It’s not every day that Dark Age Galloway (ie Rheged) is associated with Julius Caesar, the Aztecs or the Pyramids but thanks to HeritageDaily’s Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries of 2017 today is that day!
Almost exactly a year since our book was published by Oxbow, our work has been nominated in the Research Project of the Year category in the 2018 Current Archaeology Awards.
Rheged rediscovered: uncovering a lost British kingdom in Galloway was published earlier this year in Current Archaeology 327 and summarises the results of our work at Trusty’s Hill, which revealed a royal stronghold that lay at the heart of a lost Dark Age kingdom that was once pre-eminent in northern Britain.
The full results of this work – The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged: The Discovery of a Royal Stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, Galloway – is still available as a hardback book, though I hear that there’s not many copies left!
It’s all very well writing a book but will anyone read it?
Well, first of all they have to know it’s been published. So we have done our best to publicize our book, The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged: The Discovery of a Royal Stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, Galloway. We thought that the archaeological results from our excavation provide an interesting new insight into the role Galloway played in the formation of early medieval Scotland. Indeed, we consider that the results presented in our book redraws the map of Dark Age Britain. And that this knowledge is worth sharing as widely as we can.
So it is great that there has been great local, national and international news coverage. And this has led to our book being Oxbow’s bestseller in 2017, with the first print run sold out by the end of February, only three months after being published. The second print run is also selling well, with just a few copies still left on Oxbow’s shelves.
The Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society hosted a very successful book launch of The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged: The Discovery of a Royal Stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, Galloway in Gatehouse of Fleet at the weekend. Over 100 people attended the event at the Murray Arms Hotel. All of the 40 books supplied by the publisher, Oxbow Books, were sold by the Society, with no-one left wanting, which is a great result. It was indeed very nice to see so many of the volunteers who took part in the excavation there, as well as many others from Gatehouse of Fleet and the Antiquarian Society.
Back in 2012 when we launched the Galloway Picts Project, our aim was to recover evidence for the archaeological context of the Pictish Carvings at Trusty’s Hill.The book sets out in detail all the results of the 2012 excavation along with the subsequent post-excavation analyses and the accumulation of evidence that we can draw from these analyses. Far from validating the existence of Picts in this southerly region of Scotland, the archaeological context instead suggests the carvings relate to a royal stronghold and place of inauguration of the Britons of Galloway around AD 600. Our book examines the regional and national context of contemporary sites and through drawing together all the archaeological evidence from Galloway during this period in comparison with neighbouring regions, we make the case that this region was the heart of the lost Dark Age kingdom of Rheged, a kingdom that was in the late sixth century pre-eminent amongst the kingdoms of southern Scotland and northern England.
The new archaeological evidence from Trusty’s Hill enhances our perceptions of power, politics, economy and culture at a time when Scotland was re-emerging from the Dark Ages, a time when the foundations for the kingdoms of Scotland, England and Wales were being laid.
The principal question that the Galloway Picts Project sought to answer was: what are Pictish Carvings doing at Trusty’s Hill? Through examining the archaeological context for the carvings here, we think we have answered this question.
The excavation provides contextual evidence that firmly supports a date of around AD 600 for the carvings at Trusty’s Hill. Ultimately the literal meaning of the carvings here are unknowable but the wider meanings, such as the meaning behind their presence here at this precise location, can be understood from the archaeological context. Given the analogy with Dunadd in Argyll, both in terms of the location of the Pictish symbols (within a demarcated entranceway to the summit), the form of site (a nucleated fort) and the rich material culture (gold and silver working, jewellery production and continental imports), the symbols at Trusty’s Hill represent the paraphernalia of royal inauguration amongst the local Britons of Galloway.
Further analogies can be drawn with the location of Pictish carvings at other royal sites of this period in Scotland, such as Rhynie, Burghead and Edinburgh Castle Rock. Given the sheer number of Pictish carvings north of the Firth of Forth, it is unlikely that all Pictish carvings were associated with royal sites. But the symbols at these pre-eminent regional strongholds likely represent a shared sense of how to legitimise power in Scotland during the Dark Ages, when the cultural and political formation of this country was beginning to take shape and the notion of kingship in early medieval Scotland was being formed.
The full results of the Galloway Picts Project will be published by Oxbow Books in November 2016 in The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged: the Discovery of a Royal Stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, Galloway.
