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?

Who Were the Picts? Part 4

Last time I asked – where do I go for real references? I would love to tell you that there are tons of easily accessible, and inexpensive, books that you can just add to your library. But unfortunately it really is not that easy. As I mentioned last time, a lot of the earlier works on the Picts were of poor academic quality.

In addition many early studies of the Picts were focused 100% on standing stones and crosses. My own exposure to Insular Art began with Calligraphy and Illumination. Treasures like the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, and the Lindesfarne Gospels entranced me with their complexity and made me curious about the people who created them. But many of the manuscript studies that I have run across show no interest at all in the people who created them. Unfortunately almost no writings appear to have survived from the Picts. I keep hoping that some will emerge from the stacks in a university collection, but so far, it has not happened. There are a few Pictish inscriptions which were written in Ogham script, but we have no surviving literary evidence of manuscripts.

At this point I need to mention a very important point. You may have noticed that I mentioned “surviving manuscripts”. We don’t know for sure whether there were any manuscripts to start with, but we do know that Protestantism did quite a bit of damage in the northern UK. The Governor of the Isle of Man visited Iona in 1688. He noted that a Reformation Synod had ordered “sixty crosses to be cast into the sea”. Another description, written in 1693, reported that “there had once been 360 crosses “which vas all destroyed by one provinciall assembly holden an the place a little after the reformation”. It really is impossible to guess how much was destroyed by zealots. The Pictish churches had, well before the Reformation, become completely Roman Catholic, with no trace of their Celtic origins, and therefore were subject to the purges of the Reformation and the Dissolution of Monasteries.

So now what? While scrounging around online looking for sources I discovered Oxford Bibliographies. This is how they define Insular art.  “Insular art is a poorly defined area. Broadly speaking, it refers to the art of the British Isles and Ireland between, roughly, the years 600 and 900 CE. In Scotland (which includes the art of the Picts, Gaels, and Scots), Ireland, and the Isle of Man, it is often extended through the Viking and Romanesque periods, into the 12th century, while in England it is usually understood as ending in or around the last quarter of the 9th century.” And then they give us a bibliography. You can’t see all of it unless you subscribe, but it is a start.

I was delighted to discover, as I went through this and other sources that one of my favorite books “The Art of the Picts: Sculpture and Metalwork in Early Medieval Scotland” (2004) was highly regarded by many researchers.

Next Time: Where Else Can We Go For Information?

This image is a crop of a photograph of the Pi...

This image is a crop of a photograph of the Pictish stone in the churchyard at Aberlemno Parish Church (the stone is sometimes known as Aberlemno II). The battle scene depicted is generally accepted to be that of the Battle of Nechtansmere. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Who Were The Picts? Part 3

Last time I mentioned that many Pictish sites have been badly damaged by subsequent habitation and erosion. But there was an even more important source of damage – antiquarianism. Prior to the 1950s the vast majority of the “archaeology” that was done in the Pictish areas (and a good portion of the rest of the world) was done by English antiquarians. Semi-educated, and extremely prejudiced individuals, who totally discounted the cultural value of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultural achievements. This became very obvious to me several years ago when I started receiving questions about authentic pre-1600 Irish and Scottish clothing. People were relying on books that were written in English, and there just wasn’t anything of academic quality available.

A typical example of antiquarian prejudice was expressed by E. A. Lowe in 1935. The origins of manuscripts were to be distinguished by what might be called the “Tidiness Principal”. Messy Insular manuscripts were necessarily Irish, while those which were neat and tidy were, by definition, English or Anglo-Saxon. Unfortunately this publication enjoyed a second edition in 1972, reinforcing that sentiment for some.

For those who may not have heard the term “Insular Art” before, let me provide a definition. Wikipedia says “Insular art, also known as Hiberno-Saxon art, is the style of art produced in the post-Roman history of Ireland and Britain. The term derives from insula, the Latin term for “island”; in this period Britain and Ireland shared a largely common style different from that of the rest of Europe.” If you are interested in the rest of their article, here is the link, which does have lots of good pictures.

Some progress was made in the 1940’s and early 1950’s in the area of accepting the importance of pagan art’s contribution to Insular Art. After World War II the publishing of information about the Sutton Hoo made it impossible to deny the importance of the influence of Anglo Saxon pagan art to the development of early Medieval Insular Art. And in 1959  the discovery of St Ninian’s Treasure in Scotland cemented the importance of Pictish art as an important contributor to the development of the Insular Art.

So what now? Well a large number of purposeful, but largely unscientific, excavations were done by antiquarians in the 1800’s. Many of the most obvious geographic features contained small cemeteries, many of which appear to have been Pictish. These archaeological sites were destroyed by these people, with the added help of road construction and regular building construction. The descriptions left by the antiquarians usually discuss the orientation of the burials, and the position of the bodies at interment, but any artifacts that might have been found are usually long gone, along with the skeletons.

The last thirty years has seen a major uptick in serious archaeological surveys, whose goals are the actual understanding of the surviving archaeological sites, without any concerns for who may have created them. But the problems created by previous generations still exist. Just trying to find good references is a serious challenge.

Next Time: Where do I go for real references?

Image of page from the 7th century Book of Dur...

Image of page from the 7th century Book of Durrow, from The Gospel of Mark. The book, kept in Trinity College Dublin, is hosted by Catholic U for educational purposes as part of its public image library. Category:Illuminated manuscript images (Photo credit: Wikipedia)