PICTS AND VIKINGS

Friday, January 2, 2009


The “mystery” of the Picts has been further increased by more than 200 surviving stone monuments from Scotland and the Isles, decorated with a range of symbols. These same symbols are used across Pictland from the mid-sixth century onward, suggesting that they functioned as a means of communication for the Picts, but their meaning is unfortunately lost to modern scholars.


Name given to the indigenous inhabitants of northern Scotland (north of the Forth and Clyde estuaries), the Outer Hebrides, and the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. The various tribal confederations in Pictland, recorded by Roman authors, were probably given the label Picti, “the painted ones,” by the Roman garrison in northern Britain in the third century. They were described as tattooed barbarians by classical authors, as immigrants from Scythia by Bede in his eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English Church, and as pygmies who lost their strength at midday and hid underground by the 12th-century author of the Historia Norwegiae. While it is possible that the Picts painted or tattooed their bodies, they were certainly not recent immigrants to Scotland, and burial evidence has conclusively demonstrated that they were no shorter than other inhabitants of the British Isles. Souterrains or underground “houses” are known from Pictland, but these were storehouses and refuges rather than living quarters and appear to have largely gone out of use by the end of the second century. Bede describes Pictish society as matrilinear, with inheritance rights and the right to the throne passing down the female rather than the male line. However, this claim is disputed by many modern historians.

 

The Picts are a rather shadowy people, largely due to the almost complete absence of written sources from Pictland, and to their total disappearance from the historical record during the ninth century, when they were absorbed into the expanding kingdom of Scotland on the mainland and overwhelmed by Viking settlers on the Scottish isles. The only surviving Pictish documents are copies of lists of kings, written in Latin, which cover the period from the mid-sixth century onward. By around the year 600, it appears that Pictland was undergoing conversion to Christianity. According to Bede, the Pictish king Nechton sent a request for advice on religious matters to Ceolfrid, abbot of the Northumbrian monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow in 710. This advice, when received by Nechton, was duly translated into Pictish for the king and then “sent out [. . .] to all the provinces of the Picts to be copied, learned, and adopted.” Nevertheless, nothing is known about the work, writings, and even locations of the religious houses of Pictland. The “mystery” of the Picts has been further increased by more than 200 surviving stone monuments from Scotland and the Isles, decorated with a range of symbols. These same symbols are used across Pictland from the mid-sixth century onward, suggesting that they functioned as a means of communication for the Picts, but their meaning is unfortunately lost to modern scholars. From the eighth century onward, Pictish stone sculpture often incorporates a cross as a central element in its decorative scheme. Irish missionaries are also credited with introducing the ogham alphabet to Pictland in the seventh century, but although ogham inscriptions are found on a number of stone monuments and smaller objects, many texts are unintelligible, leading to considerable debate about whether or not the Pictish language was in fact a Celtic language, related to Gaelic.

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