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Pictish monastery unearthed

As part of his wider study of the archaeology of early Pictish and Gaelic monasteries in mainland Scotland, funded by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, independent researcher and heritage consultant Dr Oliver O’Grady believes he has found an important royal monastery dating from the time when the Picts were converting to Christianity more than 1,300 years ago.

The site is at Fortingall, in Highland Perthshire, where volunteers from the local Breadalbane Heritage Society joined forces with Dr O’Grady this summer to investigate crop marks forming a rectangular boundary around the village. Two exploratory trenches revealed the remains of a wide bank that may once have stood as high as two metres, faced with large upright stones. Dr O’Grady believes that the bank was built to form the vallum of the monastery, a sacred enclosure, which would make it a very early site, dating from somewhere between the 6th and the 8th centuries AD.

A geophysical survey carried out within the enclosed area indicates the remains of a major settlement, with many internal divisions and possible dwellings. Slag deposits were also found during the dig, a clear indication of metal-working in the monastery. Perhaps the star find of the summer was a glass bead found embedded in the surface of a substantial Pictish road passing though one of the enclosure’s main entrances. Dr Ewan Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, has

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current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk identified this as an imitation of an Anglo-Saxon ‘traffic light’ bead, so called from its green, amber and red banding.

Perhaps dating from the 6th-century, the bead is yet further evidence of an early date for any monastery on the site, contemporary with the lives of the first missionaries who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland, the best-known being St Columba, who founded the monastery in Iona in AD 563.

Fortingall is already renowned for its large collection of early Christian grave markers with Pictish designs, and an early hand-bell in Irish style dating from the 7th or 8th centuries. The church, dating from 1902, nevertheless retains its much earlier dedication to St Coeddi, the fourth abbot of Iona (died 712). Within its own walled enclosure in the churchyard is an ancient yew tree, which some claim is Europe’s oldest (estimates of its age range from 2,000 to 5,000 years old).

Dr O’Grady believes that all the evidence points to Fortingall having been a major

Pictish cultural centre that was perhaps targeted for conversion by early Christian missionaries from Iona. It then became an important site for the development of intellectual life in Scotland, for dynastic gatherings designed to affirm royal political power and a focal point for craft and trade as well as prayer.

‘I am blown away by what we have found in what is only the second Pictish monastery to be excavated to any great extent in Scotland’, Dr O’Grady said. ‘Hopefully this research will shed some more light on what really is a black hole in Scottish archaeological investigation, the role of early historic monasteries in Pictish elite secular society’.

ABOVE More commonly found in East Anglia, this ‘traffic light’ bead is the first of its kind from Perthshire and it adds to a growing body of evidence for Anglo-Saxon artistic and cultural influence among the Picts.

Eliseg:

Excavations beneath an enigmatic mound continued in September when Project Eliseg (comprising staff and students from Bangor and Chester Universities) conducted a second season of excavation at the Pillar of Eliseg, near Llangollen in Wales. The Pillar is the fragment of an early ninth-century round cross-shaft within its original base. The sculpture is placed on a prominently-sited mound and was originally inscribed with a long Latin text, now barely visible, proclaiming the military prowess of the real and legendary ancestors of King Concenn of Powys, including his great grandfather Eliseg. The appearance of the Pillar today reflects its re-erection in 1779 by a local squire, Trevor Lloyd, following a dig into the mound in about 1773 by his huntsmen, who claimed to have found a cist containing a skeleton and a silver disc.

Following geophysical survey around the mound beneath the Pillar in 2008, a first season of excavations in July 2010 removed the turf and revealed a stone

January 2012 |

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