From the Independent.
The Picts have long been regarded as enigmatic savages who fought off Rome's legions before mysteriously disappearing from history, wild tribesmen who refused to sacrifice their freedom in exchange for the benefits of civilisation. But far from the primitive warriors of popular imagination, they actually built a highly sophisticated culture in northern Scotland in the latter half of the first millennium AD, which surpassed their Anglo-Saxon rivals in many respects.
A study of one the most important archaeological discoveries in Scotland for 30 years, a Pictish monastery at Portmahomack on the Tarbat peninsula in Easter Ross, has found that they were capable of great art, learning and the use of complex architectural principles.
The monastery – an enclosure centred on a church thought to have housed about 150 monks and workers – was similar to St Columba's religious centre at Iona and there is evidence they would have made gospel books similar to the Book of Kells and religious artefacts such as chalices to supply numerous "daughter monasteries".
And, in a discovery described as "astonishing, mind-blowing" by architectural historians, it appears that the people who built the monastery did so using the proportions of "the Golden Section", or "Divine Proportion" as it became known during the Renaissance hundreds of years later. This ratio of dimensions, 1.618 to one, appears in nature, such as in the spiral of seashells, and the faces of people considered beautiful, such as Marilyn Monroe. It can be seen in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Alhambra palace of Granada in Spain, the Acropolis in Athens and the Egyptian Pyramids, but was thought to have been too advanced for the Picts.
"The Picts have always been an attractive lost people, they are one of the most interesting lost peoples of Europe," said Martin Carver, a professor of archaeology at York University who has worked on the site since the mid-1990s, and recently written a book detailing the findings. "The big question is what happened to them and did they ever really make a kingdom of their own."
The answer to the latter question seems an emphatic yes, based on the findings at Portmahomack, which is remote today but would have once been a key point on sea routes in the North Sea. "They would have been dreaming of a New Rome and a new world connected by water rather than Roman roads," said Professor Carver. "They were the most extraordinary artists. They could draw a wolf, a salmon, an eagle on a piece of stone with a single line and produce a beautiful naturalistic drawing. Nothing as good as this is found between Portmahomack and Rome. Even the Anglo-Saxons didn't do stone-carving as well as the Picts did. Not until the post-Renaissance were people able to get across the character of animals just like that."
In addition to stone carving, the archaeologists found evidence that vellum, chalices and other religious artefacts were being made at the site on a considerable scale. Vellum, a form of paper made from animal skin, would have been used to make highly decorative gospel books. The cemetery, containing graves of middle-aged and elderly men almost exclusively, and a piece of stone bearing a tantalisingly incomplete inscription provided other key clues as to the Christian nature of the site.
"The most important piece had a Latin inscription. That's as common as muck in the Mediterranean, but extremely rare in Scotland," said Professor Carver, who previously led research into the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. "It says 'This is the cross of Christ in memory of Reo...' and the rest is broken away. Unfortunately the key bit, the name of the person, is missing. It means there's someone around there who knows how to write in the eighth century. That itself is a revelation."
A Pictish wall, which is believed to have formed part of the original monastery's church, was discovered in the basement of the derelict church on the site, which has now been turned into a visitor centre. But it was the dimensions of another structure within the complex, the "Smith's Hall", that attracted particular attention as it was made with "a startling symmetry offering us more than just competence in construction".
Full story here.