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Archaeologists find village fit for Pictish kings

Student Robert Lang with a spindle whorl, which was used for spinning, found on the site of the Rhynie dig

Student Robert Lang with a spindle whorl, which was used for spinning, found on the site of the Rhynie dig

  • by Frank Urquhart
 

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have uncovered new evidence that suggests the tiny Aberdeenshire village of Rhynie was a seat of “Royal” power during the Pictish era.

Excavations in the area have revealed a fortified early medieval settlement close to the spot where the Rhynie Man – a six-foot boulder carved with the image of a Pict – was unearthed by a farmer in 1978. It is hoped the find will help to shed light on the Picts and their mysterious rulers, the Kings of Pictland.

Dr Gordon Noble, from Aberdeen University, who worked on the Rhynie dig, alongside archaeologists from Chester University, said the substantially fortified remains were “exceptional” discoveries.

He said: “This means that what we thought was a backwater in this part of Britain may well be much more significant and that Rhynie can take its place as an important force in the power politics of early medieval Scotland. We believe it was a high status settlement. That kind of material has only ever turned up on royal or very high status sites elsewhere. The finds indicate it may well have had royal connections or been associated with the early kings of that time period.”

The dig at Rhynie also uncovered large fragments from a fifth-century Roman amphora – the first to be found anywhere in eastern Britain. Similar finds have been made at sites including Tintagel in Cornwall, Cadbury Castle in Somerset and at Dumbarton Rock, a site connected with the Kings of Strathclyde.

Dr Noble said: “Among the most remarkable, were large fragments from a Roman amphora of the late fifth to mid-sixth century, imported from the southern Mediterranean.

“These amphora have been found to have been traded in the past with the west coasts of Britain. The type of artefacts we uncovered in Rhynie have only been found in more kingly centres such as Tintangel and Cadbury Castle.

“The nearest site of similar importance in Scotland is Dumbarton Rock, which is almost 200 miles away.

“But the sherds of amphora at Rhynie are the only ones from the early medieval period, long after the Romans had left Britain, to have been found in the whole of Eastern Britain – not only from Pictland – and also the northern most to have been found in the world.”

Very little was known about the Picts’ early power bases. Dr Noble said Rhynie provided an exciting opportunity to find out more about how power was consolidated in the first kingdoms of Scotland.

He said: “We don’t know how they existed or why they disappeared. We have snippets of stories from the early medieval writers through which we learn that they’re politically active. But with this excavation we are getting the real physical evidence of who they were as a people – we just have to keep digging to find out more. The small-scale excavations we have done only hint at the significance of the area.

“The finds mainly came from what appears to be a destruction layer in the outer ditch. Perhaps this is direct evidence for the sieges, battles and violence recorded in the scant contemporary historical record.”

HISTORY

THE celebrated Pictish stone carving, known as the “Rhynie Man,” was uncovered in 1978 as local farmer Gavin Alston was ploughing a field at his farm at Barflat, close to the site of the Aberdeen and Chester university excavations.

It is widely acknowledged as the finest carved single figure in Pictish art ever found in Scotland.

The 6ft-tall stone depicts a bearded figure carrying a thin-shafted axe over his shoulder, suggesting that the weapon may have served some ceremonial purpose. He also appears to be wearing a form of head dress or what has been described as a “special haircut”.

There have been various theories about the figure depicted on the stone since the remarkable carving was first discovered.

He could be a depiction of the Celtic god Esus, The Celts depicted Esus as a woodman with an axe.

Other theories are that it could represent a Pictish King or even St Matthew.

Rhynie Man is one of eight carved Pictish stones found at Rhynie since the 19th century. None of the stones have confirmed Christian motifs. One of the monuments, known as the Craw Stane, still stands close to the village and at the centre of the newly discovered series of defensive enclosures.

Rhynie Man can now be found gracing the entrance to Woodhill House in Aberdeen, the headquarters of Aberdeenshire Council.

 

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