ARCHAEOLOGISTS have uncovered the remains of what could be a member of early Pictish royalty at a dig in the heart of Aberdeenshire.
The discovery, by experts at Aberdeen and Chester universities, is one of the first ever made of Pictish remains in the north east of Scotland and was unearthed on the outskirts of the village of Rhynie - a site already renowned for its impressive collection of carved Pictish standing stones.
The pieces of bone were found in a carefully made sandstone grave which suggests the person buried at the site was of high status.
Previous digs at Rhynie have already uncovered rare examples of Mediterranean imports and intricate metalwork, adding to the growing evidence that the area was once a Pictish centre of power.
Eight Pictish symbol stones have already been found at Rhynie - including the “Rhynie Man”, a six foot tall boulder carved with a bearded man carrying an axe which was discovered in 1978, and the “Craw Stane”, which is thought to have been the centre point of an elaborate fortified settlement of the 5th-6th centuries AD.
The latest discovery was made during the latest dig by archaeologists involved in the Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project. And it is the first time remains of a body have been uncovered at the site.
Dr Gordon Noble, the project leader from Aberdeen University, explained: “We found elements of the legs, pelvis and jaw bone which we recovered and are now analysing in the lab.”
He continued: “It’s extremely rare to find any human remains from this era in the North east of Scotland as the soil in this part of the world is so acidic. One of the graves had been carefully made from split sandstone slabs to create a cist and the stone lining and collapsed capstones helped to preserve skeletal material.
“Unlike Anglo-Saxon areas to the south, the tradition in Scotland was largely for unfurnished burial so we didn’t expect to find rich grave assemblages.
“The nearby presence of the settlement near the Craw Stane strongly suggests these may have been burials of high status individuals and that Rhynie was, like other political centres, a landscape of power rather than a series of individual sites.”
The remains are now being studied using radiocarbon and stable isotope techniques in the hope of establishing a date for the burial.
A spokesman for Aberdeen University said: “The Pictish heartlands and main powerbase were long assumed to lie in central Scotland but recent research has suggested the most cited Pictish kingdom, Fortriu, was based in the Moray Firth area and as such the northern Picts may have been major players during this time.
“Shards of medieval imported glass from the west of France were also found near the remains during the latest dig at Rhynie.”
Dr Meggen Gondek, from Chester University, said: “The imports along with the presence of evidence for fine metalworking, suggest that Rhynie is a high-status site dating to the early stages of the development of the post-Roman kingdoms in northern Europe. The 5th-6th century dates for Rhynie places it in the centuries immediately following the withdrawal of the Roman army from Britain.”
Dr Noble said the remains appeared to be those of an adolescent male or female - “possibly the son or daughter” of a Pictish King.
He explained: “We probably won’t be able to sex the remains unfortunately, But we believe they are those of an adolescent in their teenage years. It was quite a short person in a short cist. He or she could possibly have been the daughter or son of a Pictish King.
“The people who were buried in the cemetery were of very high status and probably related to the lineage of people in control in this area. But at this time period there were probably many Pictish Kings competing for territory and power.”
Dr Noble said: “There are a number of burials at the site but the cist was the only one to have preserved human remains. Other burials were just dug earth graves and one had traces of a wooden coffin.
“But the cist is in a classic Pictish burial monument with a cist grave surrounded by a square barrow. They would have had earthen mounds over the top of them.”
He added: “Unfortunately the Picts did not bury their dead with grave goods, unlike the Anglo Saxons. Here we have rely on context and the context is that this cemetery seems to be associated with a settlement to the south around the Craw Stane where we have found a fortified settlement dating to the 5th and 6th centuries AD.
“And the finds from that site are quite exceptional - buildings and pottery imported from the Mediterranean probably for storing wine and fragments of glass vessels from France for drinking the wine. The place name Rhynie also means ‘a very royal place.’
“So everything points to the fact that this was very high status, probably early Royal centre of the Picts.”