The laser scanning of the carved rock at Trusty’s Hill allowed specialists from Glasgow University to examine the carvings in detail and they concluded that the symbols are genuine and comprise a mixture of Class I and Class II traits – a z-rod and double disc symbol on the left and a dragonesque beast impaled by a sword on the right. The overall impression gained from the study of the left-hand symbol is of a carver aware of Pictish carving on the level of detail but not fully part of the mainstream Pictish tradition. So while the Trusty’s Hill double disc and z-rod symbol has no direct partners in Pictland, which parallel all its stylistic components, the symbol displays a few artistic details or traits that are so basic and common to the Pictish corpus that they could be considered canonical to the form. The right-hand symbol, while again sharing some traits, like the spiral tail, common to other Pictish beasts, is largely unique to Trusty’s Hill. The beast appears to be a form of S-dragon, and while there are a few Pictish comparanda there are also local comparisons amongst the artefacts of the Britons of south-west Scotland. The sharp object depicted to the bottom left of this seems to be functioning as a weapon piercing the belly of the monster – ie the wounding or slaying of a monster, which might arguably give it narrative rather than simply iconic force, which is quite distinct from Pictish symbols.
The specific message intended by these carvings may probably never be recoverable, unless some form of Pictish Rosetta Stone is one day discovered! But the symbols at Trusty’s Hill are not hastily scratched graffiti. Instead they are substantial and carefully laid out carvings in a highly visible location, at one side of the entranceway to the summit of an early medieval power centre. They are positioned opposite a rock-cut basin whose function was very likely ritual (this feature wasn’t a well, there was no spring at the bottom of it and its location outside the summit rampart makes it unlikely it was intended as a daily water source). These two features provided focus to the entranceway in much the same way as the combination of rock-cut basin and a Pictish inscribed rock face at the entranceway to the summit citadel of Dunadd, the royal stronghold of the early Scots kingdom of Dalriada. The combination of the carvings and the rock-cut basin, facing each other, indicates that the approach to the summit at Trusty’s Hill passed through a symbolically charged entranceway where the duelling of inscribed images on the rock face was mirrored in the features of inscribed stone and basin. The ritualised entranceways to the summit citadels at both Trusty’s Hill and Dunadd recalls the complex entranceways apparent in many earlier Iron Age hillforts that appear to emphasis a literal rite of passage between the outside world and the interior of a hillfort.
The symbols are thus part of a multi-element statement about the power of the inhabitants of this hillfort. Whatever the content of that statement it had meaning for a local audience and its likeliest explanation lies in local politics. So far from being evidence of the Galloway Picts, the symbols carved at Trusty’s Hill instead reflect the political aspirations and outward cultural outlook of the Britons of Galloway at some point during the early medieval period.
89 rounded stone pebbles, including 5 cobbles each over 200g in weight, were retrieved from both the eastern and western sides of the summit during the 2012 excavation. While just over half of these were found in two caches within the backfill from Charles Thomas’ excavations, the remainder were recovered from undisturbed deposits abutting the rampart, demonstrating that these originally derived from the early medieval occupation of the hillfort. In fact had Charles Thomas’ team not backfilled these stones together, these otherwise unworked stones would not have caught the attention of the 2012 team and would therefore have been discarded. One wonders if such stones have been ignored during the excavations of other hillforts in Scotland.
The geology of the stone is somewhat varied – mostly granite pebbles but also sandstone and quartz - indicating that the shape of the stones was perhaps more important than its type. The stones stick out from the fractured angular grey wacke stones used to construct the rampart in that they are very rounded and were deliberately collected from a nearby river bed. They don’t naturally derive from this hilltop.
Perhaps the most important aspect of these stones is that the majority were found close to the interior side of the rampart on the eastern side of the summit, suggesting perhaps that they were gathered at this location close to the entranceway ready for use with a sling.
A flexible sling was probably one of the earliest weapons and one that was easiest to make with a strip of leather that held a round stone or pebble. In the south of England, slings were identified as defensive weapons at Iron age hillforts such as Danebury and Maiden Castle where huge numbers of slingstones were found in pits close to the rampart gateways; those from Danebury were as large and heavy as those from Trusty’s Hill.
The process of violent destruction that vitrified the rampart around the summit of Trusty’s Hill underlines the defensive nature of the early medieval settlement here. Together with the slingstones, this evidence testifies that there was a tangible threat to defend against.
As well as evidence for fine metalworking, the 2012 excavation revealed evidence for textile production at Trusty’s Hill too.
