Experts hail Pictish royal monastery find


Share post:

AERIAL photographs showing a faint line in fields around a village in Highland Perthshire have mystified archaeologists for decades. Crop marks in the village of Fortingall, famous for its 5,000-year-old yew tree, seem to indicate an ancient boundary long since buried and forgotten.
Now an archaeological dig may have uncovered the secret: the site is believed to have been a royal monastery dating from the time when the Picts were converting to Christianity more than 1,300 years ago. 

In the 1980s areal photography highlighted crop marks showing what is believed to be a large Pictish monastic complex. Two excavation trenches were dug under the guidance of archaeologist Dr Oliver JT O’Grady, in August 2011 [Credit: Highland Perthshire]

Dr Oliver O’Grady and a band of local volunteers opened up two exploratory trenches to reveal a wide bank faced with large upright stones that may have once stood as high as two metres. 

O’Grady believes the bank to be the remains of a Pictish monastic enclosure, also known as a vallum monastery, possibly dating somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. “It’s in a beautiful state of preservation,” said O’Grady, “and one of the best upstanding pieces of Pictish archaeology that I’ve ever seen. 

“I am blown away by what we have found in what is only the second Pictish monastery to be excavated to any great extent in Scotland. Hopefully this research will shed some more light on what really is a black hole in Scottish archaeological investigation.” 

The discovery supports existing evidence of an early Christian monastery at Fortingall. The village church contains a monk’s hand bell and fragments of early Christian grave markers with Pictish designs. 

Definitive results from the dig, carried out by the Breadalbane Heritage Society, still await radiocarbon dating, but as well as the monastic enclosure, the archaeological team found the remains of a substantial Pictish road passing though one of the enclosure’s main entrances. A geophysical survey carried out within the enclosed area indicates the remains of a major settlement with many internal divisions and possible dwellings. 

“It just shows how important the ancient monastery at Fortingall must have been,” said Neil Hooper, chairman of the heritage society. “It is so much more significant than anyone previously thought.” 

O’Grady, who previously led excavations at Scone Palace, thinks that Fortingall could have once been a major cultural and religious centre in the Celtic world. “Early Christian monasteries were important sites for the development of intellectual life in Scotland,” he commented. “They are likely to have been focal points for trade, metalwork and crafts as well as for prayer.” 

Slag deposits were found during the dig, a clear indication of metal-working in the monastery. 

As well as working with iron, the Pictish people are remembered for their very fine silver and gold brooches. 

Early Christian monasteries may have also been important political centres during a period when the Pictish people were being gradually assimilated by the Gaels into the kingdom of Alba. 

“I am beginning to see this more on the scale of a royal monastery,” said O’Grady. “A venue where links between dynasties were forged through marriage, or even where inaugurations were held to affirm royal power.” 

A single glass bead with three red ringlets and a green herringbone motif, embedded in the surface of the Pictish road, proved to be the star find of the Fortingall excavation. Dr Ewan Campbell, senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow, has identified this as a 6th century Anglo-Saxon bead. “It is very unusual to find an Anglo-Saxon object in Scotland at this early date,” Campbell commented. 

If the bead’s age is verified, it would mean that the monastery was contemporary with the lives of the very first missionaries who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland. 

St Columba founded the monastery in Iona in 563 AD to introduce the Picts to the Gospel on the West Coast. St Adamnan, Columba’s biographer and the abbot of Iona from 679 AD, has long been associated with Fortingall in place names and legend. 

The discovery of a prehistoric flint scraper by Dr O’Grady’s team suggests that the origins of the site at Fortingall could be even older. Christian missionaries may have built on a prehistoric monument centered around the famous Fortingall yew. 

The tree, believed to be between 3,000 and 5,000 years old, is considered the oldest tree in Europe and may well have been a focus for pre-Christian worship. There are records of it being venerated in seasonal festivals well into the medieval period. 

Measured in 1769 with a circumference of 16 metres (52 feet), the Fortingall yew fell victim to souvenir hunters and local youths who lit Beltane fires at its base. The tree has since been protected by a high wall. “The yew alone makes Fortingall a site of national and international interest,” said O’Grady. “It gives us an unbroken link straight back through the Middle Ages to the people of the Iron Age.” 

Author: Jamie Grant | Source: Scotland on Sunday [September 11, 2011]



Related articles

Storm uncovers massive Byzantine pot on beach

An emergency excavation was underway Thursday to save a giant earthenware pot dating back to Byzantine times uncovered...

New Pluto images from NASA’s New Horizons

New close-up images of Pluto from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft reveal a bewildering variety of surface features that...

Urban floods intensifying, countryside drying up

An exhaustive global analysis of rainfall and rivers shows signs of a radical shift in streamflow patterns, with...

Trigger for Milky Way’s youngest supernova identified

Scientists have used data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the NSF's Jansky Very Large Array to determine...

Study on ancient reptiles shows how climate change could impact wildlife

Researchers examining the 200-million-year-old fossils of long-extinct, ancestral mammals and reptiles from Nova Scotia to South Carolina say...

Lifestyle determines gut microbes

The gut microbiota is responsible for many aspects of human health and nutrition, but most studies have focused...

Mexican archaeologists find 8,000 year-old camp sites

Eight archaeological sites, some of them occupied 8,000 years ago by nomadic groups, were discovered by archaeologists from...

Temple of Artemis in Vavrona flooded

The archaeological site of Vavrona (Brauron), near Athens, Greece, flooded today after several hours of non stop torrential...