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 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

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