What lies beneath? From Pictland to Scotland

“The past is still a place that is not safely settled,” wrote Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author, best known for his Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient. At the start of Ondaatje’s tale neither the patient’s name nor his past are known, but as the story unfolds his true identity, and the tragic events leading to his desperate state, are gradually revealed.

Just as the history of an individual is uncovered in this many-layered story, so archaeologists continue to delve into the past, unearthing new levels and discovering artefacts that reveal ever more about our country’s history and the lives of our ancestors.

The entrance to the Basilica (Church) di San Clemente

The entrance to the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome

It’s surprising how often we think of the past as something fixed and final – but nothing could be further from the truth. The past is not static and archaeology and historical research are our tools for learning more.  As new finds come to light, we’re able to reassess our understanding of how people lived in bygone days.

Some years ago I read Ngaio Marsh’s novel When in Rome, where her suave gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn joins a select group on a murderous tour of the Basilica (Church) di San Tommaso. The setting is based on the real Basilica di San Clemente, an ancient site where archaeologists have discovered at least three levels of buildings, the oldest being deep under the present ground level.

The underground portico at the west end of the 4th century church

The rediscovered underground portico of the 4th century church in San Clemente

On top is the 12th century basilica. Below that archaeologists have unearthed a 4th-century basilica, originally part of the sumptuous home of a Roman nobleman. Below that again, a lower basement served as a mithraeum (a temple for the worship of Mithras) until that religion was outlawed.

It’s even possible that the home of that wealthy Roman nobleman had been built on the foundations of a much older republican-era building, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 64 AD. These exciting discoveries have shed a great deal of light on the turbulent history of Rome and the varied lifestyles of its inhabitants.

The crypt under St Colman's Church at Portmahomack

The crypt under St Colman’s (Tarbat Old Church) at Portmahomack

But what about Portmahomack? Similar far-reaching discoveries were made here between 1994 and 2007, when archaeologists uncovered the site of what seems to be the largest Pictish Christian Monastery in Scotland. Founded around 560 AD, perhaps even by Columba himself, this monastery in Pictland grew and flourished for the next 300 years. Archaeological evidence suggests that the monastery had a farm and a cemetery, as well as workshops for the making of sacred church objects, intricate sculptures, and illustrated books (similar to the Book of Kells).

The Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

The Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

The Picts have long been one of history’s great mysteries, but discoveries like these at Pormahomack have given us unique insights into their civilisation. They were not simply the barbaric ‘painted’ warriors of Roman propaganda, but an artistic, highly cultured people, skilled craftsmen, well-organized, well-travelled and not isolated from contemporary politics and events, with Portmahomack a key point on the North Sea trade routes.

But then tragedy struck when, around 800 AD, the monastery and the surrounding community were destroyed by Viking invaders. The wonderful treasure that was this unique Pictish monastery was reduced to rubble and gradually disappeared beneath the earth, to be eventually forgotten.

Portmahomack

Portmahomack

But sacred sites draw people to them, and other churches were built on this hallowed ground.  Until finally, centuries later, gravediggers unearthed fragments of ancient carved stones and it became clear that something very ancient and substantial lay beneath their feet. And the re-discovery began.

One way or another we are all shaped by the past. A better understanding of that makes for a better understanding of ourselves.  And who knows what else is waiting to be discovered?

You can read about this, and much more, in my article in this month’s iScot magazine.

Tarbat Discovery Centre

Saints, Kings and Vikings – 300 years of history carved in stone in Govan

The Jordanhill Cross

The Jordanhill Cross

Although almost on my doorstep, I have to admit that I’ve only just discovered the magnificent carved stones housed in Govan Old Parish Church.  Hundreds of years of history, belief and kingship set in stone and preserved for all to see in the heart of Glasgow.  The Govan Stones are an exceptional array of early medieval Christian sculpture that show clearly the importance of this place to the Kings of Strathclyde.

According to tradition, the original church on this special site, dedicated to St Constantine, was founded early in the 6th century, built of wood, close to a holy well (a location much favoured by the Celts) and surrounded by an almost circular wall.  The people who lived here at that time were neither Scots nor Picts, rather Old-Welsh-speaking Britons, part of a powerful kingdom ruled from Alt Clut – Dumbarton Rock.  But then came the dreaded Vikings who sailed up the Clyde and in 870 AD the mighty fortress of Dumbarton fell to those ferocious Norse warriors.

However, Dumbarton’s loss was Govan’s gain as it was to Govan that the new kings of Strathclyde looked to establish their power base.  Already an important religious site, Govan now grew as a political and administrative centre: the Christian and the secular powers in the kingdom very closely intertwined.  A growing sign of that increased status and subsequent wealth is reflected in what became known as ‘The Govan School’ of carving, which flourished between 900 and 1100 AD.  Swirling snakes, elaborate interwoven decoration, mounted warriors, biblical scenes, huntsmen and saints – it’s all there!

One of the weighty hogback Viking Stones

One of the weighty hogback Viking Stones

As are five massive Viking hogback grave markers, which are truly monumental!  At first glance they look like huge humpbacked beasts, but on closer inspection you can see that some are carved to represent wooden-tiled roofs; copies, possibly, of the wooden houses of important Viking chiefs of settlements or bases further west, who recognised the immense spiritual prestige of St Constantine’s Church at Govan and who craved the recognition burial at such an important Christian site would give them.  A “thin place” perhaps?

The Tomb of St Constantine

The Govan Sarcophagus: but who was laid to rest within it?

For me though, the most amazing piece is the Govan Sarcophagus, a stone coffin carved from a single massive block of solid sandstone – apparently the only one of its kind left today from pre-Norman Scotland.  Just who was laid to rest within it can’t be known with absolute certainty, and theories and speculation come and go. But it is thought that it could well have been the final resting place of the 9th century Scottish king Constantine, son of Kenneth mac Alpin, or even Constantine’s own son, Donald.

One of the great things about history is that we are always learning more and more about what went on in the past.  New archaeological discoveries, new research, and resultant re-assessment, often by younger historians, continually brings new evidence to light.  Our knowledge and understanding of the past is not set in stone: but fortunately for us all the wonderful carvings here in Govan are!!

The Govan Stones