive prehistoric and early historic occupation at the Sands of Forvie — a nature reserve north of Newburgh in Aberdeenshire, located in the northeast of Scotland. Why was this area selected for excavation, and what did you and those associated with the project uncover?
GN: This simply began as a project to characterize and date a series of massive shell middens known here — shell middens on this scale are often assumed to be prehistoric, but the big surprise here was that they were Pictish in date. Clearly the Picts were having big shellfish-eating parties down on the sands. We have also been running projects on the Picts at Rhynie — a probable early royal center — in association with the Tarbat Discovery Centre, where we are investigating the wider context of the Pictish monastery at Portmahomack.
Given that we know so little about them, I would suspect that you are excited about the possibilities of conducting research and excavating unexplored sites.
GN: Exactly, James — there is so much potential for a more archaeologically focused investigation of the Picts. I originally became fascinated while studying art history at Aberdeen University where I was first introduced to the amazing art of the Picts — best represented by the hundreds of Pictish stones found across northeast Scotland.
JW: What do you think is the most enduring legacy of the Picts today? You have already mentioned Pictish art in particular.
GN: Indeed! The material legacy for sure — the art, the sculpture, and the fascination the Picts create amongst the general public today. They are a powerful metaphor for our “lost” past that archaeology can help uncover.
JW: I thank you so much for you time and consideration, Dr. Noble. We look forward to reading more about your work in the near future!
GN: Thanks James!
- The Craw Stane with Tap o’Noth hillfort in the background. Photo courtesy of Ms. Cathy MacIver.
- The Whitecleuch Chain — a high status Pictish silver chain– is only one of ten known to exist. It dates from c. 400-800 CE. This file is in the public domain. Image credit: F Lamiot, October 2008.
- Map with the approximate locations of the ancient Pictish kingdoms. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image credit: Lordpeyre, December 2012.
- The Rogart brooch, a Pictish penannular brooch, Scotland. Dates from c. 750 CE, silver with gilding and glass. This file is in the public domain. Image credit: F Lamiot, October 2008.
- Animal head from the St Ninian’s Isle Treasure, which was found on the island of Shetland. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image credit: Johnbod, June 2011.
- A reconstructed crannóg on Loch Tay in the district of Perthshire, Scotland. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image credit: Daveybot, March 2007.
- The Hilton of Cadboll Stone in the Museum of Scotland. The Hilton of Cadboll Stone is a Class II Pictish stone discovered at Hilton of Cadboll, on the East coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in Easter Ross, Scotland. It is one of the most magnificent of all Pictish cross-slabs. On the seaward-facing side is a Christian cross, and on the landward facing side are secular depictions. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image credit: Lorne McGregor, July 2010.
Dr. Gordon Noble has undertaken landscape research and directed field projects across Scotland. He has worked on a wide range of landscapes and archaeology projects from the Neolithic to Medieval periods. Dr. Gordon is the director and co-founder of Strathearn & Royal Forteviot (SERF), a successful archaeological project researching the prehistoric and early historic landscape at Forteviot, a site that became one of Scotland’s early royal centers, and director of the Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project (REAP). Since completing his PhD in 2004, Dr. Gordon has held a temporary lectureship in Durham (2004-2005) and from 2005-2008, he undertook postdoctoral research on the perception of the forested environment at the University of Glasgow. Dr. Gordon was appointed as lecturer to the department at Aberdeen University in July 2008. In July 2012, he was appointed Senior Lecturer and is also a Honorary Curatorial Fellow to the Aberdeen University Museums.
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, in-depth interviews with scholars, and recent book reviews. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is also a freelance writer, editor, and journalist who is interested in cross-cultural exchange and world history. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world — while still retaining his medievalist and early modernist tendencies — James is committed to excellence in journalism and research.
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