There’s a lovely Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin asks his father why old photos are always in black and white, and didn’t they have colour film back then? His father answers by telling him that old photos were in colour, but that the world was black and white and didn’t turn into colour until the 1930s! While he’s just teasing his son, sometimes, looking at the remains of ancient buildings today, it can seem that the past really was only in black and white!
Perhaps that’s why it was such a pleasure to see the digital re-colouring of the Forteviot Arch at the wonderful Cradle of Scotland exhibition currently on at the Hunterian Museum: a major exhibition that, through the archaeology of this ancient landscape, “explores the evolution of society from the loosely connected communities of early farmers in prehistory to the centralised kingdom of Alba (Gaelic for Scotland).”
And it’s quite a journey! From Neolithic Forteviot of 3000 BC with its burials, cremations and huge palisaded enclosure; through the Bronze Age and the forging of the striking Forteviot Dagger; to Iron Age hill-forts and the arrival of the Romans, which in turn saw the Caledonians becoming the Picts thanks to the Romans describing the people of this area as ‘Picti‘ – the ‘painted people’.
But what really intrigued me is the particularly interesting change in the course of the 9th century, when the kingdom that called itself Pictland eventually came to call itself the Kingdom of Alba. What brought Kenneth mac Alpin eastwards from his western stronghold and how did the Kingdom of Scotland really come about?
Not so long ago I read an interesting account of this period which suggested that there wasn’t a swift and brutal take-over of Pictland by Kenneth and his Gaels, rather that there had long been much coming and going between the Gaels and the Picts. But then growing pressure from Viking attacks from the 830s onwards created a Scotland full of turmoil and uncertainty, and it was this turmoil that may have prompted many Gaels to move eastwards.
Forteviot, long a spiritual, political and cultural centre of the southern Picts, as well as a fertile and wealthy part of the country, would have been an obvious place to head for. The arrival of this new political elite may have slowly altered the balance of power, with the language and culture of the Gaels eventually superseding that of their cousins, the Picts. In all events, Kenneth mac Alpin became the first king of this new Scottish dynasty with Forteviot at its centre.
It’s a fascinating exhibition and shows just how much archaeology continues to tell us about the past. With 3D illustrations and magnificent contemporary exhibits, it’s definitely not a dull black and white past that unfolds, but one full of colour and vibrancy, depicting lives lived amidst both the mundane and the sacred. Just watch the Forteviot Arch as the colour appears and the figures stand out in new depth and detail, almost cartoon-like in their appearance, but it will make you see our ancestors in a whole new light!