Sunday, 28 February 2016

"Discovering the Northern Picts: Survey and Excavation in Northern Scotland"

Seminar by Dr Gordon Noble, University of Aberdeen

Report by Laura Cawley

This seminar focused on fortifying rulership in Northern Britain, in relation to the Picts. The period in question was the transition of the Iron Age to the Early Medieval period. This seminar was informed by Dr. Gordon Noble’s research in the Northern Picts Project. The focus of this project is Eastern and Northern Scotland and the Picts people, with a particular focus on Early Medieval Scotland (circa 400-900 AD).
At this time in Scotland there was a great diversity of people. The Picts were distinguished by their carved stones and metalwork. Areas researched as part of the project include forts, burial practices, environment, and symbol stones, as well as possible domestic settlements. Cé is one of the areas included in the project.

The origins of the Picts have been a source of confusion for historians and archaeologists in the past. At this time the origins of new forms of social hierarchy and authority were widespread. As a result of this complexity, the project uses interdisciplinary means to aid in its research, and material culture is utilised to define new relations of power.
The anthropogenic and archaeological signatures of kingship have left their mark on Scotland. Increased ritual power and the sacred role of the leader were shown through the power they exerted on nature. This led to sacred and exclusive objects and distinctive burials and monuments.
Irish written evidence has been used to enhance the project. These documents provide evidence of kings as leaders in war, justice and religion. They were involved in clientship which was materialised through military service, hospitality and annual labour, for example constructing ramparts. Kingship was also seen as part of the world order, and making things run as they should.
The historical sources used in this project include Ptolemy’s Geography, which uses 1st century AD information, and mentions many tribes. The Picts are mentioned from the 3rd century AD as a source of trouble for the Romans. This sudden mention of the Picts could be as a result of the consolidation of tribes to counteract the threat of the Romans. The mention of fewer tribes in later Roman sources could support this theory. Other sources include the kinglists of the 8th century AD, which note Pictish over-kingship by the 7th century AD. Later sources emphasise royal centres in the South.
The archaeological record is now being used to trace the origins and development of the Picts. This record includes symbol stones, fortified sites, and cemeteries. The writing system identified on the symbol stones is believed to mark out powerful individuals. Metalworking symbols on the stones are seen to be symbols of power. The Late Bronze Age and Iron Age hillforts which reemerge in the Post-Roman period were central to the kingship of these powerful individuals, according to the sources.

The origin of these symbol stones is generally taken to be the Late Roman period- 8th/9th centuries AD, but there is no real consensus. They originate in Northern Pictland. These stones have been dated relative to Christian monuments.
The symbol stones and fortified sites form the main sources for the project. One of the sites studied is Dunnicaer, which is a fortified site with carved stone monuments. Its promontory fort dates to the Pictish period. One of the structures there, Beannachar House, has Pictish stones in its association. These stones were found in 1832 by village youths but not studied until much later. The dates of the site are early- 3rd/4th century AD. Roman sources say that the Picts were sea raiders, which may mean that this site’s coastal location was a natural choice.
Rhynie is another fortified site studied for the project. The name means a place associated with a great king. It was a high status fortified site dating to the 5th/6th century AD, and was contemporary with the stones found there. This famous group of Pictish stones are more polished and elaborate than those found at Dunnicaer. They are an earlier type, as there is no Christian symbolism on them as on other stones. Symbols on these stones include fish, the Pictish beast, and the famous Rhynie Man. This was an important find as human representation in Pictish stones is rare. One of these stones was also left in its original location, which is rare with such stones. This provides a rare study opportunity. Ditches and a palisade were found nearby.
Imports were found at the site, including a Late Roman amphora from the Mediterranean and dating to the 6th century AD. These are rare in this area; they are found in South-West England at high status sites. Only two other sites in Scotland boast such a find, and both have royal associations. Glass from Western France which formed a beaker for wine was also found, and this is also a rare find in Eastern Scotland. High status metalworks such as bronze pins, brooch moulds, and exceptional iron tongs, which are also represented on the stones, were also found at the site.
The site has been dated from 450-550 AD, and is seen as a landscape of power. This was an Iron Age fort which was reused in the Early Medieval period. A high status cemetery and square barrows dating from 450-550 AD were also found. A stone socket for a standing stone was discovered at the entranceway of the fort, near Rhynie Man, with a deliberate deposit of a cattle jaw bone placed at the bottom.

