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?

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.