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1,000-Year-Old Handprint From “Europe’s Lost People” Discovered In Scotland

The mark was left by a Pictish coppersmith at Swandro, a site in the Orkney Islands that is quickly washing into the sea

(Swandro-Orkney Archaeological Trust)
smithsonian.com

The Knowe of Swandro on the island of Rousay, part of Scotland's Orkney Islands, was a happening place for centuries. Not only did the coastal site host an Iron Age settlement, the Picts and Vikings also built on the large mound sitting directly behind a boulder-strewn beach. Erosion, however, is quickly washing Swandro into the Atlantic, making excavation of the area urgent. For the last decade, archaeologists have investigated the site, unveiling ancient artifacts and structures. Now, reports, Maev Kennedy at The Guardian, they’ve come across something that links the site to an individual who once worked there—they’ve found a 1,000-year-old stone anvil that still has a metalsmith’s handprint on it.

According to a blog post at the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust, the anvil, really just a large beach stone, was found inside a small circular stone structure that was once underground. It’s believed a Pictish coppersmith worked in the cramped space in near-darkness so he could see the exact color of the metal as he heated it to assess its temperature. The anvil is one of two that were located in the smithy near the hearth, allowing the coppersmith to heat the metal than quickly transfer it to the anvil for shaping.

“We were taking up the two stones that were used as anvils. When they were cleaned, we noticed that one of them had what looked like handprints on,” Julie Bond, co-director of the dig, tells the BBC. At first the researchers believed the print came from one of the excavators as they raised the stone out of the ground, but closer examination showed the black carbon smudge marks had been there a long time and also revealed marks from the coppersmith’s knee. “I have never seen anything like this before. It's unique as far as I know. Knowing that this is a Pictish building, I would guess the prints are somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 years old.”

Kennedy reports that the smithy has been dated to between the sixth and ninth centuries, but testing of the soot and other materials found in the site may help refine that number. The metal shop is in decent condition, considering its age. It was reached via a curving passageway and included a door jamb, pivot stone (a stone with a depression that acts like a door hinge) and another stone placed to protect the hearth from drafts. The handprint, however, connects the site to the past in a way that other artifacts simply can’t. “We are doing all we can to gather as much information on the site before it is destroyed by the sea,” Bond tells Kennedy. “A handprint is so personal and individual that you can almost feel the presence of the coppersmith and imagine what it must have been like working in there all those years ago.”

The Picts, Kennedy of The Guardian says, were famed for their metalworking and stone carving. Beyond that—and the fact that they dominated Scotland from roughly 300 B.C. to around 900 A.D.—not much is known about them. The Picts are often called the “lost people of Europe” since we have no writings from them and only a handful of archaeological sites. Most of what we know about the Picts comes from the people who fought them—they repulsed invasions by the Romans and the Germanic Angles, who left writings about the fierce warrior culture. Their name comes from the Latin word picti, which means "painted," since it’s believed the Picts were either tattooed or painted their bodies for battle.

Alison Campsie at The Scotsman reports that the Orkney Islands were considered part of the Pictish Kingdom and people from Orkney are mentioned as being present in the court of the High King, Bridei, in 565 A.D. However, it’s not clear if the Orkney Islanders were hostages at the court, meant to keep the Islands under control, or if they were fully onboard with the Pictish Kingdom. Hopefully, some of those mysteries can be cleared up before Swandro is completely swept out to sea.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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