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Pictish fort reveals surprising archaeological treasures

A Pictish fort thought to have been largely destroyed by 19th century development has yielded surprising treasures including an 1100 year old Anglo Saxon coin and the remnants of a Pictish building.

The University of Aberdeen archaeologists overseeing the dig at Burghead Fort near Lossiemouth in Moray say the site may yet reveal more significant findings.

The Picts lived in eastern and northern Scotland during the late Iron Age and early medieval periods. Experts believe Burghead Fort near Lossiemouth, Moray, was a significant seat of power within the Pictish Kingdom, dating between 500AD and 1000AD. Notable Pictish artefacts including the Burghead Bull carvings and a mysterious underground well were discovered in the 1800s, but it has long been suspected most of the Pictish remains were destroyed when a new town was built on top of the fort at this time.

Burghead – Image Credit : University of Aberdeen

However, the University of Aberdeen started a dig at Burghead in 2015 which is starting to uncover further important clues about the Picts.

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The team uncovered a Pictish longhouse within the fort. Very little is known about Pictish architecture so this finding could provide vital clues as to the character of Pictish domestic architecture and the nature of activity at major forts such as Burghead.

Within the floor layers of the building, an Anglo Saxon coin of Alfred the Great was discovered providing key dating evidence for the use of the house and fort. The coin dates to the late ninth century when Viking raiders and settlers were leading to major changes within Pictish society.

Dr Gordon Noble, Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, said: “The assumption has always been that there was nothing left at Burghead; that it was all trashed in the 19th century but nobody’s really looked at the interior to see if there’s anything that survives inside the fort.

Burghead – Image Credit : University of Aberdeen

“But beneath the 19th century debris, we have started to find significant Pictish remains. We appear to have found a Pictish longhouse. This is important because Burghead is likely to have been one of the key royal centres of Northern Pictland and understanding the nature of settlement within the fort is key to understanding how power was materialised within these important fortified sites.

“There is a lovely stone-built hearth in one end of the building and the Anglo-Saxon coin shows the building dates towards the end of the use of the fort based on previous dating. The coin is also interesting as it shows that the fort occupants were able to tap into long-distance trade networks. The coin is also pierced, perhaps for wearing; it shows that the occupants of the fort in this non-monetary economy literally wore their wealth.

“Overall these findings suggest that there is still valuable information that can be recovered from Burghead which would tell us more about this society at a significant time for northern Scotland – just as Norse settlers were consolidating their power in Shetland and Orkney and launching attacks on mainland Scotland.”

Burghead – Image Credit : University of Aberdeen

The dig has been carried out in conjunction with the Burghead Headland Trust and with support from Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service.

Bruce Mann, archaeologist for Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service, added: “Burghead Fort has long been recognised as being an important seat of power during the Early Medieval period, and is known as the largest fort of its type in Scotland. Its significance has just increased again though with this discovery. The fact that we have surviving buildings and floor levels from this date is just incredible, and the universities’ work is shedding light on what is too often mistakenly called the ‘Dark Ages’.”

University of Aberdeen

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