This is a secular site but there are cult and ceremonial associations. Axe carrier symbols were found which have animal heads and elaborate teeth, similar to Rhynie Man, and could be interpreted as shamanic figures. There were similar axes to those represented found at the burial of Sutton Hoo, and Lagore crannóg in Meath. These were royal sites which also had animal remains, which were sacrificial at the burial and mostly cattle in huge quantities at Lagore. This shows how kings may have been implicated in the religious practices of their people.
Burghead was also studied, and is the largest Pictish fort. It is a promontory fort with monumental walls and depictions of bulls which may relate to animal sacrifice. Early Christian sculpture has been found, as the site was used to almost 1000 AD, when Christianity was spreading. Little excavation has been done, and the site was damaged with the building of a town on top of it. Test excavation revealed intact Early Medieval deposits and a cattle bone midden. Radiocarbon dates of the rampart place it in the 5th/6th century AD, the post hole to the 6th century AD, and the midden to the 9th/10th century AD.

Almost all of the forts studied date to the 5th century AD, showing them to be Post-Roman phenomena. Some sites, such as Rhynie, became disused during the 6th century, while the larger forts, such as Burghead, continued to be used for longer periods. This may mirror the rise of the overking in the sources; less centres of power as power becomes more centralised to certain areas.
In conclusion, warfare was materialised through enclosures which were important to the Northern identity in the 3rd/4th century, but this may have been geographically restricted. There may also have been use of sacred and restricted script to denote emerging elites in the same period. Bands of clientship allowed forts to be built in the late Roman and Iron Age periods, but these were consolidated from the 5th century AD and in a Post-Roman context. In the 5th/6th century an element of the divine and sacred was introduced in relation to rulership.

If you would like more information on this project, it can be found through the Tarbat Discovery Centre’s website, and the Northern Picts Facebook group.

Monday, 8 February 2016


"Violence Among Hunter-Gatherers"

Seminar by Dr Rick Schulting, University of Oxford
Report by Nicola Riordan
Dr Rick Schulting from the University of Oxford came over on the 4th of February to give us a very interesting seminar. The seminar began with telling us that there is a debate among archaeologists as to the origin of warfare. Were hunter-gatherers engaged with warfare? Is there any evidence of even earlier warfare? When we think about hunter-gatherers, we generally think of much simpler, egalitarian, peaceful groups of people who shared the land as a community. There is evidence of high homicide rates among hunter-gatherers all over the world, but this does not represent warfare, or at least, nothing we can identify as ‘warfare’, in which we envision warriors with armour.

However, looking at hunter-gatherers from a different perspective, we can look at the northeast coast of North America, where there were chiefs in charge of groups, slaves who were either captured and brought to the group to serve or born as a slave from other slaves. An example of this was a painting from 1847 of the Songhees war party returning home, holding severed heads as trophies. Several books have been written about violence and warfare among hunter-gatherers, not exactly questioning it, but more compiling information on the evidence for murder, massacres and warfare among these groups. These books include ‘Violence and Warfare Among Hunter-Gatherers’ by Allen, M and Jones T, as well as ‘Warless Societies and the Origin of War’ by Kelly, R. A quote from literature which stands out is ‘thank prehistoric conflict for collaboration, intelligence in humans’. It is a quote like this which makes us realise that once individual groups begin to define themselves and gain a unique identity and understanding of who they are, is when the prospect of warfare begins. Within primitive warfare, size matters – a bigger group of people seem a lot more intimidating than a smaller group. According to a paper published in Science in 2009 by Bowles, S, 14% of adult deaths among hunter-gatherer groups in archaeological and ethnological regions were due to warfare in areas such as Europe, Asia and North America.

However, at one site mentioned; Téviec, it is unclear if the violence recorded was due to 3warfare or homicide within the group. At this time in this location, there were no chiefdoms or states, so if someone wronged you, you would have been free to kill them. Also, in this paper there was a lot of data missing, there are at least 30 other sites in Europe which show no signs of warfare, so it seems as though the information was chosen to back up warfare, while all of the evidence showing a lack of warfare was simply ignored. In sites such as Gøngehusvej 7 in Denmark, where a woman with a depression in her skull which showed signs of healing was found, there were no examples of unhealed cranium injuries. Another site in Tilbury, Essex from 6065-5910 BC there were many examples of healed injuries, but no evidence from either site for massacres or battle or warfare.

This brought us on to the concept that within hunter-gatherer societies, it is much more likely that there was ritualised conflict not meant to be lethal, such as stick fights which the elders would organise to diffuse conflict between groups in the younger generations. This is backed up by the lack of evidence for perimortem damages within these groups. A few weeks ago, the cover of Nature featured a ‘massacre’ at Lake Turkana. This ‘massacre’ featured individuals with healed injuries, some individuals with their hand bound suggesting some sort of execution, and some perimortem injuries including one individual with an obsidian blade still lodged in the skull. There were 20 individuals spread out over 300 meters, and have a large date range of 10500-9000 BC, suggesting that this was not a massacre, but drawn out over a longer time period.

