History Stories

Within the charred remains of a Pictish fort, new clues emerge about the customs and culture of one of the lost peoples of Europe.

Scottish archaeologists are crediting a 10th-century Viking raid with preserving a “treasure trove” of new information about a mysterious lost culture.

The Picts were a confederation of tribes that ruled Northern Scotland for most of the first millennium A.D., famously repelling invasions from both the Romans and the Angles. But because they left no written records, most of what remains of the once-vast Pictish civilization are hundreds of cryptic rock carvings scattered among long-abandoned settlements.

During an excavation of what’s believed to be the largest Pictish fort in Scotland, Gordon Noble and fellow archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen were thrilled to discover that the fort’s massive timber walls were remarkably well-preserved. Not because they were bravely defended and protected for centuries, but because they were burned to a crisp by Vikings more than 1,000 years ago.

Pictish Fort Discovered

The wall face of the Pictish fort at Burghead. (Credit: The University of Aberdeen)

“While the destruction of the fort in the 10th century may not have been good news for the Picts, the fact that so much of it was set alight is a real bonus for archaeologists,” said Noble in a statement. “We have discovered that the complex layer of oak planks set in the wall was burned in situ and that the resulting charring has actually preserved it in amazing detail when ordinarily it would have rotten away to nothing by now.”

Within the fort’s latticework of six-meter (20-foot) oak walls, Noble’s team also recovered rare artifacts of Pictish culture, including delicate wooden hair pins carved with a realistic bramble design and a dress pin in the shape of a tiny mace. But the real jackpot may be the fort’s “rubbish heap,” which the archaeologists hope will contain more clues to Pictish daily life, including their diet.

“What’s exciting is the level of preservation here,” said Noble. “We’ve found animal bone which rarely survives in mainland Scotland because of the acidic soil. We are already getting really nice information about what people ate within the fort and we hope to extract a level of information we’ve not had for Pictish sites before.”

Viking Fort Discoveries

A mace headed pin (left) and a bramble headed dress or hair pin. (Credit: The University of Aberdeen)

The Picts got their name from the Romans, who called them Picti, Latin for “painted ones,” which likely referred to their colorful tattoos or war paint. The first mention of the Picti comes from a Roman historian writing in the 3rd century A.D., who described the northern tribe as “roving at large and causing great devastation.”

According to the 13th-century Nordic history Historia Norvegiae, the first Viking invaders described the Picts as a pygmy-like people who worked hard morning and evening, but hid away mid-day in underground homes. Whether or not the “pygmy” thing is accurate, it’s clear that the arrival of the Vikings brought a swift end to the Picts’ reign in northern Scotland. As the Historia recounts:

“In the days of Harold Fairhair, King of Norway, certain pirates, of the family of the most vigorous prince Ronald, set out with a great fleet, and crossed the Solundic sea; and stripped these races of their ancient settlements, destroyed them wholly, and subdued the islands to themselves.”

If the fort being excavated by Noble was indeed a Pictish stronghold until the 10th century, it would have been one of the last to survive the Viking invasion. Rather than being wiped out entirely, many historians believe the Pictish people were simply swallowed up by the next dominant culture, the Gaels.

According to recent DNA studies, more than 10 percent of modern Scottish men carry a Y chromosome marker that can be traced back to the Picts, while the same marker is found in less than 1 percent of Englishmen.

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