Thursday, 14 August 2008

The truth about the Picts

They have been dismissed as savages who resisted the march of civilisation. But the remains of a monastery found in the north of Scotland suggest the Picts have been wronged
By Ian JohnstonWednesday, 6 August 2008

The Picts have long been regarded as enigmatic savages who fought off Rome's legions before mysteriously disappearing from history, wild tribesmen who refused to sacrifice their freedom in exchange for the benefits of civilisation. But far from the primitive warriors of popular imagination, they actually built a highly sophisticated culture in northern Scotland in the latter half of the first millennium AD, which surpassed their Anglo-Saxon rivals in many respects.
A study of one the most important archaeological discoveries in Scotland for 30 years, a Pictish monastery at Portmahomack on the Tarbat peninsula in Easter Ross, has found that they were capable of great art, learning and the use of complex architectural principles.
The monastery – an enclosure centred on a church thought to have housed about 150 monks and workers – was similar to St Columba's religious centre at Iona and there is evidence they would have made gospel books similar to the Book of Kells and religious artefacts such as chalices to supply numerous "daughter monasteries" .
And, in a discovery described as "astonishing, mind-blowing" by architectural historians, it appears that the people who built the monastery did so using the proportions of "the Golden Section", or "Divine Proportion" as it became known during the Renaissance hundreds of years later. This ratio of dimensions, 1.618 to one, appears in nature, such as in the spiral of seashells, and the faces of people considered beautiful, such as Marilyn Monroe. It can be seen in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the Alhambra palace of Granada in Spain, the Acropolis in Athens and the Egyptian Pyramids, but was thought to have been too advanced for the Picts.
"The Picts have always been an attractive lost people, they are one of the most interesting lost peoples of Europe," said Martin Carver, a professor of archaeology at York University who has worked on the site since the mid-1990s, and recently written a book detailing the findings. "The big question is what happened to them and did they ever really make a kingdom of their own."
The answer to the latter question seems an emphatic yes, based on the findings at Portmahomack, which is remote today but would have once been a key point on sea routes in the North Sea. "They would have been dreaming of a New Rome and a new world connected by water rather than Roman roads," said Professor Carver. "They were the most extraordinary artists. They could draw a wolf, a salmon, an eagle on a piece of stone with a single line and produce a beautiful naturalistic drawing. Nothing as good as this is found between Portmahomack and Rome. Even the Anglo-Saxons didn't do stone-carving as well as the Picts did. Not until the post-Renaissance were people able to get across the character of animals just like that."
In addition to stone carving, the archaeologists found evidence that vellum, chalices and other religious artefacts were being made at the site on a considerable scale. Vellum, a form of paper made from animal skin, would have been used to make highly decorative gospel books. The cemetery, containing graves of middle-aged and elderly men almost exclusively, and a piece of stone bearing a tantalisingly incomplete inscription provided other key clues as to the Christian nature of the site.
"The most important piece had a Latin inscription. That's as common as muck in the Mediterranean, but extremely rare in Scotland," said Professor Carver, who previously led research into the Anglo-Saxon burial mound at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. "It says 'This is the cross of Christ in memory of Reo...' and the rest is broken away. Unfortunately the key bit, the name of the person, is missing. It means there's someone around there who knows how to write in the eighth century. That itself is a revelation."
A Pictish wall, which is believed to have formed part of the original monastery's church, was discovered in the basement of the derelict church on the site, which has now been turned into a visitor centre. But it was the dimensions of another structure within the complex, the "Smith's Hall", that attracted particular attention as it was made with "a startling symmetry offering us more than just competence in construction" .
A detailed study was made of the horse-shoe shaped building, searching for the unit of measurement used by the Picts. Professor Carver said a "Tarbat foot" of 12-and-a-half inches seemed to have been the standard measure used to make hall and other parts of the monastery. He also found the ratios of lengths of different walls and bays inside the window conformed to the architectural principle called the Golden Section. "The Golden Section, together with its inverse, the Golden Number, 1.618, has been valued by artists for millennia ... and it is a true delight to observe it among their architects," he said. "It shows the importance of symbol and worship in everything done in the service of the Christian God.
"There is something rather intriguing in the learnt character of them. This is a building put up to house metal workers. It's the idea they were all possessed of the same kind of knowledge and all trying to serve it."
Jean Gowans, who recently retired as chairman of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, said the idea the Picts had been using the Golden Section was "wonderful, astonishing" .
"It really is absolutely fascinating. It's mind-blowing stuff," she said. "This is staggering to hear, but I'm not totally surprised. I think they were pretty sophisticated, when you think of all the Pictish stones and the wonderful carvings that they made, a lot more sophisticated than perhaps they are given credit for in public perception."
The monastery at Portmahomack suffered a major fire in the ninth century and several stone sculptures were smashed, suggesting it was sacked by an invading force, likely to be Vikings intent on expanding their territories in northern Scotland. The site continued to be occupied but at this point evidence of a monastic settlement disappears.
However, the shared religion of the Picts and Scots may have helped them unite against a common enemy, ultimately creating the kingdom of Scotland. "There was a war as important as Alfred's against the Danes [in England] and the Picts got really battered. In the Annals of Ulster, there are records of battles where the flower of Pictish aristocracy is killed," Professor Carver said.
"Portmahomack got burnt down pretty definitively round about 820. The idea is they were under new masters. It could be the Norse or the Men of Moray, MacBeth and his family. I think Portmahomack was captured by the Men of Moray. The Norse wanted it badly but they didn't get it. There is no Norse material there. There was no more vellum-making and sculpture and it stopped being a monastery. In the ninth to 11th centuries, they are making metal work, but that's the real Dark Age."
Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts is published by Edinburgh University Press
Tribes that resisted the Romans
Picts was the name which the Romans gave to a confederation of tribes living beyond the reach of their empire, north of the Forth and Clyde.
The name makes its first known appearance in the works of a third-century orator, Eumenius, and is assumed to come from the Latin word pingere, "to paint", suggesting they painted or tattooed their bodies.
But what name they called themselves, or what language they spoke, we do not know.
One thing that puzzled outsiders is that they were the last people on these islands to trace their lineage through their mothers. The Venerable Bede, writing in 731, said that the Picts had come from mainland Europe,presumably Scandinavia, to northern Ireland to ask for land, but the Irish sent them on to Scotland.
Hence a myth that the Picts were given Irish wives, on condition that they became matrilineal.
Other wild stories included that they were dark-skinned pygmies who hid in holes in the ground during the afternoon, but had magical powers at night.
Probably they were a coalition of indigenous tribes brought together by the Roman threat.
In Bede's lifetime, the Picts were defeated in war by the Northumbrians and converted to Roman Christianity.
Andy McSmith

