Archaeologists and volunteers have discovered a stone bearing a mysterious inscription and carved birds that the Picts of Scotland crafted more than a millennium ago. The cross slab, found in a small cemetery last month, dates to between 500 and 700 AD. and sheds new light on the historical interplay between heritage and faith in the north of the UK
The Pictures, or “Painted Men”, so named by Roman historians because of their supposed war paint and tattoos (“picti”, is the Latin word for “painting”). They lived in northern and eastern Scotland during the early medieval period. Probably descended from Celtic tribes, the Picts are famous for their successful resistance to Roman conquest. While the Romans painted the Picts as barbaric and backward, they were largely subsistence farmers, growing grain and herding domesticated animals.
After the Roman Empire withdrawn from the British Isles in the fifth century AD, Pictish society grew to form a permanent but unstable monarchy to protect its territorial borders. Early missionaries from Ireland converted many Pictland kings to Christianity in the mid-sixth century AD. Then on Battle of Dun Nechtain (opens in new tab) in 685 AD, the Picts pushed the Britons out of Scotland and created a mini-empire that would last until 900 AD. and his arrival Vikings.
Related: Unknown symbols written by Scotland’s lost ‘painted people’ discovered
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But the newly discovered cross slab, found in Old Kilmadock Cemetery near Doune, Scotland, an area that was historically a buffer zone between the Picts and the Romans, and later the Britons, complicates this tidy story. “The cruciform slab is the first in this area and may mean that the inhabitants came to see themselves as Picts,” Stirling Council archaeologist Murray Cook (opens in new tab)who led the recent dig, told Live Science in an email.
Carved stones from early medieval Scotland are relatively common, but the newly discovered one from Old Kilmadock Cemetery, which has not yet been fully excavated, has three interesting features: a rounded top, figurative animal decorations and an inscription written in a medieval alphabet called ogham.
At 47 inches (119 cm) high and 32 inches (82 cm) wide, the Old Kilmadock Stone is similar in size and shape to a large grave marker. Experts, however, believe they may have had multiple functions.
Kelly Kilpatrick (opens in new tab)a historian and celtist at the University of Glasgow, told Live Science in an email that cross slabs “could be grave markers and are used to communicate Christian messages to a lay audience through images. Sometimes you find iconography from the native Pictish religion mixed with Christian iconography in such monuments.” But its rounded top and circular, bound cross make the Old Kilmadock Stone a rare type of Pictish cross slab.
“The ends of the scrolls end with bird heads; they may be pelicans, as there is a tradition of the pelican biting its flesh to feed its young, echoing Christ and the Last Supper, which is the Eucharist,” Cook explained. . Below this, there is a carved quadrupedal Pictish-style animal that resembles a bull. “The bull can be a symbol of a family, a region or a god,” Cook said.
An ogham inscription around the side of the stone has puzzled researchers. Ogham was used to write an early version of the Irish language and was formed by making parallel and vertical strokes along a center line. About 400 of these inscriptions have survived to this day, mostly in Ireland, but the one from Old Kilmadock is the first to be found in central Scotland.
Kelly Kilpatrick, who will be translating the inscription, said that “it is not possible to read the ogham inscription until the stone is lifted because the ogham is written on the edge of the stone and the letters can extend to either side of it”. However, Ogham inscriptions tend to spell out names of rich or powerful people.
“The cross from Old Kilmadock is a huge new find.” Adrian Maldonado (opens in new tab), a researcher at the National Museums of Scotland who was not involved in the discovery, told Live Science. “The most important part of the discovery is the ogham inscription; when fully revealed, it may tell us more about the language spoken by the rulers in this region and possibly add a new, unrecorded name to an era with very few historical sources ».
Cook suggests that the cross slab was originally used as “a public statue erected by a wealthy patron to celebrate both their Pictish heritage and their Christian faith. The ogham reflects the influence of Irish Christians.” Finds elsewhere in the Old Kilmadock cemetery support this interpretation: Three additional inscribed stones have been found in two different alphabets. “I think that means they were a literate and intelligent religious community,” Cook said. there was “probably a monastery”.
The Pictish cross slab probably survived because it was reused in much later times as a burial cover in Old Kilmadock Cemetery. Cook and Kilpatrick plan to study the cross slab further once it is fully excavated and its pieces are put back together. In collaboration with the local Lifeguards of Old Kilmadock (opens in new tab) they are currently raising funds for this analysis, which will cost thousands of dollars.
“This discovery shows the value of archaeological research into early churches in Scotland,” concluded Maldonado, “very few of which have been excavated. It is a huge win for community-led research, providing value both for local heritage and and internationally.”