Who Were The Picts Part 2

I had originally planned part one of this blog series to be a stand-alone article, but it was obvious from some of the responses that there are some big gaps in a lot of people’s knowledge about the Celts and the Picts, and that people would like to hear more. I tend to forget that not everyone reads my regular research newsletter, which has had several articles over the years on the Celts and their origins. (To subscribe go to www.eirny.com and sign up in the right hand column.) So first a bit about the Celts as a category of people and then more specific info on the Picts.

It is known that the Celts migrated across Europe. The first official recognition of the Celts as a group was the Hallstatt culture of Austria. This article gives a good summary of the controversies and thoughts about the Celts and their migration across Europe.

But genetically, who are the Celts? We can start to answer this question by looking at who the ancestors of the people of Ireland were. First, I need to mention an issue that is sometimes problematic in genetically isolated populations. When a population is founded, the gene pool only has so many variations, and a small gene pool tends to concentrate genetic disorders. This is called founders effect. And yes, the Celts seem to suffer from this. But when did the genetic issues arrive in Ireland?

Well, a study of several ancient inhabitants of Ireland has yielded some very interesting results. It is a tiny sample, but it provides some very interesting insights. I am hoping that this sort of work will someday be able to be done on Pictish graves, as more quality archaeology is done in Scotland. The Picts do not appear to be as genetically isolated as the Irish were (more about that later), but the more DNA examples we have, the more we can begin to understand the origins of the various groups of Celtic peoples.

I ran across a very interesting article about Celtic languages during my research. I remember several years ago wandering around in some data bases that were discussing the number of languages that were spoken in the various countries of Europe. There were dozens of extinct and semi-extinct languages, many of which had Celtic origins. It really is quite amazing to consider the complexity of it all, and this article does a great job of explaining when the Celtic language arrived in Europe, and at least some of the branches that the language split into.

So back to the Picts. Why is there such an issue about finding information about them? It seems that the majority of Pictish finds have been in the form of hoards and standing stones. When settlements have been found, they are usually discovered through coastal erosion, and they are badly damaged.  This article reveals the typical Pictish site that has been excavated in the recent past, “phases I and II (of occupation) were Pictish and phases III-V were Norse; a sixth and final phase of activity was represented by a Viking-age burial inserted into the ruins of the last farmstead”.  Not exactly the most revealing discovery.

Next Time: The Foibles of Antiquarianism and More

Who Were The Picts?

One of the things that I do when I attend events is watch to see what new culture people are showing an interest in. There are definitely “fads” for various cultures, and I like to understand what they are so that I can better answer people’s questions and sometimes add new items to my shop. The majority of the new questions that I received at Gulf Wars this year were about Picts. And I saw a fair amount of confusion about Picts and Celts.

First, let me say that the Celts of Ireland and the Picts of Scotland were both Celtic peoples. Most authorities seem to agree that Pictish was a Celtic language, probably related to the Brittonic language that was spoken south of them. The ancient writers, including the Romans and people like Bede, mention the Picts, who lived in the north and eastern portions of Scotland. The ancient Irish writers seemed to feel a common bond with the Picts, who were Christianized in fits and starts, beginning in about the fifth century (the same time as St Patrick was working in Ireland) and culminating in about the 8th century, at least among the Southern Picts, by St. Ninnian.

The folks that I talked to at Gulf Wars were mostly interested in the characteristically Pictish symbols that were carved in stone slabs, and occasionally appear in jewelry and great works of scribal art, such as the Book of Kells. The big problem with this, is that we have absolutely no clue what these symbols mean. Nonetheless they are intriguing, and very mysterious, and have a lot of the same draw that Runes have. Some, like the z-rod, were probably considered powerful, since they seem to appear on important pieces of jewelry, like the terminal rings used to close the massive silver neck chains that appear to have been associated with important chiefs. This leaf shaped plaque from Norrie’s Law Hoard shows a typical z-rod symbol combined with a double disk.






Above all, Pictish art is so much more than just Celtic knotwork. It sometimes uses Celtic knotwork as a “filler”. The tapering designs, exotic beasts and trefoils are only a small portion of the magic of Pictish art.

Unfortunately most of the early finds were destroyed, or despoiled to the point where only a small portion of the artifacts survive. An exception to that is the St. Ninnian’s Isle Treasure, which was discovered during a purposeful excavation, July 4, 1958. The entire hoard, with the exception of part of a porpoise jaw bone, is made of silver, or silver gilt, and all 28 pieces have been preserved in the National Museum of Scotland. The website has a short video about the treasure as well as an excellent set of pictures.

There are also other Pictish treasures on the site, with some great pictures of the pieces. Especially when I am trying to understand a group that I have never really studied before, I always try to look at as much of their artwork and jewelry as I can. I have hopes that with increasingly large quantities of construction development in Scotland, modern archaeology will be able to shed more light on this fascinating, and very artistically complex culture.

Yes, They Had it… But What Was It?

One of the big problems that archaeologists deal with is finding things that they simply can’t identify.  For a number of years I was on an email list, conceived of and managed by Dr Dan Carlson, an Archaeologist working in Fröjel harbor in Sweden. Occasionally they would find something that they had questions about, and they would send a description and picture of the item out to the “hive mind” to ask for help. and often someone would have a clue. I remember one time in particular. I emailed this message:

“To me it looks like a tiny beater that could be used in tablet weaving or other narrow band weaving. I use something similar, made of wood, place it in the weaving shed and pull it gently towards the newly woven cloth to push the newly placed weft in place. I will be watching to see what other people think it is!”

The response from the archaeologist?

“You are obviously right! Most people have the same suggestions, and thinking of the pieces of thin plates of bone for tablet weaving at the sight, shows clearly that the technique was used at the site.”

The basic problem is that it is almost impossible for a researcher, or even a team of researchers, to have a complete knowledge of all of the equipment that was used in every art and craft, in any given culture. And now take even identifiable objects, and break them into pieces, and see if you can figure out what they used to be. And then take those pieces, and allow time and weather to corrode them and wear them away, and what do you have? Archaeology is often like a giant jigsaw puzzle where the box with the picture is missing, and the cat has eaten some pieces, and chewed up other ones.

And this problem does not become any less severe when we work during later time frames with more complex machinery. In about 1985 I was working in the Archaeology Lab at the University of Houston, as a grad student. One project involved a house that was burned because the inhabitants had died of Yellow Fever. (In the 1800’s people did not know that Yellow Fever was a mosquito borne disease, they thought it spread by contact, like Small Pox.) The head of the department suggested that I look at the finds because I “had a knack” for identifying odd pieces of metal. (I have always loved machinery and used to regularly take things apart and put them back together when I was a child.) They thought they were dealing with the daughter’s room, but could not be sure, and one of the other grad students poured out a bag of very rusty pieces of iron. And I knew what she had.








It was broken into about a dozen pieces, and had a different style frame than the one in the picture, but what she had were the pieces of a music box. The spring, the frame to hold the roller, the holder for the comb, and the comb to “plink” on the roller, were clear as day… to me. She had never seen the inside of a music box before, and had never even thought about how they worked.

So when you are busy looking through a museum’s digital collection, take a good look. Watch for mistakes (we all make them!), and if you think that you know what something is, do not hesitate to contact the museum. You could help them solve a mystery, or simply point out inadequate information on an old entry. And some, like the MET, may even send you a thank you email!