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Selif Sarffgadau: "The Serpent of Battle"

Selyf (Solomon) 'Serpent of Battle' (Sarffgadau) son of Cynan Garwyn, King of Powys died in about 613 at the battle of the City of the Legions (Chester) fighting against King Æthelfrith of Bernicia and Deira (Northumbria). His death is recorded in the Annals Cambriae and the Irish annals. According to Welsh poetry attributed to Taliesin, his father Cynan Garwyn had been a major over-king in Wales in the previous generation. The Battle of Chester took on a life of its own in Welsh legend and was elaborated in both Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Welsh triads.
The dragon or serpent has been associated with Welsh kings since the earliest post-Roman reports of Britain. Gildas refers to king Maglocunus (Mailcun/Maelgwyn of Gwynedd) as the head serpent of the isles, ie. pendragon (literally pen = head, dragon) in c545. Selyf Sarffgadau ('Serpent of Battle' / Battle Serpent) is one of the best recorded of the dragon kings. Cadwallon of Gwynedd, Selyf's reputed nephew, best known for killing Edwin of Deira, was also referred to as dragon of the isles in a fragmentary death song. Of course, in Welsh legend the ultimate Pendragon dynasty is that of Arthur son of Uther Pendragon.
In the Welsh Triads, Selyf is listed as one of the three "Battle-Leaders of the Isle of Britain". In the Black Book of Carmarthen's triad 43 he is the owner of one the three great pack horses, which may be an allusion to his ability to move a large army over great distances. However, this horse is credited to his father Cynan Garwyn in triad 39. In Taliesin's poetry, Cynan Garwyn is credited with very wide ranging victories throughout what is today Wales. The name of Selyf's bard, Arofan, is also remembered in the triads. Selyf ap Cynan is also mentioned as a companion of Owen ap Urien in the Arthurian tale the Dream of Rhonabwy. Bartrum notes that Selyf and Owen would have been contemporaries — both opponents of Æthelfrith– but not with the Arthurian setting or Arthur himself. In Welsh poetry, Arthur is usually outside of time, or almost in Welsh version of Valhalla where all the greatest heroes of all eras are part of his retinue. The poet Cynddelw also refers to Selyf in his poem Breineu Powys (Priviledges of Powys) in the line "Kananwon Selyf seirff cadeu" (Descendants of Selyf, serpents of battles).
According to the welsh pedigrees and hagiography, Selyf had four sons, none of whom succeeded him. The Life of St. Beuno claims that it was Beuno's curse that prevented their succession. It seems just as likely that the utter destruction of Powys by Æthelfrith blocked his lineage from the throne. Under consistent Northumbrian pressure, Powys seems to have been ruled by multiple small dynasties in the early seventh century. Some of these dynasties appear to have allied themselves with Mercia against Northumbria. Most of the territory of Powys was probably annexed by Mercia to their immediate east. It seems likely that Selyf was the last Powysian king to rule over a large midlands kingdom that dominated the whole region, east and west. It is possible that the Brochwel/Brocmail who Bede reports abandoned the monks of Bangor-Is-Coed to Æthelfrith's forces was one of Selyf's kinsmen; Brochwel is a name common in his dynasty.
When a single dynasty emerges again in Powys it does claim descent from Selyf's kindred. Most claims are to a brother Eiludd but other lineages claim descent from a Beli ap Selyf, Eiludd ap Selyf, or Beli ap Mael Myngan ap Selyf. It is possible that none of them were truly related to Selyf but felt the need to claim a link to his lineage. In the Bonedd y Sant (Pedigrees of the Saints), Selyf ap Cynan is claimed to be the father of St. Dona.
Selyf's chief defended cities at the time are believed to have been Chester and the hill fort at the Wrekin above Wroxeter, probable namesake of the Wreconsaete of the tribal hinge. Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter) was the civitas capital for the Cornovii, Powys likely tribal orgins, while Chester had been a legionary base during the Roman occupation.
Selyf's dominance in Wales is suggested by the role his main monastery, Bangor-Is-Coed, played in negotiations with Augustine of Canterbury. After the initial meeting at Augustine's Oak, the Annals Cambriae records a Synod of City of the Legions (Chester) in 601 that may be the conference Bede refers to in between the first and second meeting with Augustine. The fact that the synod was held in Selyf's primary city suggests that he was the dominant king who did not want to associate with the Canterbury mission. The slaughter of the monks of Bangor-Is-Coed, under Powy's protection, was said by Bede to have been a fulfillment of Augustine's prophecy.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Britain AD - Episode III

