Take a walk in the Boreland hills, just outside Gatehouse of Fleet in south-west Scotland, and you may come across Pictish symbols carved at the entrance of a small hillfort known as Trusty’s Hill. Etched into an exposed face of bedrock we find a distinctive motif known as a ‘double disc and Z-rod’, as well as images of a dragonesque creature and a sword. Yet while some of these symbols are common representations from the Pictish repertoire, they are a unique find for this region of Scotland, located far to the south of where such carvings normally occur.
It was this that first drew us to Trusty’s Hill in 2012, when the Galloway Picts Project was launched by the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations. This community archaeology project – a collaboration with GUARD Archaeology Ltd – set out to establish some kind of context for the carvings, and to see if we could shed any light on their meaning.
We were not the first to excavate the hillfort: in 1960, Charles Thomas – then of the University of Edinburgh – opened several trenches across the site. The artefacts he recovered, including a handful of stone tools, the lower half of a rotary quern, and a small quantity of animal bones, did not reveal much about the precise date of the fort’s occupation, or the nature of settlement there. However, he also uncovered sections of heat-affected ramparts and, abutting these, a promising layer of charcoal-rich soil. It was this latter feature that we hoped might yield more evidence during our investigations.
As Trusty’s Hill is a scheduled monument our excavations could be only limited in scope. We were granted permission just to reopen Charles Thomas’s trenches – but these still held the potential for unexcavated deposits that might provide some good radiocarbon-dating evidence. As it turned out, although the area we were able to investigate totalled little more than 1% of the site, our discoveries far exceeded our expectations.
Given the unusual location of the carvings, it has long been speculated that they might be modern forgeries. Laser scans carried out during our project demonstrated that they did not cut through any of the 19th-century graffiti surrounding them, however, while specialist analysis revealed detailed knowledge and understanding of Pictish artistic traditions that is inconceivable for the late 18th century when the carvings here were first recorded. Their subject matter is not entirely typical: while the double disc and Z-rod symbol is a trope familiar from other Pictish inscriptions, the dragon and sword combination is unique. It could be that we are seeing a blend of diverse elements taken from broader traditions – perhaps the Trusty’s Hill symbols were not carved by a Pict at all, but by someone among the local Britons who was sufficiently familiar with Pictish art to express local ideas in this style. There was one more surprise to come: the carvings employ a blend of traits that today are categorised as Class I and Class II – which from an art-historical perspective would imply quite a late date, perhaps in the 8th or 9th century. The archaeology tells a different story, however.
Reopening Charles Thomas’s trenches uncovered a wealth of new information about the fort’s construction: the eastern and western sides of the summit had been fortified with a timber-laced stone rampart in c.AD 600, while around the same time, the lower-lying slopes were enhanced with other defences and enclosures. These developments transformed Trusty’s Hill into a nucleated fort, a type of elite early medieval secular settlement found only in Scotland. The prodigious use of mature timber in the site’s ramparts also hints at it being a place of some importance; at a time when wood was locally in short supply, this ostentatious consumption was a clear indication of the household’s wealth and control of nearby natural resources.
Further clues to the site’s status came with the discovery of the remains of a workshop producing prestigious metalwork. Fragments of crucibles and other metalworking detritus, including moulds for fine jewellery, were subjected to X-ray fluorescence to identify the metals being worked. This revealed that lead, tin, and copper were being combined to create leaded bronzes, while traces of gold- and silverworking were also evident. Isotope analysis of a lead ingot demonstrated that it had been mined relatively close by, in the Leadhills area, and it may be that some of the sources of copper ore recorded around the site were being exploited at this time too. Evidence of ironworking, both smithing and smelting, completed this picture – clearly Trusty’s Hill was an important and productive centre for metalwork in the 6th and early 7th centuries.
This was much more than a highly skilled workshop, however. While other industrial activities – from wool spinning to the preparation of leather – have left their mark at the fort too, there was also evidence of a more social side to the settlement, with quantities of animal bone and domestic debris speaking of lavish feasts. From their rubbish, we can tell that the Trusty’s Hill community were eating predominantly cattle over sheep and pigs, and oats and barley in preference to wheat – a menu largely indistinguishable from that of their Iron Age ancestors, and identical to what was being eaten by other high-status households in Scotland at this time.
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