Who Were The Picts? Part 7

Last time I mentioned that we were going to be Picky About The Picts. Would it offend you if I said that that I thought of them as just another tribe of people who lived in the UK? We believe that they were Celtic in origin, but we don’t know when they arrived or where they came from.

I have been wading through, and I do mean wading through, a considerable number of Pictish studies. As I mentioned before, the majority are focused on Standing Stones, but there are others that deal with language and origins.

English: Aberlemno Cross. The duller light sho...

English: Aberlemno Cross. The duller light shows up the intricate patterns carved on the Pictish Cross. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

DNA studies tell us that in Ireland the Neolithic inhabitants were of Middle Eastern origin, with brown hair and brown eyes. The people that we think of as Irish, fair skinned, blue eyes, and red hair were there by the Bronze Age, and appear to have come from Eastern Europe, with about 1/3 of their genetics coming from the Pontic Steppe, an area now spread between Russia and Ukraine. But we do not have any DNA from the Picts, and there is no way to guess where they came from genetically. There is, as always, some amazing mythology.

Various myths say that the Picts came from Thrace, Scythia and Albania. Several state that the Picts had no women and therefore appealed to either the Irish or the Scots to give them women, which they did. One myth says that the Irish gave them women but then told them they needed to move out of Ireland because there was not enough room there for everyone.

The Pictish Chronicle, also called the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba, appears to date from the reign of Kenneth II (971-995). It was written in the same form as many of the Irish Chronologies. The purpose of these sort of Chronologies was to legitimize the reign of the king. They are not considered to be accurate historical documents. If you are interested in reading it, it is available online, with annotations to clarify the text.

So, where does all of this leave us? My impression is that most people would like to know what they wore, what they ate, and how they lived, not an analysis of the stylistic variations in their crosses. In fact, I know of several folks who would prefer information about pre-Christian Picts.

But how do we go about reconstructing Christian Picts must less pre-Christian Picts? Well, first of all, we can estimate that the Picts were Christianized sometime between the 500’s and 800’s AD. Being “Christianized” does not instantly change the vast majority of the details of a culture. The people are still dealing with the same environment, with the same resources. Many of the Pictish standing stones have both elaborate crosses and “traditional” symbols like the z-rod, carved into them. The article that I mentioned previously about the Pictish (700-800 AD) and Viking (800 AD) farmsteads in Orkney (which has apparently disappeared from free sources, which is why I always save pdf’s when I find them) describes this fact very well, when discussing the food remains:

“Based on a sample of about 7,000 bones overall, it would seem that there was little difference in the animal bones between Pictish and Norse periods… the proportion throughout the occupation of the site was about 50% cattle, 30% sheep and 20% pig….Bird meat does not appear to have played an important part in the diet in any phase…Fish appear to have been more important as a source of food in Norse times than in Pictish times.

Next Time: What Else Can We Figure Out?

Who Were The Picts? Part 6

Last time we asked: Is there an easy way to locate sources?

For those of us without academic library access the best approach is to use a specific search engine: Google Scholar. This search engine is specifically geared to serious research and eliminates most of the flaky sites and commercials. That does not, of course, mean that old articles can’t be there. What I like to call “Antiquarian specials” will still show up, but the date when the article or book was published is listed. So watch out for reprints of older journal articles and books.

Another very important point that I want to make is that you can’t stop at the first page of searches. The number of people that I have run across that do this is really sad. No one said researching is always easy. If you want the information you may have to go through 20 pages to find it. I can’t tell you the number of times that I was a bit discouraged by the lack of information that I found, and the next page contained that one article that was a gold mine of information. And making slight changes in how you search can make a huge difference, too. Write down the search terms that you have used and actively try to think of other ways to search for information. As I mentioned before, adding Scotland to “Picts” will eliminate a lot of extraneous material.

My next point is probably the most difficult to deal with. We currently know very little about the Picts. We have no idea where they came from or when they arrived in northern Scotland. Cultures like this are a perfect candidate for ” fantasy history”, also known as “booja, booja”.  The way this works is that you choose a culture that has very little known about it, and you link it to another culture (usually one that is fairly geographically distant) that has very little known about it. It creates an exciting, romantic, almost sci-fi sort of link, sort of like believing that Stonehenge was beamed in by aliens.

The best example of “booja,booja” involving the Picts that I have found was equating the pre-Christian religion of the Picts with the Indo-European religion of Mithraism.  There is very little information about either one, and they are both mysterious, so why not? I enjoy fantasy as much as the next person, but as a professionally trained Archaeologist I prefer science whenever possible. If you really want to read a scientific attempt at deciphering what the religion of the Picts might look like, here is an academic article about the topic. It is actually a pretty cool analysis of a stone carving. And if you would like to hear what a frustrated academician feels like when they find a mish-mosh of cultures, mixed together with neo-paganism and a little criminal trespass and presented as a valid “fact”, I present you with another article, “Shamans, stones, authenticity and appropriation: contestations of invention and meaning”.

Next Time: Being Picky About the Picts


English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who Were the Picts? Part 5

Taking a quick break before I continue with the “researching” part of this blog series to deal with some points that are beginning to show up on my Facebook page: comments about blue paint/blue tattoos, and the origins of the name “Pict”.

What do we know for sure? The earliest surviving known use of the term “Picti” was the year 297 by Eumenius, a Roman of Greek descent. The word “Picti” is generally assumed to mean “painted or tattooed people” and may have initially referred to all of the people in Great Britain. Since no tatoos are evident on any of the stone carvings attributed to the Picts, it is now thought that the “paint” interpretation may be the more accurate one.

As for who they were when the Roman’s arrived, as Sally M. Foster noted, “Much ink has been spilt over what the ancient writers meant by Picts, but it seems to be a generic term for people living north of the Forth–Clyde isthmus who raided the Roman Empire.” That means the Picts lived in Scotland, mostly in the eastern half. Who they were before the Roman’s discovered them is a topic that I plan to discuss at a later time, so back to research!

Last time I mentioned “The Art of the Picts” as a reliable and academically plausible source of information. But where else can we go for information about the Picts?

The vast majority of quality information that I have found about the Picts has come from Dissertations and Academic Journals. I do not currently have any academic affiliations, so I am not able to access the academic journal services, and to be honest, with prices of at least $35 an article, purchasing academic journal articles is not generally in my budget. If you have access to any of the professional journal services, through work, or school, that would probably be the first place that I would go to.

Knowing how to search, once you get there is also important. PICTS. It seems like an easy enough search term, until you understand that it is an acronym for The Psychological Inventory of Criminal Thinking Styles (PICTS). Ooops! Not exactly what we are looking for. I have run across this type of problem before where my search term either is an acronym, or has an alternative meaning in a specialized field. Sometimes adding more information to the search, like “Picts in Scotland” is enough to eliminate items from the criminal justice system, but sometimes you may just have to wade through the individual search entries. If you have a lack of experience doing academic searches, I suggest that you read my blog series. It is fairly comprehensive, and it will cover a good number of the major points for doing online research.

Researching on the Cheap: Part 1    Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8   Part 9   Part 10   Part 11

Next Time: Is there an easy way to locate sources?