Britain BC - Episode 2 by Francis Pryor

Britain BC - Episode 1 by Francis Pryor

Britain AD Episode II - The invasion that never was

Medieval Art Position

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Medieval Art. Open rank, full-time, tenured or tenure-track, to
begin September 2009. We invite applicants capable of teaching the
broad tradition of European Medieval art and architecture, but
preferably with a research specialization in any aspect of Medieval
Art of the Mediterranean World, including Early Christian and
Byzantine art and architecture, from the 4th century to the 15th
century. We seek candidates critically engaged with new historical,
theoretical, and/or topical paradigms currently shaping the study of
Medieval art and the discipline more generally, and who are
particularly interested in cross-cultural exchange (for example with
the Islamic world).

Qualifications: Ph.D. in art history, college/university- level
teaching experience. For junior-level candidates, a promising record
of research and publication; for candidates applying at the level of
associate or full professor, a substantial record of research and

Applicants MUST apply online through the University of Minnesota
employment system:

employment.umn. edu/applicants/ Central?quickFin d=74444
(Assistant Professor or Instructor)

employment.umn. edu/applicants/ Central?quickFin d=74452 (Associate
Professor or Professor)

Friday, 8 August 2008

Ruins may be Viking hunting outpost in Greenland

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent
8:28 a.m. July 28, 2008

OSLO – Ruins recently discovered on Greenland may mark the Vikings' most northerly year-round hunting outpost on the icy island, a researcher said on Monday.
Knut Espen Solberg, leader of 'The Melting Arctic' project mapping changes in the north, said the remains uncovered in past weeks in west Greenland may also be new evidence that the climate was less chilly about 1,000 years ago than it is today.
'We found something that most likely was a dock, made of rocks, for big ships up to 20-30 metres (60-90 ft) long,' he told Reuters by satellite phone from a yacht off Greenland. He said further study and carbon dating were needed to pinpoint the site's age.
Viking accounts speak of hunting stations for walrus, seals and polar bears in west Greenland. Inuit hunters also lived in the area.
'This is the furthest north on Greenland that evidence of year-round Viking activity has been found,' Solberg said of the finds in an area called Nuussuaq. 'At the time the Vikings were living here it was warmer than today.'
In a Medieval warm period, trees and crops grew on parts of Greenland. The Vikings disappeared in the 14th century, coinciding with a little-understood shift to a cooler climate.
Solberg said that the expedition, linked to Norwegian climate research institutes and including an archaeologist, reckoned the dock was probably built by Vikings because the Inuit only used small kayaks and had no need for a large quay.
The team, which came upon the ruins during their expedition, also found remains of several small stone buildings nearby. Both Inuit and Vikings had similar building styles.
Christian Keller, a professor of archaeology at Oslo University, was quoted as telling the daily Aftenposten that the buildings were similar to Viking structures in west Norway but that the dock was unlike known Viking quays.
Any carbon dating placing the site between 900-1400 would make it 'an exciting find' from the Vikings, he said. A later date could mean it was built by European whalers in the 16th century.
Solberg said Vikings in Greenland were unlikely to have built with wood, traditionally used in Scandinavia for docks. A wooden structure would not have survived thick winter ice.
He also said that modern climate change, blamed mainly on human emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, was bringing erosion to archaeological sites on Greenland.
Warmer summers mean fewer days with ice on the sea, increasing a battering of waves on the shore, while permafrost is also thawing. Seas have also been rising, largely because of a long-term coastal subsidence unrelated to climate change.

