Exploring ideology on a Pictish carved stone

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Analysis of the Tulloch Stone, a Pictish monolith discovered in eastern Scotland and engraved with a human figure holding a spear, has shed light on the ‘warrior ethos’ believed to have been prevalent in the late- and post-Roman period.

Three images of the Tulloch stone
The Tulloch Stone: (a) photogrammetric image, (b) hillshade model, (c) interpretation. [Image: University of Aberdeen]

Found 1m below ground-level in an area disturbed by development work, the stone was an eye-catching monument measuring 1.94m tall and 0.7m wide, and weighing 1 tonne. The carving itself is 1.02m tall and depicts a human figure holding a spear with a distinctive kite-shaped blade and doorknob-style butt. The individual may be naked, although lines around the ankles might suggest footwear or leggings, and the shape of the figure’s head suggests an elaborate hairstyle.

Details of the image were clarified using photogrammetry and 3D imaging in a study recently published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.214). It also compared the Tulloch monolith with the only other similar stones found to-date – one from Rhynie, Aberdeenshire (CA 289), and one from Newton of Collessie, Fife – in order to discover more about what objects like this can tell us about the society that created them.

The carvings are likely to date to the post-Roman period, as the Rhynie and Collessie stones were both found in cemeteries spanning the 5th to early 7th centuries AD, while the style of the spear depicted is known to have been in use around the 3rd to 5th/6th centuries.

The function of the imagery is still uncertain, however. The Rhynie and Collessie stones were found in funerary contexts, and, although the Tulloch Stone’s original location is not known, it was discovered next to a ring-ditch with a possible central burial. It is uncertain whether the stones are meant to depict real individuals, or a mythical figure or deity, but, the researchers (from Perth Museum and Art Gallery, the University of Aberdeen, and Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre) suggest, it does seem clear that they reflect an important ‘warrior-figure’ connected to some sort of elite.

The Picts were involved in numerous armed conflicts with Rome, and the warband was a key aspect of social organisation; it is suggested that armed individuals like that on the Tulloch Stone may reflect this. While burials containing weapons as grave goods are thought to reflect the status of ‘warriors’, these are much less common in northern Britain than in other areas. Instead, carved monoliths like the Tulloch Stone may reflect a regional expression of martial ethos in late Roman and post-Roman Europe.

This news article appears in issue 362 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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