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Ancient Hillfort May Be Largest Known Pictish Settlement in Scotland

The findings upend “the narrative of this whole time period,” says archaeologist Gordon Noble

Tap O' Noth overlooks the Scottish town of Rhynie. (University of Aberdeen)
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New archaeological research suggests a hillfort in Aberdeenshire may have once housed 4,000 people, making it one of the largest ancient settlements ever found in Scotland, reports BBC News.

Radiocarbon dating indicates that the fort, known as Tap O’ Noth (also the name of the hill on which it stands), was constructed between the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., according to a University of Aberdeen statement. Settlement on the hill itself dates back to the third century, meaning its early inhabitants were likely the Picts, a group of skilled farmers whose military and artistic accomplishments have been obfuscated by their lack of written records.

Drawn from a combination of drone surveys, laser-generated topographical maps and radiocarbon dating, the findings upend “the narrative of this whole time period,” says archaeologist and lead researcher Gordon Noble in the statement. “If each of the [800] huts we identified had four or five people living in them then that means there was a population of upwards of 4,000 people living on the hill.”

The Tap O’ Noth hill actually houses two separate forts: a stone structure perched at its very top and the lower settlement at the heart of the new research. Previously, archaeologists thought the lower fort—like its upper counterpart—was in use during the Bronze or Iron Age, according to Historic Environment Scotland.

Dated to between 400 and 100 B.C., the stone fort at the hill’s apex is surrounded by walls that were fused together with extreme heat in a process known as vitrification. This construction method has been observed in some 60 sites across Scotland, reported the Scotsman in 2018.

How ancient Scots generated sufficient heat to melt stone has long baffled historians. But modern experiments suggest these innovators built wood structures around the walls and set them alight, creating an oven capable of melting the stones down, according to the Scotsman.

If the lower settlement beneath the old fort is indeed Pictish, it will represent the largest site yet ascribed to the culture known for halting Rome’s advances into ancient Scotland, only to vanish toward the end of the first millennium.

“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, in a statement related to another recent Pictish find.

The potential Pictish settlement is enclosed by stone walls. Previously, researchers had identified remnants of some 100 small houses or huts within its boundaries, according to Historic Environment Scotland. Now, new surveys have multiplied this number by nearly tenfold.

“That’s verging on urban in scale and in a Pictish context we have nothing else that compares to this,” says Noble. “We had previously assumed that you would need to get to around the 12th century in Scotland before settlements started to reach this size.”

In the statement, Bruce Mann, an archaeologist for Aberdeenshire Council, describes the findings as “completely unexpected.” Noting that the research “could be key to understanding changing settlement patterns at the time,” he says that it may shed light on the fate of small communities scattered across the British Isles prior to the start of Rome’s military campaigns. According to Mann, the presence of a large settlement at Tap O’ Noth supports the idea that the region’s formerly diffuse population reorganized into a handful of larger communities in response to the threat of invasion.

Noble deems the study’s result “mind blowing,” adding that it “demonstrates just how much we still have to learn about settlement around the time that the early kingdoms of Pictland were being consolidated.”

Further exploration of the site will have to wait until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

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