ECR Case Study: Past Landscapes and the (Re)Making of Pictish Identity

Daniel R Hansen, University of Chicago

Questions of identity have often taken center stage in scholarship on the Picts (circa 400-900 BC). However, it has not always been clear what exactly ‘Pictish identity’ means. Since at least the 18th century, modern people have invested themselves artistically and academically in the origins and character of the Picts, often to political or personal ends. The question of what an authentic ‘Pictish identity’ would entail, especially given evidence that the Picts themselves reclaimed past identities, is at the forefront of this project.

My research as a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago combines archaeological, historical, and ethnographic methods to think differently about Pictish identity. Rather than limit it to an essential nature, an instrumental strategy, or a modern fiction, I examine so-called ‘Pictishness’ as a quality that can take on new meanings under changing sociohistorical conditions. Although I use methods relating to anthropology and history, this project is archaeological in that it focuses on the role of the material world in constructions of identity. Specifically, I am interested in how people – past and present – interact with places and materials from the past.

Re-engaged monuments

The first component of my research focuses on reused or reoccupied monuments across the north and east of Scotland. Recent archaeological research projects have revealed the Pictish period reuse of prehistoric landscapes and monuments was widespread. It has often been suggested that these practices had something to do with identity – either by allowing Pictish period elites to ‘claim’ the antiquity and ritual significance of these sites (Driscoll 1998), or by providing a medium by which a group could assert their distinctiveness (Clarke 2007). My research compares and describes patterns of re-engagement across Pictland.

Symbol stones are a uniquely ‘Pictish’ form of material culture, yet many of them had previous lives as prehistoric monuments (Clarke 2007). Some, like Aberlemno 1, were decorated with cup marks, while others such as Edderton 1 (Clach Chairidh) stood as simple, but striking, undecorated standing stones. My research examines the choices made by Pictish artisans when re-inscribing these stones. Were the new symbols carved on the same face as prehistoric decorations? Are prehistoric monuments in certain landscapes more likely to be reused as Pictish stones?

The answers to these questions will help archaeologists understand how the Picts conceived of the landscapes they inhabited, and especially how they understood the peoples who used the landscape before them. For instance, the significance of these prehistoric stones – indexed by their placement, position, or decoration – might be augmented or erased in the act of re-inscription, indicating differing relationships to past identities in the Pictish period.

To test these and similar hypotheses, I built a database of all symbol stones in Scotland. Working from Historic Environment Scotland’s Canmore database and drawing information mostly from the Early Medieval Carved Stones Project, I recorded evidence of reuse and other descriptive information and then used GIS to compute spatial statistics and observe patterns in landscape context.

So far, this study has hinted that the orientation of the stones may have been an important factor in determining if and how to re-inscribe a prehistoric stone. Previous studies have found symbol stone orientation to be significant (eg Inglis 1987). A change in orientation might well have been a way that the Picts both claimed a given past and distinguished themselves from it. I have recently begun to build a database of hillforts that will serve as the basis for a similar study, though hillforts come with their own sets of challenges, such as problems of typology and definition (see Harding 2012).

Distribution map showing Scotland and its islands, with white and red dots denoting symbol stones across Pictland. The majority of the dots are concentrated in eastern Scotland.
Location (findspot) of symbol stones included in my study © Daniel R Hansen

Pictland and its boundaries

My research also investigates how larger geographies can be implicated in understandings of identity. This portion of my work specifically targets the boundaries of Pictland. Today we are accustomed to thinking about boundaries as clear lines on a map, but this was seldom the case in the past. Boundaries became salient under certain circumstances, and often varied based on perspective. The boundaries of Pictland, therefore, were likely contextual and often related to perceptions of identity and difference. In Adomnán’s 7th century Life of St Columba, for example, many of Columba’s miracles are introduced as occurring ‘beyond the spine of Britain’ (trans dorsum Britanniae), where his missionary work among the Picts took place.

Two images side by side. The left, an aerial view of a rural area with a red triangle marking the location of Carn Droma. On the right, a terrain map in white and grey, again with a red triangle showing Carn Droma.
Location of the Carn Droma site © Daniel R Hansen

Dunshea, in his reading of the historical material, has identified dorsum Britanniae with the historic feature known as Carn Droma, which is, in turn, identified by a small mound 1km northwest of the village of Tyndrum, Stirling (Dunshea 2012; 2013). I have begun fieldwork in the vicinity of Carn Droma, completing an earth resistance survey of the mound and a pedestrian and aerial (UAV) study of the surrounding area. While analysis is ongoing, it is clear at this stage that this site and its environs are important for understanding how the boundaries of Pictland were conceptualised, and how Gaelic-Pictish difference was perceived.

