In the article Rethinking the Picts, appearing in this month's Archaeology, editor David Keys presents both the widely held view of the Picts as uncivilized and illiterate heathens and the artifacts and excavations some archaeologists believe challenges it. With the recovery of over one hundred and fifty artifacts and the uncovering of some key excavation sites these characteristics first applied to the Pictish peoples in the sixth-century have been brought into question and perhaps been dispelled.

Leading medieval art historians, George and Isabel Henderson, have examined many of the fragmented sculptures found in Orkney, Shetland and near Inverness. They have discovered that Pictish artwork wasn’t a copy of the work of others, as many believed in the past, but rather a unique style in its own. The complexity of geometric patterns and significantly larger use of animal symbolism than previously found in either Irish or English artifacts have led to their conclusions. The illustrations present in the sculpture fragments have also put into question the label of ‘heathen’. On many pieces there have been representations of various Bible stories, such as Jonah and the Whale, as well as images of prominent characters in the Bible, such as King David. One piece of sculpture found on the Tarbat Peninsula even showed a comparison between Christ and his apostles and a sacrificial animal surrounded by lions which it is suggested is a statement about the supremacy of New Testament versus Old Testament in the eyes of Pictish religious elites.

Their knowledge of the Bible isn’t the only thing discovered in this artwork, however, there is also evidence that the Picts may have read classical literature including Virgil’s Aeneid. Bible scenes as well as classic mythological creatures, such as griffons and hippocamps, suggest the Picts were not, in fact, ‘illiterate’ but had access to and read various forms of literature. That they not only read it but they had opinions about it and have expressed them through their art. They may well have expressed it in writing as well, but since the script of the ancient Picts, which contains only thirty characters, has so far been uncoded there is, as of yet, no evidence of that fact. When you combine all of these things; the artwork; the knowledge of the Bible; and, the evidence of classical literature, the picture of an ‘uncivilized’ people begins to peel away. Further dispelling this characterization are some key excavation sites and evidence found at them.

On the north shore of the Firth, on the Tarbat Peninsula, archaeologist Martin Carver located the only known monastery in Pictland, which covered most of Scotland north of present day Edinburgh. Here there has been uncovered evidence of glass making, vellum processing, metal working and stone carving as well as agricultural signifiers such as a water mill and a kiln-barn for crop drying. Fifteen miles away from the monastery is a second important site, the royal fortress of Burghead. A massive complex one thousand feet long and six-hundred and fifty feet wide this is believed to be the center of the Pictish political kingdom. Impressive defense systems including a large triple ditch and a citadel located in the heart of the fortress demonstrate a sophistication alone that should be enough to forever wipe away the picture of the naked barbarian. Replacing past images of uncivilized and illiterate heathens are those of artisans, clergymen, farmers and possibly scribes.

The suggestions made by Keys, and the various archaeologists whose research the article was based upon, were founded in solid evidence. On one hand you have Christianity being suggested by imagery on pieces of sculpture found in several places in Scotland known to have been within Pictland. These were not single occurrences of imagery that could have been falsely associated with Bible stories, but rather an over abundance of iconography that unmistakably depict specific stories within the Bible. Supporting these discoveries, on the other hand, is the uncovering of the monastery, the stone church within it and the citadel at Burghead. All of these separate artifacts support the claim that the Picts had come into contact with and assimilated Christianity into their world. Other claims were equally supported. The question of how civilized the Picts were being addressed with the presence of illustrations of classical literature in their artwork, as well as, the discovery of various forms of early industry, such as vellum making, metal working and glass making, and the agricultural efforts evidenced by the water mill and the kiln-barn. These archaeologists did not form their conclusions based upon biases or speculations, but rather on evidence in the form of artifacts and archaeological sites uncovered and examined that showed what the ideology of the people that made them was.

References: Keys, David, (September/October, 2004). Rethinking the Picts, Archaeology. (p. 41-44).