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Issue 120

Sep / Oct 2011



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Digging up the Picts

Sacred waters

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


A dark age power centre at Rhynie

Gordon Noble and Meggen Gondek have been excavating around the famous Pictish symbol stones at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire. As they describe, they think they may have identified an important but unrecorded high status early medieval site.

In the late third century AD Roman writers started to record attacks on Britain's northern frontier. They called the aggressors Picti, or "painted people", and throughout the fourth century Roman military campaigns were waged against the Picts as they caused repeated trouble north and south of Hadrian's Wall. After the Roman withdrawal, during the early medieval period around AD400–900, the kingdoms of the Picts became some of the most powerful political groups in northern Britain.

These political changes were part of a wider trend in northern Europe during the second half of the first millennium AD, towards more centralised authority and power over increasingly larger territories. Yet there was also constant flux in power structures and social and political alliances. And these changes happen when the archaeological record becomes more diffuse and difficult to interpret, and native historical documents are scarce.


The Craw Stane, with Tap O' Noth hillfort on the left horizon

Fortunately, the Picts left behind elaborate carvings known as symbol stones. These are a remarkable record of identity, belief and lifestyle, testament to the power and vitality of the Pictish kingdoms. Yet the Pictish symbols have not been translated – interpretations of their meanings have been many and varied – and little direct archaeological work had been carried out in relation to the stones. There has long been a mysterious air associated with the Picts.

It was with this in mind that the Rhynie Environs Archaeology Project (REAP), directed by archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen and the University of Chester, set out to investigate the area surrounding a unique collection of eight symbol stones found south of the village of Rhynie, Aberdeenshire.

Rhynie's stones – all of which are class 1, or stones without Christian motifs – were discovered from the 19th century to the 1970s on the edges of the modern village. The monuments include the Craw Stane, thought to stand in, or near, its original location. This is a relatively rare feature for symbol stones, which tend to be found re-used or out of context. In the early 1990s a remarkable series of aerial photographs taken by Moira Greig of Aberdeenshire Archaeology Service, following up earlier aerial survey, captured details of a series of enclosures around the Craw Stane. Early in our project, REAP established that the dating of these enclosures may be key to understanding the stones' context ("Landscape with symbols", Mar/Apr 2006, no 87).


In sunny April 2011, we conducted evaluative excavation at Rhynie and revealed exceptional evidence for the context of the symbol stones. Our trench targeted the four enclosure boundaries identified in the air photos and during a geophysical survey we conducted in 2005/6. During the excavation, Historic Scotland granted scheduled monument consent to extend the trench to the base of the Craw Stane. The excavation revealed four separate lines of enclosure, all surrounding this stone and the northern edge of the sand and gravel ridge upon which it stands. This stout system of defensive boundaries overlooks the Waters of Bogie, and the ridge dramatically slopes to the north and east down to the river.

The four enclosure boundaries consisted of an inner ditch, an outer ditch, a circular setting of large postholes and a palisade trench. Inside the enclosures, we uncovered a ring ditch structure and evidence for one or more timber buildings. Ring ditches are classic features of mid bronze age to Roman iron age settlements in Scotland (around 1800BC–AD300), so the crescentic ditch bracketing a four-post setting at Rhynie could pre-date the enclosure system. Beam slots, postholes, post settings and a major destruction layer suggest a massive timber building or series of timber structures once stood near the Craw Stane. A very large pit, cut by one of the beam slots and some 3.3m across, could be the remains of the storage cellar of an earlier building in this area.

The two enclosure ditches were substantial, perhaps augmented by internal banks. The outer ditch (4m wide, 1.1m deep) showed evidence of having been recut. There was a substantial destruction layer in this secondary ditch, consisting of burnt material, stone, fragments of pottery, metalwork and glass, and animal bone. Many of the excavation's best finds occurred here. The outer enclosure's palisade trench was one of the most impressive features on site, almost 1.4m deep, suggesting it supported a very substantial timber superstructure. On the palisade's interior side, a post setting formed a regular line around 2m from its edge; posts and palisade seem to have been parts of an integral structure.

Amphora Handle

Late Roman amphora handle

The real excitement from the excavation came when we began to identify the finds from the outer enclosure ditch, for some of these were exceptional for an early medieval site in northern Britain. Most of them came from the ditch's destruction level, and amongst the most remarkable were large fragments from a Roman amphora of late fifth to mid sixth century date, imported from the southern Mediterranean. Ewan Campbell, a University of Glasgow expert in early medieval imported pottery, has also identified sherds from another type of imported amphora.

The function of this pottery is debated, but it was most likely used for transporting and storing wine or perhaps less likely oil. It is extremely rare in Britain, and hitherto unknown in the east. It has been found only at very high status sites in western Britain, such as Tintagel (Cornwall) and Cadbury Castle (Somerset). In Scotland it is found on sites of high, sometimes even royal status, such as Dumbarton, the Mote of Mark and Whithorn, all in the west.

Imported Glass Fragment

Fragment from an imported continental glass drinking bowl

Amber Beads

Amber beads

A small sherd of clear glass with white trails has been identified as a piece of imported continental sixth–seventh century drinking bowl, the first of its kind from Pictland. Other finds included bronze pins, one nearly complete, and two amber beads, which our preliminary assessment suggests find their closest parallels in sixth–seventh century Anglo-Saxon grave assemblages. Anglo-Saxon material is very rare in Pictland, and northern Britain more generally, and so this could prove to be very important.

