Issue 196
Winter 2016

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Aug 22, 2017
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    Progressing from Picts to pixels

    A COUPLE of years ago we reported (ArtWork 187) on a small but beautifully designed and very informative exhibition on the Romans in Britain, held in the McManus in Dundee. Today, there is another small and informative exhibition on the Picts in Scotland at the Perth Museum & Art Gallery, though in this case there are fewer exhibits, perhaps reflecting the fact that we know much less about the Picts.

    Since they had no writing, historians have had to rely on the information provided by many Pictish stones in Scotland, some of which record the conversion of Picts to Christianity in the 6th century AD. Also, because most of their buildings were made of earth and wood, archeological remains are less definitive than those of the Romans, though it is amazing what evidence of Pictish sites can be gained from aerial photography, together with the excavation of their forts. And, of course, there is the information provided by the Romans, who fougfht many battles against the Picts and gave them the name we now use: the painted people.

    The exhibition, Picts & Pixels, reflects the fact that it is particularly concerned with the way in which contemporary technology can be used to enhance our knowledge about the Picts and our understanding of the way they lived.

    Thus the main exhibit is a virtual recreation of a Pictish fort on Kinnoul Hill to the east of Perth, which both records the excavation of the fort and provides an indication of how it must have looked when occupied around 50 AD.

    The fort is surrounded by a long perimeter earth wall within which are several, much smaller walls encompassing groups of round houses as well as a larger, circular wall containing the citadel. The shape of the houses is similar to the crannochs found in Scottish lochs. The fort probably played a major role in the battle between rival Pictish kings, Angus and Alpin, c.725-728 AD.

    A personal touch is provided in the exhibition by a Pictish skeleton found in a grave at Blair Atholl that dates from 410-590 AD, though (perhaps unusually?) no grave goods were found with the bones. The use of 3D analysis of the skull by forensic scientists at Dundee University reveals that the skeleton belonged to a young man who, because of the lack of grave goods, was probably of little consequence.

    The exhibition also shows, under titles such as Dressing for Success and Ravens of War, Pictish brooches, bracelets and fasteners, and arrow heads, spear heads, a sword and a sword hilt. The bracelets, in particular, reveal the extraordinary skill of the Pictish jewellers who create the same decorative, curved and highly entwined shapes, and simplified animal forms found on Pictish stones.

    The exhibition also shows the recreation of Pictish and early medieval objects that has been sponsored by Glenmorangie since 2008 and carried out by Martin Goldberg of the National Museum of Scotland with the help of a number of craftspeople. One of these is the recreation of a Pictish throne shown on a Pictish stone at Fowlis near Crieff, which shows two people sitting on thrones that have a continuous curved arm and leg rest, a curving seat and a footstool.

    Close examination of the this image suggests that the thrones must have been of wood, while the continuous curvature suggest thats the wood must have been oak. So a furniture maker was commissioned to recreate the throne, whose completion was delayed for two years to allow the oak to season. The footstool was recreated in stone.

    Another of these projects in the exhibition is a satchel in deer leather that was probably used for carrying a Bible. Based on fragments of a 6th-7th century satchel found in a crannoch on Lochmaben, the leatherworker responsible for the recreation had to work out details such as seams, rivets and the attachment of the leather strap, and by analysing how the weight of the book would have borne down on the satchel's base, discovered that an earlier recreation had turned the satchel upside down.

    But probably the most fascinating recreation is a close examination of the 8th century Dupplin Cross at Dunning in Perth & Kinross. A grey (fibreglass?) replica of the cross stands in the centre of the exhibition and it was making a mould for the replica of the cross that revealed an inscription linking the cross to a local king called Constantine. So the cross has now been renamed.

    However, an adjacent virtual recreation of the cross sharpens the carvings on its four sides - and adds colour to the knights on horses, simplified animals and elaborate decoration. Pictish crosses, it seems, were highly coloured.

    The same was true of the marble statues made by the ancient Greeks and Romans. How different the crosses must have looked in Pictish times against the dark green vegetation and grey skies of Scotland! Picts & Pixels continues till August 13.

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