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Why These Ancient Scottish Seafarers Didn’t Snack on Fish

New research suggests fish, which are widely celebrated in Pictish lore, were simply too special to eat

To detail the Picts' diet, researchers studied 137 skeletons buried under Portmahomack's old Tarbat Parish Church. (University of Bradford)
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The Picts were one of Scotland’s earliest—and most mysterious—civilizations. Known for rebuffing Rome’s advances, they vanished from the historical record toward the end of the first millennium A.D. Information on the coastal culture’s culinary preferences is scarce, but thanks to new research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, scholars now have a better understanding of these ancient people’s diets.

Forensic analysis of skeletons thought to belong to sixth-century Picts suggests their owners eschewed fish despite the community’s seafaring prowess and proximity to the ocean, reports Alison Campsie for the Scotsman.

To conduct the new assessment, archaeologists studied 137 skeletons excavated at the Tarbat Parish Church in Portmahomack. The remains span hundreds of years, including the Pictish period.

“The Picts are commonly associated with being war-like savages who fought off the Romans, but there was so much more to these people, and echoes of their civilization [are] etched in their artwork and sculpture,” says Shirley Curtis-Summers, a forensic archaeologist at the University of Bradford and lead author of the study, in a statement. “Sadly, there are almost no direct historical records on the Picts, so this skeletal collection is a real golden chalice.”

The first written record of the Picts dates to 297 A.D., when a Roman writer mentioned the “Picts and Irish [Scots] attacking” Hadrian’s Wall, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The civilization’s name may originate from the Latin word picti, which loosely translates to “painted ones”—perhaps a reference to a penchant for body painting or tattooing. Per Ancient History Encyclopedia’s Joshua J. Mark, the Picts were skilled farmers who created elaborate stone carvings, but their lack of written records obfuscates the details of their way of life.

Serpent Stone
The Serpent Stone, a carved Pictish boulder in Aberlemno, Scotland (Photo by Arterra / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

To find out what this particular community of Picts ate, researchers analyzed the ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in their bones. These ratios were then cross-referenced with those observed in the animal bones found onsite.

Curtis-Summers and her team found that during the site’s subsistence farming period (roughly 550 to 700 A.D.), its Pictish inhabitants dined primarily on barley, beef, lamb, pork and venison. Fresh and saltwater fish were conspicuously absent from the group’s diet.

“Pictish sea power is evident from archaeological remains of naval bases, as at Burghead, and references to their ships in contemporary annals, so we know they were familiar with the sea and would surely have been able to fish,” says Curtis-Summers.

Rather than attributing this surprising dietary omission to poor fishing skills, the researchers theorize that the Picts may have intentionally avoided consuming fish for cultural and spiritual reasons.

“We … know from Pictish stone carvings that salmon was a very important symbol for them, possibly derived from earlier superstitious and folklore beliefs that include stories about magical fish, such as the ‘salmon of knowledge,’ believed to have contained all the wisdom in the world,” explains Curtis-Summers. “It’s likely that fish were considered so special by the Picts that consumption was deliberately avoided.”

Subsistence farming at the Portmahomack site gave way to a monastery by about 700 A.D. These Pictish monks relaxed the dietary rules of their ancestors by eating small quantities of fish, reports BBC News. By the mid-medieval period, the Picts were regularly consuming and trading fish.

The monastery—unearthed in the mid-1990s—represents one of the region’s earliest Christian sites. In the decades since the house of worship’s initial excavation, modern scientific techniques have allowed researchers to continue probing its trove of relics for fresh insights.

“Finding out about the health and diet of the Pictish and medieval people at Portmahomack has been a privilege,” says Curtis-Summers. “[It] has opened a door into the lives they led.”

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