History Stories

Almost nothing is known about the Picts. These mysterious people dominated Scotland for around 1200 years—yet sometime around 900 A.D., they vanished, leaving no writings and just a scattering of archaeological sites. Now, a discovery on the remote island of Rousay adds another fragment to these sparse details about Europe’s lost people: the smeared handprint of a long-forgotten metalsmith, left on his stone anvil.

The anvil was found in an excavation co-led by Stephen Dockrill, senior lecturer in archaeology at the U.K.’s University of Bradford. Staff and students from the City University in New York worked with archaeologists to excavate the remains of the substantial Pictish settlement on the island. Rising tides are eroding the structures there, forcing archaeologists to act quickly to salvage what they can. But while no one knew quite what they’d find, Dockrill said they were so taken aback by the discovery of such human evidence of the structure’s former occupier, excavators initially assumed they had left the prints themselves.

“Analysis of crucible fragments and the floor deposits demonstrated that a coppersmith worked in the building,” Dockrill told The Guardian. “The analysis of the floor enables us to say with confidence where the smith worked, next to a hearth and two stone anvils. The biggest surprise came when we lifted the larger stone anvil and cleaned it; we could see carbon imprints of the smith’s knees and hands.”

A closer view of the handprint. (Credit: Steve Dockrill/Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust)

A closer view of the handprint. (Credit: Steve Dockrill/Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust)

The smith worked in cramped, uncomfortable conditions, half-underground. To reach it, the handprint’s owner would have made his way down a curving passageway and through a hinged door. A well-placed stone protected the site from drafts. The near darkness, a blog post from the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust explains, would have helped him see the glowing metal and gauge its temperature by its color. Knelt by the hearth, he held each piece of metal over the flames, then quickly moved it to the anvil before shaping it. Researchers estimate that the prints are from as long as 1,500 years ago, though it’s hoped that carbon dating will clarify their age.

Archeologists have long wondered about the Picts, who appear in the history books mostly through the accounts of those they battled against. They beat off invasions by the Romans and Germanic Angles—yet seem to have been subsumed by the Gaels sometime towards the end of the first millennium A.D. Most of the evidence we have comes from a few hundred intricately carved Pictish stones, which mix Christian iconography with pictures of both mythical and real animals, abstract symbols and looping designs. They were mostly in eastern Scotland, north of modern Edinburgh, and off its coasts on islands such as Rousay. But when they disappeared in the ninth century, they left no trace of their language or the stories behind the stones.

We don’t even know what they called themselves—the common name “Picts” comes from the Latin word picti, meaning painted. It’s believed that these fearsome warriors tattooed or painted themselves before battle: Julius Caesar, who had never encountered them personally, claimed that they stained themselves with the flower woad, “which produces a blueish tint; and this gives them a wild look in battle.” Other accounts describe their prowess in metalworking and stone carving.

In some respects, the anvil tells us little more about this ancient tribe. Yet it’s hard not to feel connected to the metalsmith whose fingerprints have remained in place for so many centuries. Speaking to the BBC, excavation co-director Julie Bond said, “A handprint is so personal and individual that you can almost feel the presence of the coppersmith and imagine what it must have been like working in there all those years ago.”

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