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Boat burials, souterrains, and the Picts

23 January 2012

The Oxford clay geological layer forms a bed that runs from Weymouth to East Anglia – usually well below the surface. It was found to be an excellent material for making bricks commercially as the clay included an oily element derived from fossils from the Jurassic era. Clay pits have proved to be a rich source of fossils for paleontologists over the years but a huge clay pit in Cambridgeshire, on the edge of Fenland, has proved to be a rich source of archaeology. On an old river channel of the River Nene the remains of six boats have been found – dated by C14 methodology between 1300 to 700BC (the story can be seen in Current Archaeology 263 Jan 2012). The clay pit is a window into the past, and this instance, the dividing line between the formation of peat in the Iron Age (after 700BC) and the situation preceding this (in the latter parts of the Bronze Age, following 1500BC). Each year a new layer of silt was laid down on the bottom of the river and this can be seen as layering – even including autumn leaf fall. The various layers of silt built up somewhat like tree rings and the situation of each boat, at what stage in the layering they had bottomed, was used to date them, from 1300 to 700BC. Bronze weapons, such as swords, and various body parts have also been found near the boats which appear to have been deliberately scuttled.

Ditto … the souterrains of Ireland are in effect secret underground passages leading down into a refuge area that was a kind of subterranean stronghold, and like castles was engineered to thwart attackers with narrow sections, other places where attackers could not swing their weapons but the defenders could, and various other ingenious devices designed to protect families and communities. They appear to date back to the Dark Ages and in particular, to the 8th and 9th centuries BC when groups of Vikings preyed on farms and villages along coasts and rivers of both Britain and Ireland. Early souterrains proved fairly simple for the Vikings to smoke out. Later versions overcame this weakness, and they developed into very clever constructs designed to foil axes and the flight of arrows, with several points of congestion where the defenders were at an advantage. The Viking raids belong to a particular window in time, fairly short and related to wet and cold weather in Scandinavia that gave the impetus to migration as that is what happened in the end, they settled down and became farmers, very often taking women from the indigenous inhabitants. The Irish themselves did not stop raiding and looting from each other even after the Vikings had ceased to be a menace and so the souterrains remained in use into the 11th and 12th centiuries. The downside to all this is that the souterrain builders looked around for building material close at hand. This meant that megalithic monuments and buildings were taken apart wherever they occurred close to the projected site of a souterrain. In fact, this accounts for why these constructs resemble megalithic structures and fooled early archaeologists as far as dating was concerned. 

The discovery of a Pictish palace and fortress at Rhynie in Aberdeenshire last year, 2011, has been given some flesh and bones by David Keys in the latest issue of BBC History magazine (13:1 Jan., 2012). It was beseiged and burnt down in the 6th or 7th century AD and appears to have been the main HQ of the kingdom of Ce. Its attackers are thought likely to be the Pictish king based near modern Inverness, and by swallowing up the smaller Pictish kingdom he was able to build up the kind of base that Bridie enjoyed in the time of Columba. The fortress was surrounded by 190m of massive timber ramparts with walkways and battlements. Various fragments of glass and pottery etc., indicate trade with the Mediterranean world – a general trait in sites right across Britain and Ireland at this time. Carved standing stones have also been found which feature images of armed warriors, mythical beasts and what are described as abstract symbols – which are thought to represent the names or identity of elite Pictish families. . 

The Picts are something of an enigma, with various reports from the later Roman era of raiding activity involving boats and war parties somewhat akin to the later Vikings. However, at the same time the Irish and the Saxons were behaving in a similar fashion so it wasn't peculiar to the Picts. Aspects of their language remain a mystery and have yet to be addressed in a satisfactory manner (see for example Paul Dunbavin, Picts and Ancient Britons, Nottingham:1998). New discoveries, year by year, are bringing the Picts alive. They seem to have expanded out of places like Fife and Perthshire and overwhelmed the tribes of central Scotland and the Lowlands, creating a huge empire, a southern Pictish kingdom and the northern one based near Inverness. As such they were a hotchpotch of different tribes and possibly different ethnic groups, one of which was the Picts with the peculiarities in their language, and all were eventually united into a single kingdom of Scotland and the Gaelic tongue took preference – probably for reasons of geography. Pictish origins remain open to conjecture but they do seem to have united what is now eastern Scotland in the early centuries of the first millennium AD, possibly in response to the Romans. The driving factor may in the end have been the climate. An onset of wetter and cooler conditions, following what would have been the very warm first three centuries of AD, caused strife as a result no doubt of crop spoliation due to incessant wet conditions and late frosts etc. This was the driving force behind the Viking activity somewhat later and the establishment of Vikings in the Orkneys and northern Scotland were probably a factor in Pictish history and their relations with the Gaels on the other side of the mountains.

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