How aerial technology helped us discover the largest Pictish settlement in Scotland
Tap O'Noth, whose enclosure is visible on the summit. Author provided
Tap O'Noth is a popular local landmark with an ancient fortress on the top. It is a gently sloping hill overlooking the lush, hilly farmland surrounding the village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire.
So far it has been generally believed that the fort dates from the Bronze or Iron Age. Thanks to a combination of drone material, 3D laser scanning from the air and radiocarbon dating, our investigations have shown that the fort is not only much younger than previously thought, but may also be considered one of the largest Pictish settlements of the late and post-Roman times.
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The Pictish Rhynie man. Author provided
We discovered that there were once 800 residential platforms where up to 4,000 people lived, and if they all date from the same period, this would represent an almost urban settlement that archaeologists previously did not believe in until the 12th century Scotland existed.
Uncover the picts
The fearsome Picten were first mentioned in late Roman sources as a collective term for the barbarian peoples living north of the Roman border in northeast Scotland. The Pictish kingdoms ruled much of Scotland until the end of the first millennium AD, but few sources were left to better understand this important time.
The University of Aberdeen's Northern Picts project was launched in 2012 to find new locations in a period with few identified locations, either in written sources or in archaeological records. The main focus was on the area around the village of Rhynie, whose name contains a form of the Celtic word for "king", rīg.
Our work on site suggests that the Rhynie Valley was an elite Pictish center from the 4th to 6th centuries AD. The area has long been known for its concentration of Pictish stones carved with symbols. In March 1978, a farmer plowed a spectacular stone known as "Rhynie Man" in a field on Barflat Farm south of the modern village.
That summer, the town council's archeology department took aerial photos of a number of enclosures around Craw Stane below, another Pictish stone still standing in the same field where the Rhynie Man was found.
Our excavations around Craw Stane on Barflat Farm from 2011 to 2017 indicated that it was facing the entrance of a settlement that contained the remains of wooden buildings surrounded by trenches, banks, and an ornate wooden wall made of oak posts and boards.
The excavations revealed a large number of finds, including fragments of late Roman wine amphora (earthenware glasses) imported from the Eastern Mediterranean, fragments from glass drinking cups from France and one of the largest collections of metalwork from early medieval Britain. These include molds and crucibles for the production of pins, brooches and even tiny animal figures that match the animals carved on Pictish stones.
An iron needle in the form of an ax, which was worn by the Rhynie man, was also discovered. A remarkable find that belonged to a number of objects that could be directly linked to the iconography of these stones. The ax that the Rhynie man carries appears to be a form associated with animal sacrifices, and the fearsome figure on the stone can be a pagan deity associated with cult practices.
Our excavations on the outskirts of the village, a few hundred meters north of Barflat, also found traces of a contemporary cemetery and uncovered the remains of Pictish burial mounds, including the partially preserved remains of an adult woman.
A breathtaking discovery
Since 2017 we have been exploring the wider area of the Rhynie Valley and aiming at a series of hills that overlook the Barflat complex. But Tap O'Noth is the most fascinating place and one of the most spectacular hills in Scotland. It is the second tallest in the country and one of the best examples of a glass fortress. The glazing is the result of the destruction of walls with wooden lacing by fire.
The summit fort is surrounded by a 16-hectare enclosure, which is itself the second largest mountain fort in northern Britain. Hundreds of house platforms had been recorded within the larger fortress in previous surveys.
Work on the remains of the glazed fortress in Tap O'Noth. Author provided
Our excavation of the elongated fort was an exercise in extreme archeology in which the glazed walls and areas of the interior were tackled over two exhausting seasons. It exposed the strapped and badly burned wall surfaces of the glass fortress, and the sampling of radiocarbons showed that it lasted from 400 to 100 BC. B.C. were dated in the Iron Age.
The results of the larger fortress were all the more surprising and exciting. Because of its size and height, scientists have suggested that the construction and occupation date from a time when the climate was warmer, possibly during the Bronze Age.
A LiDAR density scan analysis of tap structures by Tap O'Noth. Author provided
However, our latest excavations in 2019 turned this idea upside down - with radiocarbon from two platforms and the wall from the 3rd to 6th centuries AD, which is largely contemporary with the Barflat complex. The LiDAR scanning (essentially 3D laser scanning from an airplane) and our drone photogrammetry survey also suggest that there are many more house platforms in the lower fort - maybe even 800 - which may make Tap O 'Noth one of the densest occupied hill areas makes Britain.
The wall is part of the last part of this period of radiocarbon dates, making it the largest fortress of that date that we know of in Britain. The number of house platforms on the site suggests a very large population, although we need to test more platforms to see if they're up-to-date, but there is little in the early medieval context to compare the site with.
Our work in the Rhynie Valley gives us an unexpected and unprecedented glimpse into a possibly early royal landscape of Picten 4th-7th centuries. Century AD. In particular, the exciting discovery of Tap O’Noth has the potential to shake the narrative of this entire period.
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Gordon Noble receives funding from Historic Environment Scotland and the Leverhulme Trust.
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