Our Celtic roots lie in Spain and Portugal

The Welsh have more in common with sun-kissed glamour pusses like actress Penelope Cruz and footballer Christiano Ronaldo than pale- faced Germans like Helmet Kohl, according to an academic. Professor John Koch suggests the Welsh can trace their ancestry back to Portugal and Spain, debunking the century-old received wisdom that our forebears came from Iron Age Germany and Austria. His radical work on Celtic origins flatly contradicts the writing of Sir John Rhys, who in the late 19th century established the idea that we originally came from central Europe. Sir John believed the Celts were the remnants of a great culture that extended here from modern-day eastern France, Switzerland, southern Germany and Austria. But Professor Koch, of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies, in Aberystwyth, says archaeological inscriptions on stones show we came from southern Portugal and south-west Spain. He said: “Celts are said to come from west central Europe – Austria, southern Germany, eastern France and that part of the world. “That’s been the theory that everybody has grown up with for at least 100 years. “There is evidence that the Celtic languages were spoken there because of place names and people’s names.
“But the assumption was that was where they came from. I think they got there later. “There is evidence in Spain and Portugal indicating they were there 500 or more years before.”
Professor Koch says there are Celtic texts in Portugal and Spain way before they started springing up in central Europe during Roman times. One key piece of evidence is the earliest written language of western Europe – Tartessian, found on inscribed stones in Portugal and Spain dating back to between 800BC and 400BC. The professor maintains this language can be deciphered as Celtic. Expert on Welsh history and archaeology Dr Raimund Karl, says there is also biological and genetic evidence to support professor Koch’s theory. He said: “In the last couple of years there have been a number of genetic studies of human DNA indicating that the population of much of the western part of the British Isles is related to other communities along the Atlantic seafront. These include Brittany, northern Spain, Portugal and the French Atlantic coast. That’s their genetic origin.”
But Dr Karl, of the University of Wales, Bangor, said there is also archaeological evidence suggesting a cultural link with central Europe. “There is evidence suggesting a link with central Europe from elite-material culture – stuff associated with the upper parts of society. This includes weaponry, feasting equipment, artwork on jewellery and other prestigious items.” However the academic said attempts to identify a biological Celt or notions of cultures emanating from a particular spot are meaningless. He believes human cultures and populations are constantly in a state of flux, drawing their influences from far and wide. Dr Karl, himself an Austrian, added: “I personally think the question of where Celtic culture originated is by and large meaningless. Culture is constantly changing and never has a single point of origin. “The biological Celt is meaningless because human populations inter-mingle.”

Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Shadow house of Lugh

The Shadow House of Lugh
By Ethna Carbery

Dream-fair, besides dream waters, it stands alone:
A winged thought of Lugh made its corner stone:
A desire of his heart raised its walls on high
And set its crystal windows to flaunt the sky.

Its doors of the white bronze are many and bright,
With wonderous carven pillars for his Love's delight,
And its roof of the blue wings, the speckled red,
Is a flaming arc of beauty above her head.

Like a mountain through mist Lugh towers high,
The fiery-forked lightning is the glance of his eye,
His countenance is noble as the Sun-god's face—
The proudest chieftain he of a proud De Danaan race.

He bides there in peace now, his wars are all done—
He gave his hand to Balor when the death gate was won,
And for the strife-scarred heroes who wander in the shade,
His door lieth open, and the rich feast is laid.

He hath no vexing memory of blood in slanting rain,
Of green spears in hedges on a battle plain;
But through the haunted quiet his Love's silver words
Blow round him swift as wing-beats of enchanted birds.

A grey haunted wind is blowing in the hall,
And stirring through the shadowy spears upon the wall,
The drinking-horn goes round from shadowy lip to lip—
And about the golden methers shadowy fingers slip.

The Star of Beauty, she who queens it there;
Diademed, and wondrous long, her yellows hair.
Her eyes are twin-moons in a rose-sweet face,
And the fragrance of her presence fills all the place.

He plays for her pleasure on his harp's gold wire
The laughter-tune that leaps along in trills of fire;
She hears the dancing feet of Sidhe where a white moon gleams,
And all her world is joy in the House of Dreams.

He plays for her soothing the Slumber-song:
and faint as any dream it glides along:
She sleeps until the magic of his kiss shall rouse;
And all her world is quiet in the Shadow-house.

His days glide to night, and his nights glide to day:
With circling of the amber mead, and feasting gay;
In the yellow of her hair his dreams lie curled,
And her arms make the rim of his rainbow world.