Archaeologists in Scotland have unearthed a carved Pictish stone which might be associated with the formation of the nation in what has been dubbed “the find of a lifetime.” When describing the moment of discovery, Dr. James O’Driscoll of the University of Aberdeen said “it’s a feeling that I’ll probably never have again on an archaeological site.”
While four Pictish carved stones already exist in the village of Aberlemno, about 6 miles (9.6 km) northeast of Forfar, the county town of Angus. Three stand on a roadside and one stands in the village churchyard. These four stones date to between about 500 AD and 800 AD and display a clash of classically pre-Christian Pictish symbols with newer Christian iconography.
One of the Aberlemno stones depicts scenes from the 7th century Battle of Nechtansmere. According to Historic Environment Scotland , the Pictsh ruler King Bridei Mac Bili defeated the invading Anglo-Saxon King Ecgfrith, which stopped the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms expanding in the north. The discovery of a fifth Pictish symbol stone only a few miles away from the likely site of the Battle of Nechtansmere, further establishes the region’s importance in the formation of the nation that would later become Scotland.
Pictish stone in the churchyard at Aberlemno Parish Church, which depicts a scene generally accepted as being of the Battle of Nechtansmere. ( Public domain )
A Discovery of the Greatest Importance: The Pictish Stone in Aberlemno
Living in brochs from the early 5th century AD, the Picts of northern Scotland developed a system of symbolic communication. Archaeologists find these symbols elaborately carved into the faces of tall flat stones and pressed into metallic artifacts including tools, weapons and jewelry. The new stone, which is thought to date to the 5th or 6th century, was discovered by Dr. James O’Driscoll of the University of Aberdeen while he was examining ground anomalies as part of a search for Pictish settlements. It represents one of only 200 such stones ever discovered in Scotland.
The archaeologist told The Scotsman that when the team first saw the markings of a symbol “there was lots of screaming.” He added that when more of the symbols were revealed, while there was more screaming, there was also “a little bit of crying.” The importance of the discovery was exemplified by Professor Gordon Noble, head of archaeology at Aberdeen University, who said that while the university has been leading Pictish research for the last decade, “none of us have ever found a symbol stone before.”
The excavation site where the rare Pictish stone was discovered. ( University of Aberdeen )
Deciphering an Ancient Coded Communication Style
The newly discovered Pictish stone features classic Pictish symbols “including Triple Ovals, a Comb and Mirror, a Crescent and V rod and Double Discs,” explains The Daily Mail . Archaeologists argue as to the meaning of these shapes but generally agree that the crescent and discs are thought to symbolize the moon/sun and death, while the V-rod is thought to represent a broken arrow.
The Pictish stone was found incorporated into the paving of a “huge 11th or 12th century building,” that was constructed directly on top of an earlier Pictish settlement . This is why the new Pictish symbol stone is so valuable, because it was discovered in an architectural context while most others are found in open fields. In conclusion, Noble says the fact that the discovery site was occupied over such a long period, “will offer new insights into this significant period in the history of Scotland… and why Angus became a key Pictish landscape and latterly an integral part of the kingdoms of Alba and Scotland.”
Removing the Pictish stone from the Aberlemno field in Scotland. ( University of Aberdeen )
Visit Angus, the Birthplace of Scotland
The Picts were the county’s indigenous people and the ancestors of the modern Scottish nation. Angus was an important farming area in Scotland from Pictish times and it was here that the Battle of Nechtansmere repelled the Anglo-Saxon taking of the north. But Angus is known as the “birthplace of Scotland” after the 1320 AD Declaration of Arbroath was officiated at Arbroath Abbey, signifying Scotland as an independent nation.
If you want to visit the Aberlemno sculptured stones be sure to plan your trip between 1 April to 30 September. According to the Aberlemno website , these tight opening times are nothing to do with the tourist season, but the old stones are brittle, and winter weather threatens irreversible frost damage. This means the stones are all covered in thermal wooden boxes from the last working day of September until the first working day of April.
Top image: A rare Pictish stone discovered near the site of the Battle of Nechtansmere in Scotland. Source: University of Aberdeen
By Ashley Cowie