Pictish symbol stone unearthed near Aberlemno

Archaeologists also found three pieces of late Neolithic or Bronze Age rock art bearing cup marks and spiral designs

IMAGE: University of Aberdeen.

Excavations in north-east Scotland have uncovered an intricately carved Pictish symbol stone dating to around the 5th or 6th century AD. The 1.7m-long slab (above) was found embedded in the remains of an 11th- or 12th-century floor at the centre of a palisaded enclosure near Aberlemno, during investigations by the University of Aberdeen. Its discovery raises questions about the chronology of the site, which lies within a wider landscape known for its Pictish heritage.

‘There are only around 200 of these monuments known,’ said Professor Gordon Noble, who is leading the investigations as part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded ‘Comparative Kingship’ project. ‘They are occasionally dug up by farmers ploughing fields or during the course of road-building, but by the time we get to analyse them, much of what surrounds them has already been disturbed. To come across something like this while digging one small test-pit is absolutely remarkable.’

The stone is decorated with abstract symbols including triple ovals, a V-rod, a comb and mirror, a double disc, and a crescent, and seems to have been carved in two phases. It was subsequently recycled as paving near what appears to be the building’s threshold – and it was not the only earlier artwork to have caught the attention of later builders. Close by, the archaeologists also found three pieces of late Neolithic or Bronze Age rock art bearing cup marks and spiral designs. ‘We’ve only opened a small trench so far, but all the rock art is concentrated in that entrance feature, so it looks like a very deliberate reuse of the rock art,’ Gordon said.

‘We think that the stone paving is the last phase of a series of buildings, and underneath we’ve got post-holes, hearths, and metalworking areas,’ he added. ‘I’d be surprised if it doesn’t go back to the Pictish period, just in terms of the depth of deposits there; we’ve got one radiocarbon date that suggests that.’

Further dating work is now under way, and the Pictish stone has been removed to the Graciela Ainsworth lab in Edinburgh for conservation and further analysis.