Experts hail Pictish royal monastery find

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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]

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