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 They are not considered to be accurate historical documents.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 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)