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)

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