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 They are not considered to be accurate historical documents.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?

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!