Who Were The Picts? Part 6

Last time we asked: Is there an easy way to locate sources?

For those of us without academic library access the best approach is to use a specific search engine: Google Scholar. This search engine is specifically geared to serious research and eliminates most of the flaky sites and commercials. That does not, of course, mean that old articles can’t be there. What I like to call “Antiquarian specials” will still show up, but the date when the article or book was published is listed. So watch out for reprints of older journal articles and books.

Another very important point that I want to make is that you can’t stop at the first page of searches. The number of people that I have run across that do this is really sad. No one said researching is always easy. If you want the information you may have to go through 20 pages to find it. I can’t tell you the number of times that I was a bit discouraged by the lack of information that I found, and the next page contained that one article that was a gold mine of information. And making slight changes in how you search can make a huge difference, too. Write down the search terms that you have used and actively try to think of other ways to search for information. As I mentioned before, adding Scotland to “Picts” will eliminate a lot of extraneous material.

My next point is probably the most difficult to deal with. We currently know very little about the Picts. We have no idea where they came from or when they arrived in northern Scotland. Cultures like this are a perfect candidate for ” fantasy history”, also known as “booja, booja”.  The way this works is that you choose a culture that has very little known about it, and you link it to another culture (usually one that is fairly geographically distant) that has very little known about it. It creates an exciting, romantic, almost sci-fi sort of link, sort of like believing that Stonehenge was beamed in by aliens.

The best example of “booja,booja” involving the Picts that I have found was equating the pre-Christian religion of the Picts with the Indo-European religion of Mithraism.  There is very little information about either one, and they are both mysterious, so why not? I enjoy fantasy as much as the next person, but as a professionally trained Archaeologist I prefer science whenever possible. If you really want to read a scientific attempt at deciphering what the religion of the Picts might look like, here is an academic article about the topic. It is actually a pretty cool analysis of a stone carving. And if you would like to hear what a frustrated academician feels like when they find a mish-mosh of cultures, mixed together with neo-paganism and a little criminal trespass and presented as a valid “fact”, I present you with another article, “Shamans, stones, authenticity and appropriation: contestations of invention and meaning”.

Next Time: Being Picky About the Picts


English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)