Unpicking Pictish Burghead

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An aerial view of the Burghead excavations, revealing the remains of the largest-known Pictish fort of its kind. (IMAGE: University of Aberdeen)

The Picts remain one of the more elusive early medieval kingdoms of Britain, and our knowledge of their culture is still rather limited. But archaeological work and post-excavation research at Burghead, near Lossiemouth in Moray, is helping to illuminate these enigmatic people.

Headed by the University of Aberdeen and the Burghead Headland Trust, with support from the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service, this project has been exploring the site of Scotland’s largest-known Pictish fort of its kind since 2015. Previously, it had been thought that it had been thoroughly destroyed by 19th-century development, but, once the team moved past the Victorian rubble, they discovered that parts of the Pictish settlement had survived.

Occupation ended when the fort was destroyed during the Viking Age, but the large fire that spelled the site’s demise also helped to preserve its remains into the present. As Dr Gordon Noble, Head of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, observed, ‘we discovered that while the destruction of the fort in the 10th century may not have been good news for the Picts, the fact that so much of it was set alight is a real bonus for archaeologists.’ The blaze allowed oak planks set into the 6m-high walls of the fort defences to be preserved in situ and in great detail.

Finds from the recently excavated midden include intricate dress- and hairpins, including this bramble-headed example. (IMAGE: University of Aberdeen)

One of the main discoveries from previous seasons on site was a longhouse (see CA 331), a particularly important find as very little is known about Pictish architecture, especially in terms of domestic buildings. An Anglo-Saxon coin of Alfred the Great (r. AD 871-899) was also discovered within the floor layers of the house.

‘There is a lovely stone-built hearth in one end of the building, and the Anglo-Saxon coin shows the building dates toward the end of the use of the fort based on previous dating,’ said Gordon. ‘The coin is also pierced, perhaps for wearing; it shows that the occupants of the fort in this non-monetary economy literally wore their wealth.’ In the project’s most recent work, a midden was also excavated, revealing aspects of daily life at the fort with finds including intricate dress- and hairpins.

It is believed that the fort was in use between AD 500 and AD 1000. That was a volatile time for the Picts, as the Vikings were launching frequent attacks on mainland Scotland from their strongholds in the Shetland and Orkney Islands.

This article appeared in CA 341. 

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