A stone marked with 1,400-year-old Pictish symbols has been uncovered, and its location could shed light on how early Scotland was shaped by its prehistory.
In the Early Middle Ages, inhabitants of what is now Scotland carved numerous large symbol stones with shapes whose meaning has not been deciphered in modern times. With only a few hundred of these stones discovered, each new one is a precious find – but when archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen dug one up, the context made it doubly so.
"We suddenly saw a symbol. There was lots of screaming," said Dr James O’Driscoll, who discovered the stone, in a statement.
"Then we found more symbols and there was more screaming and a little bit of crying! It’s a feeling that I’ll probably never have again on an archaeological site. It’s a find of that scale."
Most symbol stones have been found unrelated to other historical features, for example by farmers plowing fields, giving little help in understanding the mystery of their design. However, the latest treasure was located as part of an effort to understand the site around some of the most important surviving symbol stones, located at Alberlemno.
The Alberlemno stones include examples of the earliest style, thought to date to the 5th or 6th centuries, plus later examples showing the influence of Christianity.
A stone called Aberlemno II is particularly significant, as it includes figures thought to represent the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685, when invading Anglo-Saxon armies were beaten back, maintaining northern independence for centuries to come. Historians debate whether Aberlemno was the battle site.
The archaeologists were using imaging equipment to look for anomalies around the stones, and found a signal strong enough to make them dig. They thought they might have hit a settlement, but were astonished to find the symbol stone.
Where other stones appear to belong to a specific era, this one has multiple layers on top of each other, reflecting the changing styles over time. Whether this makes it a sort of potential Rosetta Stone, with newer symbolic language shedding light on the less understood earlier symbols, remains to be seen.
Although the initial symbols on this stone apparently date to before Nechtansmere, it appears to have been considered significant long afterward.
“The stone was found built into the paving of a huge building from the 11th or 12th century. The paving included the Pictish stones and examples of Bronze Age rock art. Excitingly the 11th-12th century building appears to be built directly on top of settlement layers extending back to the Pictish period,” Professor Gordon Noble said in a statement.
It looks like the emerging Scottish nation regarded the Pictish artifacts as important and matters of pride, to the extent they incorporated stones carved centuries before into the base of their most impressive buildings.
“The discovery of this new Pictish symbol stone and evidence that this site was occupied over such a long period will offer new insights into this significant period in the history of Scotland as well as helping us to better understand how and why this part of Angus became a key Pictish landscape and latterly an integral part of the kingdoms of Alba and Scotland,” Noble said.