All in all, the finds from a tiny proportion of the site suggest high-status activity with fine dining and drinking. The fortifications and buildings may well prove to be a high-status settlement of the sixth–seventh centuries, perhaps akin to royal status sites in Scotland such as Dunadd, seatof the Scots, Dumbarton, seat of the Strathclyde Britons, and Dundurn, a major Pictish hillfort in southern Pictland.

The palisade and post setting is most likely to represent the front and back of a timber-built box rampart enclosing this prominent ridge, part of a massive defensive timber super-structure. Palisades are a known element of other major early medieval sites, such as the hillforts of Dumbarton and Dundurn, but these have rarely been identified in lowland contexts. Possible parallels are the palisaded sites at Yeavering (Northumbria) and Doon Hill (East Lothian), both Anglian centres of the sixth–seventh centuries; the former was a major royal site. The potential parallel with Yeavering is intriguing astopographically Rhynie and Yeavering sit within very similar landscapes, both in the shadow of earlier late iron age tribal centres: Yeavering Bell and, at Rhynie, Tap O' Noth. However, it could be that some of the enclosures at Rhynie also date to an earlier era – the inner ditch for example appears to have been backfilled by the time the putative timber structure by the Craw Stane was built.

We did not substantially sample deposits near the Craw Stane during the phase of evaluative excavation, but it is possible the features represent a large rectangular timber building, perhaps even an early medieval feasting "hall". Large timber halls are a known element of early medieval society across north-west Europe, but few have been seen in Pictland. The closest parallels may again come from areas that were under Anglo-Saxon political control, such as timber halls excavated at Lockerbie (Dumfries and Galloway) and Doon Hill. Doon Hill potentially provides a close parallel to Rhynie as it has a timber hall set within a polygonal palisaded enclosure of similar dimensions to Rhynie's. Only further excavation will tell us more about the form of the Rhynie structures.

Exact parallels for Rhynie will also only be obtainable once radiocarbon dating provides a firmer chronology for the palisade and the other structures. Indeed, it is unlikely that all of the enclosure boundaries are contemporary – it may be that the Pictish phases of activity extend back into the Roman iron age or even further in time. The only clear dating evidence for the enclosures so far is the finds assemblage in the outer ditch, which was recut and filled with destruction material at some point during the sixth or seventh centuries AD. Post-excavation study continues, and radiocarbon dates will soon be obtained for the enclosures and activity within.

Violent end

The excavations at Rhynie are beginning to shed important light on the archaeology of the northern Picts. With time our evidence can perhaps be related to the scant historical record. Early medieval writers such as Bede, for example, say the Picts were divided into two major groupings, northern and southern, and the Annals of Ulster refer to kings of different parts of Pictland. The Pictish kinglists also suggest Pictland may have been further subdivided into at least seven separate provinces.

Recently Alex Woolf has suggested one of the most powerful Pictish provinces, Fortriu, was located amongst the northern Picts, in the western reaches of the Moray Firth. Rhynie may have lain at the edges of this territory and another province known as Cé, though its exact place and status within the political system of the Picts remain to be seen. Nevertheless, the material recovered from the very substantial system of fortifications at the site certainly suggests that despite the lack of historical references and previous consideration by historians, Rhynie can take its place as an important force in the power politics of early medieval Scotland.

The Rhynie evidence also has implications for our understanding of trade networks and political relationships in sixth–seventh century Britain and further afield. The imported pottery is highly significant, for it has not been found in Anglo-Saxon or Pictish contexts to date, or east coast sites in Britain more generally, suggesting that Rhynie had political and trading links with the kingdoms of the west.

In future studies it will also be important to consider what happened to Rhynie, for unlike many other early medieval power centres, its status did not survive into later medieval times. Leslie Alcock, the pioneer of northern Britain's early medieval archaeology, pointed out the risky nature of elite society, calculating that between the seventh and ninth centuries AD, 6% of kings were slain by contenders for kingship, 12% were assassinated by their own war band and 30% died in battle: a near 50:50 chance of a premature and violent end if you were one of the major power players of early medieval society!

Almost every feature excavated at Rhynie was full of heavily burnt deposits, and the finds mainly came from what appears to be a destruction layer in the outer ditch. Perhaps this is direct evidence for the sieges, battles and violence recorded in the scant contemporary historical record.

The impressive group of class 1 Pictish symbol stones and the substantial cropmark evidence pointed to Rhynie being a significant site. But up to the present excavations the nature of these features and the relationships between the upstanding and below ground remains were always unclear. This phase of evaluative work strongly suggests that the Craw Stane and two other symbol stones nearby may have been associated with a high status sixth–seventh century settlement. Only detailed post-excavation, including radiocarbon dating, and further phases of fieldwork will elucidate the full sequence.

The exceptional finds of imported Mediterranean amphorae – the most northern and eastern such occurrences in Britain – the metalwork, and the site morphology, provide exceptional opportunities for exploring the relationship between the Pictish provinces and other major emerging kingdoms of Britain of this time. Further work at Rhynie will provide much-needed evidence for the nature of a major site of the northern Picts. More generally, the excavations at Rhynie also show the great potential of direct archaeological investigation and approaches to north-west Europe's early medieval carved stones.

Gordon Noble is lecturer in archaeology at the University of Aberdeen; Meggen Gondek is reader in archaeology at the University of Chester.

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