What lies beneath? – unearthing the past at Portmahomack

Tarbat Old Church and Discovery Centre, Portmahomack

Tarbat Old Church and Discovery Centre in Portmahomack

“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 comes 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 the only known 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. Archeological 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). Even the design of the monastery itself shows architectural skill well-ahead of its time.

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: Portmahomack was 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.



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?

Tarbat Discovery Centre

“Cradle of Scotland” – a colourful history of Forteviot

The Forteviot Arch

The Forteviot Arch

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!

"Cradle of Scotland" exhibition at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

“Cradle of Scotland” exhibition at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

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’.

The richly decorated Bronze Age Forteviot Dagger

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.

3D illustration of the Dupplin Cross, also known as Constantine’s Cross with King Constantine mac Fergus mounted on his steed

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!


The Cradle of Scotland exhibition runs until 3rd January 2016

SERF : Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot

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