Archives and ethnography

Practices in the landscape that draw on and affect Pictishness did not conclude with the end of the Pictish period. The boundaries of Pictland remain important. Timoney has described how a resident of the northeast found validation in knowing that their present home coincides spatially with the Pictland of the past, legitimising aspects of their identity, such as the Scots language (Timoney 2018, 143). Moreover, re-engagement with Pictish materials has continued to shape Pictishness. Symbol stones were incorporated into church construction in the medieval period, repurposed as gravestones in the early modern period, and are today displayed as testaments to the Pictish past(s) they represent. Therefore, in addition to traditional archaeological work, this project relies on archival and ethnographic materials.

My archival work focuses on three types of materials: unpublished documents from historians and archaeologists (including field notebooks, correspondences, radio scripts); manuscripts and correspondence from individuals positioned outside the academy; materials relating to activities and events around Pictish places.

My research has taken me to the University of Aberdeen’s Special Collections and Historic Environment Scotland’s Archives, where I have located several informative records. The papers of Brian Hope-Taylor and F T Wainwright, for example, include pamphlets (HES 551 24/3/1/49) and radio scripts (HES MS 746/13) documenting the University of Dundee summer school that gave rise to the publication of the seminal Problem of the Picts (Wainwright 1955). The papers of the Dundee minister William Cumming Skinner offer a snapshot into a 19th century antiquarian project wherein Skinner hypothesised ‘Circinn’ to have been the authentic heart of Pictland, giving both Angus and Christianity a privileged place in the definition of Pictishness (University of Aberdeen MS 1040).

In the ethnographic phases of my research, I engage with artists, museum staff, heritage workers and volunteers, as well as visitors to sites. My ethnographic practice investigates the ways in which people engage with Pictish materials and places and experience their relevance in the present. I analyse these forms of engagement alongside the phenomena of reuse in the past to better understand how material remains become involved in crafting Pictishness under different historical circumstances.

During this season of fieldwork, my research activities mostly consisted of unstructured interviews, site tours and demonstrations when offered by my interlocutors. Research participants have generally been very enthusiastic in our conversations, offering diverse perspectives on Pictishness in the contemporary world. Next season, I will continue these activities and engage in more situated participant-observation at several small heritage sites.

Preliminary thoughts

At the time of writing, I am in this middle of this research project with much of my analysis lying ahead of me. The experience of carrying out such a multifaceted project dealing with the intricate concept of Pictishness has necessarily been disorienting. This disorientation, however, has offered several insights.

Firstly, it is difficult to draw any kind of firm dividing line between real or ‘authentic’ Pictish identity in the past and the multiple uptakes of Pictish identity in the present. In all time periods, from the Pictish period itself up through the present, Pictishness was entangled with other interests and constantly re-imagined. From the reuse of prehistoric features in the Pictish past to the contemporary engagement with Pictish places through heritage frameworks and institutions, re-engagement and re-evaluation are fundamental to identity.

Secondly, these plays of Pictishness have material consequences. Imagination of the past and its relationship to the present is the grounds for actions involving the remains of the past, and these actions in the landscape themselves become the grounds for new imaginations.

Finally, interest in the material past is not constrained to archaeologists. Indeed, engagement with remains is one of the key modes by which people make sense of their worlds, and in so doing, shape them. As archaeologists, we should be reflexive in understanding our own role in the formation of identity categories like Pictishness.

I hope that the details of my analyses still to come will reveal some concrete patterns in the ways Pictishness has been historically shaped, offering a new kind of archaeological study of identities that approaches re-imagination and re-interpretation from a new perspective.

A man with blonde hair and a beard stands next to a standing stone, smiling a pointing at it with his thumb.
The author at the Maiden Stone (Chapel of Garioch, Aberdeenshire) © Daniel R Hansen


Clarke, D V 2007 Reading the Multiple Lives of the Pictish Symbol Stones. Medieval Archaeology, 51(1), 19–39.

Driscoll, S T 1998 ‘Picts and prehistory: Cultural resource management in early medieval Scotland’, World Archaeology 30(1), 142–158.

Dunshea, P 2012 ‘Carn Droma and the highland watershed’, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 18, 91–94.

Dunshea, P 2013 ‘Druim Alban, Dorsum Britanniae – ‘the Spine of Britain’’, The Scottish Historical Review 92, 275–289.

Harding, D W 2012 Iron Age Hilforts in Britain and Beyond. 1st edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Inglis, J 1987 ‘Patterns in Stone, Patterns in Population: Symbol stones seen from beyond the Mounth’. In Small, A (ed), The Picts: A New Look at Old Problems. Dundee: Department of Geography, University of Dundee, 73–79.

Skinner, W C 1934 Royal Pictavia or Maghgirginn [typescript]. MS 1040. Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen Special Collections.

Timoney, S 2018 ‘Pictish, Celtic, Scottish: The Longing for Belonging’, In Campbell, L, Wright, D and Hall N A (eds), Roots of Nationhood: The Archaeology and History of Scotland. Oxford: Archaeopress, 139–154.

Wainwright, F T 1954 The Scottish Summer School in Archaeology – BBC Overseas Service 12 June 1954. Papers of F.T. Wainwright, MS 746/13. Edinburgh: Historical Environment Scotland Archives.

Wainwright, F T 1955 The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Nelson.