ANCIENT remains uncovered on the summit of an inhospitable and precipitous sea stack on the Aberdeenshire coast have been confirmed as the oldest Pictish fortress ever discovered.
Carbon dating techniques show the inaccessible settlement was founded as long ago as the third century, considerably earlier than the nearby Dunnottar Castle.
Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen needed help from experienced mountaineers to scale the rugged cliffs in order reach the site, which is perched precariously on the top of Dunnicaer sea stack with sheer drops on all sides.
The team found evidence of ramparts, floors and a hearth on the small outcrop. It is believed the fort would have comprised a timber house or hall, surrounded by an outer defensive rampart built from stone.
Samples found in the excavation trenches have been now been analysed and show the site dates from the third or fourth century.
Lead researcher Dr Gordon Noble, a senior lecturer at the university, described the sea stack as an “exceptional archaeological find” and says they are “confident it was one of the earliest fortified sites occupied by Picts” due to consistency across the samples tested.
This is the most extreme archaeology I’ve ever done. The site can only be accessed using ropes at low tideDr Gordon Noble
“This is the most extreme archaeology I’ve ever done,” he said.
“The site can only be accessed using ropes at low tide, and having never climbed before it was quite hair-raising. But the challenge of getting to the top was soon forgotten as we began to make significant discoveries.
“Dunnicaer appears to have been home to a significant fort, even at this early date.
“We can see there were ramparts, particularly on the south side, constructed of timber and stone. This is consistent with the style of later Pictish forts.
“The stone is not from the local area so it must have been quite a feat to get it, and the heavy oak timbers, up to such an inaccessible site.”
This is the first time the site has been excavated, though medieval artefacts were found there almost 200 years ago
Dr Noble added: “We knew that the site had potential as in 1832 a group of youths from Stonehaven scaled the sea stack, prompted by a local man who had recurring dreams gold was hidden there.
“Unfortunately for the youths they didn’t find the gold, but they did find a number of decorated Picitsh symbol stones and as they were throwing them into the sea, noticed some were also carved.
“Several years later, when knowledge of Pictish stones began to circulate, a number were recovered from the sea.
“We have always thought these symbol stones either strange or very early as the carvings are ‘rough and ready’ compared to other known Pictish symbol stones, and this is what prompted us to excavate Dunnicaer.”