Creeping silently, the warriors emerged from the cover of the trees and made their way toward the fort. Minutes later the fort’s guards were surrounded by semi-naked men, their faces concealed by bushy beards, their bodies covered in tattoos. Some guards were dragged from their posts while others were dispatched with long spears. The warriors then surged over the wall and plundered and laid waste to the town beyond, leaving a trail of death and destruction. Once again, the Picts’ guerrilla tactics had caught their enemies by surprise. At least this is what the Romans, who occupied much of Britain from A.D. 43 to 409, would have the world believe. Given the name Picti— meaning “painted ones” in Latin— these people inhabiting northern Britain stood up to the Roman legions and, against all odds, prevented them from seizing their land.
The Picts emerged some 1,700 years ago in what is now northeastern Scotland—known in some sources as Pictavia, or Pictland—and left virtually no written records of their own and very few traces on the landscape they once inhabited. The handful of Pictish dwellings that have been discovered suggest they were a thinly spread population of farmers living in simple turf-walled houses, not the ferocious barbarians the Romans portrayed.
Believed to have descended from Iron Age Celtic tribes, the Picts were culturally and linguistically distinct from their neighbors, the Gaels, who inhabited what is now western Scotland, and the Britons, in what is now southern Scotland. The formation of their identity as a distinct group was likely accelerated by the presence of the Romans. This may have forced fragmented tribal groups to organize and cooperate with each other, forming several Pictish communities that became kingdoms in the face of a common threat. By the tenth century A.D., the Picts had seemingly vanished, leaving behind only myths and standing stones inscribed with distinctive symbols. “It’s one of the enduring mysteries,” says University of Aberdeen archaeologist Gordon Noble. “Who were these fascinating people?”
Over the last 10 years, Noble, who heads the Northern Picts Project, has excavated Pictish settlements in some of the most extreme and unlikely locations in northeast Scotland. Through excavations on windswept hilltops and crumbling coastal promontories, it is becoming clear that these sites were home to a well-connected, creative, organized, and highly skilled group of people whose true story is only now being thoroughly explored. Some of the legends surrounding them, it seems, may not have been so farfetched after all.
Forty miles inland from the modern city of Aberdeen, a hill known as Tap o’ Noth commands stupendous views. The snow-capped Cairngorm Mountains are resplendent to the south, and the glimmering waters of the Moray Firth are just visible to the north. Heather moorland, pockets of woodland, and rich rolling fields stretch away into the distance. Birdsong fills the air and the small village of Rhynie nestles in a sheltered pocket of farmland below. However, still air and blue skies are not the norms on this hilltop, and it would have been an even harsher environment from about the third to ninth-century A.D. when the Picts lived in this part of Scotland. “There would have been snow up here in winter,” says Noble. “It’s a crazy place to live.”
The remains of an earthwork equivalent in size to an Olympic swimming pool sit inside a 40-acre walled enclosure atop Tap o’ Noth. The enclosure had generally been assumed to have been inhabited during the Bronze (ca. 2500–800 b.c.) and early Iron Ages (800–400 b.c.), when Scotland enjoyed warmer temperatures that would have made living there an easier proposition. It was only as an afterthought, having discovered Pictish material in the valley below, that Noble and his team climbed Tap o’ Nothin 2019 to excavate the large enclosure and take a few samples for radiocarbon dating.
The charcoal samples, which Noble and his team extracted from a house platform and from the enclosure wall on the south side of the hill revealed that Tap o’ Noth had also been occupied from the third to sixth-century A.D. “I have never been so surprised by a series of radiocarbon dates,” says Noble. A lidar survey pinpointed the remnants of more than 800 house platforms, dug into the hillside and clustered closely together. If each of the huts the team identified had four or five people living in it, then it’s possible that up to 4,000 people once lived on the hill. “It was absolutely mind-blowing,” says Noble. “We just had no concept whatsoever that sites of that scale would date to the Pictish period.”
Textual evidence of the Picts during this period is sparse. The only surviving text written by Picts themselves is a ninth-century list of kings, and while Roman, Gaelic, Brittonic, and Anglo-Saxon sources all mention the Picts, their tales tend to be based on hearsay and written long after the events they describe. This lack of firsthand information has reinforced the impression that the Picts were backward people with few connections to the outside world. “These new finds are groundbreaking in terms of shifting our perception of what was happening in the late Roman and early medieval period,” says Nicholas Evans, a historian at the University of Aberdeen. “The Picts were clearly connected, and to have that many people living up there indicates they were well organized. I’m still struggling to get my head around it.”
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