by John Wombell
First the excuse. I tried this in the Autumn of 2019 to boost entries for the Tarradale Through Time art competition with a new interpretation of Balblair man, on a panel long since removed from a position beside Kilmorack School to Moniack Castle. Despite being a Mercian through and through I have lived and worked in the land of the Picts for over half a century. This, as well as being married to someone with Pictish genes for sure, has led one to develop an ongoing interest in the mysterious Picts. Living not far away, we visited the Sueno’s stone in Forres more than once with the children many years ago.
For a decade plus I had responsibility for a number of burial grounds in Kincardine and Deeside with fine Pictish stones in them (Fordoun, Tullich and Migvie). Then came one of those special moments in archaeology; when digging at Birnie I discovered the Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble and that kept my interest going. Stories of discovery are rarely told unless it is the likes of Tutankhamen’s tomb, and the story of the discovery of the Birnie pebble has never been told so why not now?
I had been patted on the head and set to cleaning and defining an area within what was thought to be a small Pictish house built in the ruins of a roundhouse. What was revealed was a small setting of smooth cobbles looking like it might have been a crafting workplace. When I first encountered the pebble it was tilted slightly on its long axis. Fortunately that day I was in ‘careful mode’ and as soon as the top edge of the pebble was revealed it was clearly quite different and it looked like quartz or quartzite. I left it firmly in place and carefully cleaned away another cm or so of sand from round about it. It continued to look interesting so I called over Alan Braby, who’s trench I was in, for a look see. Alan came over, peered at the pebble, plucked it out of the sand and asked me if I had a wee brush of some kind, which I had. Then he cleaned the pebble off and said ‘have you any idea what this is?’ ‘Haven’t a clue,’ I replied, ‘other than a finishing stone for some kind of craft work maybe’. So then he showed me the feint decoration on the stone that was becoming clearer as the pebble dried out. Well Alan says, ‘it is a Painted Pictish Pebble and the first to be discovered on the South side of the Moray Firth.’ Then we realised that it was decorated on both sides. It was most exciting day.
Painted Pictish Pebbles are rare artefacts and most have been found at Caithness and Shetland broch sites. They are at the very bottom of the Pictish art spectrum and I remain convinced that the designs on them reflect the Picts knowledge of cup and ring marked rocks, which in Pictish times would have been far more numerous than today. Since then I have never stopped looking for blanks of the same size and shape and they are as rare as hen’s teeth. Beach pebbles of quartz tend to be rounded and if oval they tend to be too large and too heavy. The nearest I have found are quartzite and the replica I made of the Birnie pebble is on such a blank. There is plenty of information on Painted Pictish Pebbles free online.