What are the traces of occupations that the Picts have left us? What do we learn about them? How did they live?

In the last centuries BC, island societies were rural. The habitat is built on naturally defensive sites and enclosed by an enclosure. A wide variety of constructions can be observed depending on the region because the environment, natural resources, local traditions or even political and military needs model the sites in a unique way. Thus, in the North and West of Scotland, the habitats are rather circular in shape while they are rectangular in the South. At Pitcarmick, a longhouse with rounded corners is attributed to the Picts. Similarly, building materials, such as wood, cob, peat, straw, turf or stone, are usually extracted from the immediate environment. These structures, which form agricultural, food and pastoral farms, and even mines, probably remained similar during the following centuries. Despite the many current misunderstandings, archeology has opened up new avenues of interpretation.


During the Early Middle Ages (~5th-9th c.), three main types of architecture in Pictland were identified: hillforts (fig.1), perched on hills, costal forts , located along the coasts, and the ringforts , small circular fortifications made of earth or stone. To this we can add other habitat structures, numerous in Ireland and Great Britain, such as crannogs (fig.1), islets built on marshes or lakes, and brochs , fortified houses dominated by round towers. Some of these structures, which date from the Iron Age (later on the British island), are still used during the High Middle Ages.

God Aten - article Akhenaten - ancient civilizations

Fig.1: Reconstruction of a crannog (source: wikipedia)

We observe an evolution of the fortifications: between the 5th and 6th century the enclosures are small whereas between the 7th and 8th century they are larger and more elaborate. This gives us clues about the evolution of post-Roman societies: the researchers put forward interesting hypotheses about the evolution of the northern settlement. They distinguish 2 phases: a rural phase during which the communities are dispersed on the territory (“farmers republics”) then a phase where the communities are grouped together and have formed larger and more organized structures (“pre-urban” or “place center”). These defensive groupings would be caused by the arrival of invaders, notably the Romans and then the Vikings.

The hillfort of Mount Tap O’Noth of Rhynie (see image of presentation of the article (source University of Aberdeen) and its surroundings have made it possible to rewrite the history of the Picts and may be able to enlighten scientists on these settlement phenomena . We catch a glimpse of different aspects of the life of the communities: the habitat and its general organization, its art and its craftsmanship as well as its funerary practices.

Rhynie, place of power

God Aten - article Akhenaten - ancient civilizations

Fig.2: Structures made visible thanks to Lidar (source University of Aberdeen).

The site of Mount Tap O’Noth, near the village of Rhynie (Aberdeenshire), proved that the Pictish world was much more structured than we thought. Indeed, this fortified hill is the largest, and the only Pictish city identified to date (21 hectares); before the 2011 excavations, researchers considered that habitats of this size did not appear… until the 12th century! It was probably occupied from the 3rd century and mainly populated between the 5th-6th centuries with nearly 800 huts at its peak (fig.2), that is to say about 4000 inhabitants! The latter were distributed on the mountain but also in the valley. A large building has been identified on the mount and would reveal the presence of an elite, this “royal residence” or “main” could constitute the first signs of a Pictish royalty then in full emancipation. The valley is made up of a multitude of huts occupied by more modest inhabitants but where rich commercial activities seemed to be present. The discovery of high-level metallurgy, luxury and imported products, such as amber beads (East of England), glass tableware (West of France) and, of course, Mediterranean wine bear witness to a structured social organization.
Rhynie is home to two distinct fortifications: a stone structure located on Mount Tap O’Noth and a settlement located upstream. The fort dates from the Iron Age and is thought to be reused while the structures in the valley are of Pictish origin, not protohistoric as researchers thought. The fort, on Mount Tap O’Noth, has revealed surprises: the stones of the walls have fused together, that is to say that a vitrification process has been carried out on them to make them more resistant. How could they generate so much heat? Archaeologists believe the walls were simply hemmed in with wood and then set on fire. Excavations in the valley revealed a series of important enclosures protecting three buildings: a first phase (400 AD) characterized by two large inner and outer enclosures, and a second phase (500-550) s identified by a single elaborate and palisaded enclosure.

Moreover, an exceptional phenomenon, these enclosures are associated with a Pictish stone still located in its original location, which could have been placed in front of a fortified entrance. Moreover, note that the concentration of standing stones around Rhynie is the largest in the region with 8 known stones, all of class 1. Two steles mark the imagination deeply: “Rhynie Man” (fig.3), a rather aggressive-looking warrior, at least with visibly sharp teeth, and Rhynie 3, a rather benevolent-looking warrior. Did they face each other in the landscape? Does the combination of these stelae have a meaning?

God Aten - article Akhenaten - ancient civilizations

Fig.3: Rhynie Man: warrior facing right and holding an ax (source: Canmore)


Many questions remain, however this hillfort, located on a strategic location, was a center of local power open to the outside world, trading with both near and far regions. (Or by looting them…). The spatial organization, the large-scale trade, the quality craftsmanship as well as the series of enclosures and the carved stones underline the hierarchy of this society. Even if researchers are unaware of its functioning, it is very present and it is surely at the origin of the formation of the Pictish kingdoms.


– JGP FRIELL, WG WATSON, Pictish Studies: Settlement, Burial and Art in Dark Age Northern Britain , 1984, BAR Publishing, p.216.

Frédéric KURZAWA, The Picts: originally from Scotland. Yoran, 2018.

– Stephane LEBECQ. History of the British Isles. PUF, 2013, p.976.

VScatalog Canmore, of National Record of the Historic Environment : https://canmore.org.uk/

/ https://www.historicenvironment.scot/

– Christie NEIL, Herold HAJNALKA, Fortified Settlement in Early Medieval Europe: Defended Communities of the 8th-10th centuries. Oxbowbooks, 2016.

– Gordon NOBLE[et al.] , Between prehistory and history: the archaeological detection of social change among the Picts, Antiquity Publications, 2013.

Gordon NOBLE, Megan GONDEK, Together as one: the landscape of the symbol stones at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, in S. DRISCOLL, J. GEDDES, M.HALL (Eds.), Pictish Progress: New studies on Northern Britain in the Middle Ages. (Edit Northern World; Vol. 50), Brill Academic Publishers , 2011.

– Ian RALSTON, The hill-forts of Pictland since “The problem of the Picts” , Groam House Museum, 2004.

– Léia SANTACROCE, This fortified enclosure in Aberdeenshire housed one of the largest Pictish colonies ever discovered in Scotland , Geo, published on 05/15/2020, updated on 06/17/2020, consulted on 06/27 /2020.

URL: https://www.geo.fr/histoire/cette-colline-fortifiee-dans-laberdeenshire-est-lun-des-plus-grands-edifices-pictes-jamais-decouvertes-en-ecosse-200689


REAP (Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project), consulted on 07/10/2020

URL: https://reaparch.blogspot.com/

– NOSAS Archeology Blog: Cathy MACLVER, Rhynie Excavations Season 4 (2016) [en ligne], published 2016, URL: https://nosasblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/04/rhynie-season-4

University of Aberdeen, The Northern Picts Project: Alice WATERSON, Rhynie – An Archaeological Investigation, published in 2017, consulted on 02/07/2020, URL: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/geosciences/departments/archaeology/the-northern-picts-project-259.php