Picts: scourge of Rome, rulers of the north

Review by Kelly Kilpatrick

The Picts first appear in written sources as a cultural entity to the north of the Roman frontier, and disappear from the written record before the turn of the 1st millennium. In combination with their still undeciphered symbol system, this early culture, which once dominated most of eastern and northern Scotland, is regularly described as ‘enigmatic’. The lack of archaeological evidence has compounded the many mysteries enshrouding the Picts, though recent research and discoveries made by projects such as ‘The Northern Picts’ and ‘Comparative Kingship’ are finally shedding new light on this people.

Drawing on the latest research, Picts by Gordon Noble and Nicholas Evans is an invaluable contribution to the subject. This book combines traditional resources with fresh perspectives and an emphasis on archaeology, providing a much-needed comprehensive and up-to-date survey on the archaeology and history of the Picts. The work is divided into seven chapters, concluding with a coda about the legacy of the Picts and a list of Pictish sites that can be visited. The first chapter provides a thorough overview of the written, linguistic, territorial, and archaeological evidence for the Picts. The second, examining everyday life in Pictland, is particularly important to the subject and covers a diverse range of topics, including Pictish domestic dwellings (by region and type), settlements that could be described as ‘urban’, gender, agriculture, and travel. The subject of Pictish domestic architecture has hitherto received little attention, with this book giving the first comprehensive outline of the subject.

The focus of Chapter 3 is Pictish kings and rulers, defensive settlements, and the warrior culture of the Picts, but attention is also drawn to elite activities and associations, such as hunting, metalworking, feasting, and gaming. The fourth chapter examines the religious history of the Picts from the pre-Christian to the Christian period, the former being a particularly challenging topic due to the paucity of evidence. A variety of resources relating to pre-Christian religious ritual and beliefs, including new investigations into cave sites, is woven into a comprehensive narrative on the subject. Drawing on the latest research, the second half of this chapter considers the archaeology of the early Church in Pictland.

Chapter 5 discusses the funerary archaeology of the Picts, exploring regional and cultural burial traditions, Pictish barrow cemeteries, the long-cist cemeteries of southern Pictland, and ecclesiastical burials. The penultimate chapter deals with one of the most well-known aspects of Pictish culture: their elusive symbols. An initial review of the literature and major theories concerning the interpretation of Pictish symbols is followed by new evidence for the dating of the various stages in the development of the symbol system and of their function. After covering the archaeology and history of the Picts from the earliest period, the final chapter is devoted to the end of the Picts and the creation of the Gaelic kingdom of Alba in the wake of the Viking incursions, a political transformation that would ultimately lead to the creation of modern Scotland.

Picts is an extraordinary work that covers seven centuries of Pictish history and archaeology, but is also engagingly written with the general reader in mind. It is beautifully illustrated, too, with 24 colour plates and 141 in-text illustrations. Particularly impressive is Noble’s and Evans’ coverage of various aspects of Pictish society and everyday life, and their awareness of the diverse geography and landscapes of the Pictish realm. Throughout the volume, careful attention is devoted to examining Southern and Northern Pictland, as well as Atlantic Pictland, including the Western and Outer Isles. This book is essential to anyone interested in the Picts, and comes highly recommended for anyone with an interest in early medieval Britain and the history of Scotland.

Picts: scourge of Rome, rulers of the north
Gordon Noble and Nicholas Evans
Birlinn Ltd, £22
ISBN 978-1780277783