Pictish Burial Practices and Remains

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

These notes are in preparation for NOSAS field trips to two recognised Pictish cemeteries in the Highland region –

  • Garbeg near Drumnadrochit on Saturday 1st November 2014. See Highland Council HER, RCAHMS Canmore
  • Whitebridge near Foyers on Sunday March 8th 2015. See HER, RCAHMS Canmore

(See also separate post about Garbeg and Whitebridge cemeteries).

The Picts, those most elusive of early medieval Scottish peoples, seem to have disposed of their dead in a variety of ways. Remains that can still be found in the landscape include cremations, simple burials in the ground, long cist burials, burials under cairns, and burials under round and square barrows. It is also probably true that disposal was achieved by exposure and excarnation – practices continuing from pre-history. What remains unclear is how any of these contemporaneous burial practices were chosen for a specific individual or group.

An Artist's Impression of Pictish Barrows

An Artist’s Impression of Pictish Barrows by Alan Braby

There are a number of known Pictish burial sites in Scotland. It was formerly thought that these were confined to the east and north-east of Scotland but aerial photography and some recent excavations show evidence of typical square “Pictish” barrows in Lothian, the Borders, and Dumfries & Galloway. There are more than were previously thought.

In Pictish cemeteries, cairns predominate over barrows in the north of Scotland. Cairns often contain a number of individual burials, sometimes 5 to 6, whereas barrows almost always contain only one burial. An individual cemetery may contain both cairns and barrows, and excavation and subsequent dating show these are contemporary, usually 3rd to 6th centuries AD. After this date, burials in unenclosed Pictish cemeteries become less common, new burials being related to church sites. Garbeg proves something of an exception with radio carbon results giving 10th to 11th century dates.

The burials are invariably aligned roughly east-west, even in the centuries pre dating the introduction of Christianity. Where bones remain – and this is not common – the head is to the west. Remarkably, almost all Pictish burials are unadorned with grave goods, in great distinction to the contemporary richly-endowed Anglo-Saxon burials further south in the Borders and England.

Where it is possible to analyse the individuals buried in barrows and cairns they tend to be adults between the ages of 25 and 45 – “child-bearing women and warriors in arms”. Contemporary burials are known from, eg, monastic sites and these contain older individuals, so older Picts did exist. They were just not buried in barrows. Also, curiously, women tend to outnumber men in these barrow and cairn burials.

Excavation of a Pictish cemetery and royal site at Forteviot, just outside Perth, shows a number of simple burials alongside cairn and barrow burials (see http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_183902_en.pdf). These simple burials did include children over the age of three. It is just not known what happened to the infants who died, nor the old folks. Perhaps these had excarnation or exposure?

Round Barrow plus Grave at Forteviot

Pictish Round Barrow at Forteviot

There is usually no spatial association of Pictish burials with surviving Pictish symbol stones. These latter highly-decorated and artistic carvings, whose function and meaning are still unknown, generally occur outwith areas in which cemeteries occur. Again Garbeg proves an exception to the rule with a symbol stone, now on display in the Inverness museum, having been recovered from one of the barrows there.

Pictish burials sometimes come to light by chance. AOC were brought in when preliminary test-pitting of an unremarkable field in Perthshire in 2012 showed possible barrows. An extensive excavation uncovered five burials in a row – see the photo below. Note that there are two conjoined square barrows, two separate round barrows, and a rectangular barrow, all with the burial in the middle aligned east-west. (See https://canmore.org.uk/site/346583/bankhead-of-kinloch).

Five Pictish Burials, Perthshire AOC

The Five Barrows AOC found in Perthshire

The extended excavations at Rhynie in 2013 uncovered a long cist burial, unusually with a good collection of bones – elements of the legs, pelvis and jaw bone. In so many other excavated burials the bones have disappeared in the acidic soils. Radio-carbon dates from these bones have revealed a solidly Pictish date of AD 420-566 (see the REAParch Blog article).

Stone-lined Pictish Grave at Rhynie

Pictish Long-Cist Burial at Rhynie

So, Garbeg and Whitebridge?  There will be more specific information about each of these sites during the field visits and in future blog posts. However, a plan below of Garbeg cemetery gives some idea of the barrows there:

Plan Of Garbeg Pictish Cemetary (Canmore)

Plan Of Garbeg Pictish Cemetery (Canmore)

Prepared With much help from a lecture given by Dr Adrian Maldonado given at Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie on 24th June 2014. See here for info about Dr Maldonado.

For further information on the NOSAS visits to Garbeg and Whitebridge go to the NOSAS What’s On Page.  At the time of publication NOSAS has just completed clearing gorse off the several of the barrows at Garbeg and extensive aerial photography of the area by quadcopter – more news to follow!

Garbeg Central Barrows

Garbeg Central Barrows (Alan Thompson)

5 thoughts on “Pictish Burial Practices and Remains

  1. Pingback: NOSAS Archaeology Blog « Senchus

  2. Pingback: Experiments using a Quadcopter for Archaeological Aerial Photography | NOSAS Archaeology Blog

  3. Pingback: The Picts at Garbeg and Whitebridge | NOSAS Archaeology Blog

  4. Pingback: Pictish Burial Practices and Remains | paulabeavan

  5. Lady Fair

    Excellent article! Do you have any information on how the Picts might have prepared the bodies for burial? I am researching for a funeral scene in my novel and looking for specific details on preparation, how the cairns were built, etc., particularly so I can contrast it with the other characters preconceived notions of burial and the after life (these happen to be Anglo-Saxon).




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