Tag Archives: Conan stone

Etching and engraving Pictish symbols and figures on to wood

by John Wombell

The Conan Stone on wood by John Wombell see A Newly Discovered Pictish Stone for Easter Ross

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.

Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble

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.

Selection of painted pictish pebbles from Shetland.

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Barrow-Loads of Barrows: Excavating a Monumental Pictish Cemetery at Tarradale on the Black Isle

by Eric Grant

Drone aerial photo showing barrows of different sizes and shapes (Drone photo: Andy Hickie)

In the first three weeks of September 2019 volunteers from the North of Scotland Archaeological Society supported by members of the local community excavated a suspected Pictish cemetery in a field near Tarradale House. Aerial photographs had previously shown the possible existence of a number of barrow graves in the area but there was little to see on the surface as the mounds had been almost totally ploughed away but their surrounding ditches appeared as ghostly outlines on the aerial photographs. A small, but growing, number of barrow cemeteries has been identified in Scotland but only a few excavated. Aerial photographs show the remains of at least 28 square and round barrows at Tarradale making it currently the second largest burial ground of this type in Scotland. The site could originally have been more extensive as parts of it have either been ploughed out or are too deeply buried to show in aerial photographs. Recent high-resolution photographs taken by drone have suggested the existence of more barrows towards the perimeter of the field and possibly into an adjacent field. Our excavations showed that Tarradale was a barrow cemetery of monumental proportions and potentially one of the most important in Scotland.

Although we are still waiting for radiocarbon dates from the Tarradale excavation, the presence of round and square barrows and their spacing and distribution leaves little doubt that we are dealing with a Pictish cemetery potentially from the 5th or 6th century AD, an important period in the formation of early kingdoms in northern Britain. Tarradale lies in the eastern side of Ross-shire on the Beauly Firth and only six miles from Craig Phadrig, an important stronghold and regional capital in the Kingdom of Fortriu. Part of this centralisation of power was reflected in the creation of monumental cemeteries and Tarradale may have been the burial place of the local elite. No Pictish symbol stones have been found at Tarradale, although symbol stones, including cross slabs with symbols on them have been found in adjacent parishes, the nearest being the recently discovered Conan stone three miles from Tarradale. However, in the same field as the barrow cemetery, a fortified settlement was excavated in the 1990’s; no primary dating evidence for the Picts was obtained but on stylistic grounds pottery from the fortified site has been dated to between AD 300-800 so this may well be the settlement focus of some of the people buried nearby.

Plan of barrow cemetery trenches (plan by Steve Birch)

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A Newly Discovered Pictish Stone for Easter Ross

by Anne MacInnes

Photographs of all 4 faces of the Conan Pictish stone © HES.

Whilst on a walk close to Dingwall, I came across a site that struck me as being slightly mysterious, atmospheric and with an air of neglect about it. I was immediately fascinated, and started to try and find out more about it.

I established that it was an early religious site, privately owned, and asked the landowner if I could have permission to survey it. This granted, and because of the difficult access, I began to form a plan of just how to carry this out. A specific parking place for one car was established and the survey began.

I followed the methodology used by Susan Kruse at Kiltearn, where I had helped carry out the survey (see blog).

First of all, three of us, sectioned off the site using tapes and this enabled me to draw up plans marking all the visible stones. They were all numbered, and then surveyed and photographed in detail. Inscriptions were carefully copied on to the recording forms, which at times involved a lot of head scratching due to the worn stone. Moss was removed but not lichen as this could damage the stone. Linda helped me almost every day, with Meryl and Beth helping when they could.

The weather was kind in the winter months when this survey was done, and we were struck by the oasis of peace, emerging wildflowers and variety of birdlife with occasional visiting roe deer. A large area of ponticum and invasive sycamore was cleared with chainsaw by Terry Doe, with Linda, Kay, and myself dragging it offsite. Finally a group of nine NoSAS members planetabled the site and did levels to show the footings and platform of a chapel, and Meryl drew this up.

The survey revealed as well as the probable chapel footings, upright headstones in various shapes and sizes, lair markers, tabletombs, graveslabs, some lightly covered by moss.

Most of them looked like this, either blank or with initials carved at the top. All the stones were orientated with their carved faces towards the east.

One day, I was brushing off leaves from a graveslab sitting on the ground, not buried, when I  noticed a bit of carving that looked like a foot. Carefully removing a bit more, a leg was attached to this foot! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, so much so that I went to do something else and ignored it. However on my return it was still there and more was revealed. Continue reading