Two sites which Dr Schulting has worked on are Ofnet in Bavaria and Cis-Baikall in Siberia. In Ofnet, two skull nests were excavated by Schmidt in 1909, and when radiocarbon dating came into use, they were dated to the 7th millennium BC, making them Mesolithic, which had previously been debated. There were 28 skulls in the large nest and 6 in the small nest, with a range from infants to adults and males to females. There were a lot of cranium injuries present with about 75% of them having severe cranium injuries. There are two theories that are debated with this site – is this evidence of a massacre or were the skulls placed here over time? The radiocarbon dates received from the nests allow both theories to be possible – they could have all been deposited at the same time or over a timeframe of 600 years. Some skulls show signs of overkill, and have injuries to the back of the head in an execution style. All of the skulls still have their mandibles, and the first 3, 4, 5 vertebrae have cut marks; evidence that the heads were cut off before decomposition occurred.

A few of the skulls in the nests have been dated to about 6400 BC, with only one outlier in the large nest. The dates in the large nest suggest that it was either a single event or took place over 200 years. Also, the two nests appear to be of different ages. At least 30 more skulls have been dated, and this should get the date range down to about 30 years, though with the conditions of the skulls and the different ages of the two nests, the best date range scientifically achievable at the moment is more like 90 years, which is still definitely shorter than previously thought. Are these nests evidence of warfare among hunter-gatherers? In a more primitive society, if someone did you wrong you would kill the person you are angry at. However, once you start to target that person’s group and not them specifically for revenge, that is a feud or warfare between two groups of people. The killing of children shows this – it is unlikely that a young child killed someone or were the subject of sexual jealousy, so the fact that there are children’s skulls in the nest suggests that they were not targeted because they had done wrong, but because they were associated with the person who did, though this is very debatable. There are a couple of other sites where something similar has been observed like in Ofnet. In Mannlefelsa, there is a male skull with similar perimortem injuries, with cut marks present also. In Hohlenstein-Stadel there were three individuals found; a man, woman and child, all killed. The child’s skull showed it would have been about 6 years old, but it was larger than it should have been for a 6 year old, suggesting hydrocephaly. This condition would have affected the behaviour of the child, and once genetic testing has been done on these three skulls, it could be possible that the child was killed because of this condition, and its mother and father were also killed by association.

Cis-Baikal is another site which Dr Schulting has worked on. There are about 1000 well preserved hunter-gatherers around the lake here from the early Neolithic to Bronze Age. There is no evidence of farming in this region even in the Bronze Age, and it is thought that the Bronze objects were brought here through trade or other means rather than being produced and manufactured in the area, though this is not clear. One unusual aspect of this site is that the mortuary complex for the middle Neolithic is missing. This is a complete mystery, as there is some evidence of settlement for this time period nearby, but no burial evidence until the late Neolithic. One cemetery called Shamanka II around Lake Baikal contains both single and multiple burials, with microliths as grave offerings, and some skulls showing perimortem damages. Thanks to a large amount of funding, every individual around the lake has been dated. So how did the Bronze Age hunter-gatherers know to bury their dead at this site? Too much time had gone by for oral folk tradition to have provided the information, so either coastal erosion around the site had exposed some Neolithic graves, or just decided that because of the striking view it was a good place for burials.

There are two clusters of these burials – north and south. The south cluster contains four young adult males, while the north is much more varied with males, females and children. The south cluster all show signs of perimortem injuries, with projectile points or outlines of projectile points found with the skeletons. One of the skeletons in the north clusters is a young adult and contains 22+ arrowheads in the grave. These are unlikely to be grave goods as they are all pointing in different directions, so it is more likely to be evidence of overkill. One skull shows two sharp force traumas to the mandible, though no axes have been found in the area, so perhaps the perpetrators came from the outside and massacred these people in an act of war. These two clusters may have slightly different dates, with a range of 100-200 years – so perhaps this is evidence of two separate massacres? Statistically they could both be from the same group, though the fresh water reservoir effect must be taken into account, as these people would have eaten the fish from the lake which may skew the dates slightly. For a hunter-gatherer society, the amount of deaths present here are extremely high, and the closest ‘normal’ Bronze Age cemetery is about 100 km away, with no big Bronze Age settlement found nearby.

The resources at the lake may have been enough motive for the massacre(s) at Cis-Baikal, but what was the motive for the massacre(s) at Ofnet? The nests in Ofnet were in a forest, where the resources would have been the same and enough for kilometres around. This means that the massacres may have been more complex than simply killing for resources, it may have been different generations getting revenge, or jealousies which spiralled out of control, or even a matter of prestige between different groups; the bigger a group the more powerful.