Tag Archives: pictish archaeology

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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Droning on about Tarradale

by Andy Hickie

Drone image of Tarradale Through Time barrow cemetery dig, as featured in “Current Archaeology” November 2019.

Back in 2017, I caved in to the demands of consumerism, and purchased a new quadcopter, a Phantom 3 Advanced, which is equipped with a camera and GPS unit. I flew multiple flights around Avoch but, after a while, the novelty of seeing one’s house from the air at different angles and altitudes begins to wear thin, and I began to wonder what I could actually do with a drone. Having always had an interest in archaeology and, spurred on by seeing some of the images Alan Thompson of NOSAS had created, I decided to carry out a few experiments of my own.

My first flights took in locations such as the distillery and settlement at Mulchaich, and the features of Kinbeachie castle – sites which had already been mapped by Alan by drone, the results of which I could use as a ‘benchmark’ against which I could compare those of my own.

At the same time, I began experimenting with various flight planning apps which allow for off-line autonomous flight planning, as well as online platforms for image processing. I found that “DroneDeploy” and “Mapsmadeasy” combined provided a fairly user-friendly pipeline, whereby image capture and photogrammetry can produce georeferenced photomosaics and digital surface models (DSMs). These can then be imported into software such as QGIS for further processing.

Having found the software which satisfied my needs, I then turned my attention to potential sites which I could map – and decided on the cropmarks of the Barrow Cemetery at Tarradale. At this point, my intent was purely to satisfy my own curiosity – just to see what I could see, and how it would compare with the archaeology found at the forthcoming 2019 dig.

And so, on 10 June 2018, accompanied by my daughter Emma to act as co-pilot and “spotter”, I visisted Tarradale to map the area with the drone. I can still recall the excitement I felt as the images began to appear on the monitor of the remote controller, which showed the cropmarks were developing. However, my satisfaction was tempered somewhat when I got home and began to process the photographs. Although the cropmarks were indeed evolving, the crop was insufficiently ripe, and many of the details remained hidden (see image below).

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Digging the Pictish Fort at Burghead

by Anji Hancock (NOSAS)

My childhood was spent in Lossiemouth, a mere 8 miles from Burghead. Then, my knowledge of Burghead was a jumbled mix of Druidism, a Roman Well, the burning of the Clavie and the harbour my father’s fishing boat used when the wind was in the wrong direction to get into Lossiemouth harbour. As a child I felt it was definitely a place of history and mystery, but I can’t remember any real historical importance being given to it – well not in Lossiemouth circles anyway! Roll on half a century and Dr. Gordon Noble’s Northern Picts Project and Burghead has become the focus of some recent excavations.

The original fort occupied over 7 acres but, sadly, much of this was destroyed with the building of the town and the re-building of the harbour in the early 19th century. The remaining area of the fort, with the exception of the Coastguard houses and their gardens are scheduled. This means that an excavation in the Coastguard house gardens could be undertaken with only the permission of the owners. Unfortunately, I was unable to take part in these earlier digs when some interesting occupation layers and a coin from the reign of Alfred the Great were uncovered.

However, the word went out on the Northern Picts Facebook page that Gordon and his team from Aberdeen University were returning to dig again. This time permission from Historic Environment Scotland had been received to dig a specified number of test pits and two explorations into the fort wall. Fortunately, Paul and I were able to join the dig for 3 days.

What remains of Burghead fort is sited on 2 levels- the upper and lower enclosures. The upper enclosure is believed to have been for the hierarchy of the community and the lower level for the habitation of the lower classes.

As befitting our lowly status we spent 2 days cleaning, trowelling, deturfing, shovelling and mattocking in the test pits on the lower level. Only one test pit revealed anything of interest in the way of structure. The others bottomed out with a layer of stones. Initially, there were high hopes this might be a deliberate layer of cobbles, but realistically, it was decided that so close to the sea, and with the history of coastal change that has happened in this area, it was more likely to be a natural layer. A visit from a couple of people with geology knowledge confirmed this.

Paul cleaning back a layer of ‘cobblestones’  (Photo Anji Hancock)

One inner wall exploration was on this lower level and the other on the upper level. Cathy MacIver from AOC was contracted to work on the lower level wall. For days she seemed to be moving large rocks and images of my time at Clachtoll came back to me! As she went further into the debris which had been piled up against the lower-fort rampart great care had to be taken to keep the area stable and safe. Her toil was rewarded with a layer of black claggy mud which was believed to be contempory with the occupation of the fort.

Cathy with the copper-alloy finger ring (photo Northern Picts).

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