Woollen textile manufacture is clearly demonstrated by the stone spindle whorl recovered from the western side of the summit. Producing textiles, whether from wool or leather, is the likeliest explanation for the purpose of the toothed socketed iron tool found during the dig. A single cultivated flax seed also recovered may represent early medieval flax processing at this site too, perhaps for the production of linen.
These items suggest that the household at Trusty’s Hill was engaged in the production of textiles and it may be that the finished products, just like the gold, silver and leaded bronze metalwork, were finely crafted. Leather working may even have complemented the metalworking, with combined leather and metal objects, such as decorated horse harness, being produced in the workshop here.
Alongside the evidence for high status craft working at Trusty’s Hill in the late sixth century AD, the 2012 excavations recovered two sherds of imported pottery – both from France - one a sherd of Roman samian ware and the other a later Merovingian sherd of E ware. Each sherd provides an echo of the status, identity and connectedness of the early medieval household at Trusty’s Hill.
The Roman pottery sherd is part of a rim of a samian bowl, a type of expensive tableware dating to the second century AD. However, this was the only artefact from Trusty’s Hill dated to this period. Since the stratified context from which this was picked up - a layer of dark soil abutting the interior side of the rampart on the western side of the summit – yielded a calibrated radiocarbon date of AD 533-643, the deposition of this sherd clearly did not take place until at least the sixth century AD. The presence of a Roman pottery sherd in an early medieval context is not uncommon though, with Roman objects also being found at sites like the Mote of Mark and Dumbarton Rock. The samian sherd from the Mote of Mark is in fact quite a close example to Trusty’s Hill. It is similarly rubbed down on one side and both were very likely used as sources for jeweller’s rouge for polishing metalwork. The Roman pottery sherds from Trusty’s Hill and the Mote of Mark indicate active efforts by the Britons of the sixth century AD to import Roman pottery from elsewhere and reuse these in craft working on site.
The only other pottery sherd from the 2012 excavations, from an imported E ware pot from the Loire region of France, is a prime indicator of the status of the early medieval household of Trusty’s Hill. This single E ware sherd (albeit from excavation of only 1% of the site) suggests that the household here was part of an elite redistribution network that linked high status secular and ecclesiastical communities of Western Britain and Ireland with the Continent during the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Membership of this network allowed for the exchange of local goods for exotic imports (it was not the E ware pottery that was important but what the E ware pots contained). Perhaps more importantly for the society of the time, this enabled the gifting of these imports to kinsmen, friends and followers. While the evidence as it stands does not directly implicate Trusty’s Hill as an importation centre, key characteristics of the site (labour intensive defences, high status metalworking and metalwork itself) place the E ware sherd here in the same context as royal centres such as Dunadd, Dumbarton Rock and Dinas Powys. The single E ware sherd connects Trusty’s Hill with a continental trade that seems to have specifically targeted the north Solway Coast with large assemblages recovered from the large scale excavations at Whithorn and the Mote of Mark (in contrast to the absence of such imports in northern Wales, Cumbria and Lancashire). Gaulish merchants were clearly making a beeline for Galloway during the sixth and early seventh centuries AD, but what they were acquiring in return remains a mystery.
One of the apparently more mundane artefacts recovered from the summit of Trusty’s Hill was a small lead bar. Some hammer-marks are visible on the surface from shaping it. This was probably an ingot of raw material for use in the production of leaded bronze metalwork at the workshop here.
The lead ingot was subjected to lead isotope analysis to assess where the lead originated. As the diagram below shows, the lead bar from Trusty’s Hill plots very close to the lead isotope signature from lead beads recovered from the Iron Age promontory fort at Carghidown in the Machars of Galloway, as well as lead from the lead hills in the southern uplands of Scotland. Furthermore, seen in comparison with the lead isotope plots from two fragments of Iron Age / Early Medieval lead slag from Cass ny Hawin on the Isle of Man, the results demonstrate the likelihood of a southern uplands origin for the lead used in the Trusty’s Hill lead ingot.
What this evidence indicates is that local communities were mining lead from the southern uplands of Scotland in the pre-Roman Iron Age and the post-Roman periods (ie entirely independent of the Romans). The lead ingot from Trusty’s Hill also indicates that organised lead mining somewhere in the southern uplands was linked, either by direct control or through trade or patronage, to the household at Trusty’s Hill. The production of a lead ingot implies either an agreed standard of weight or size, or a ‘to order’ quantity of lead to form a stock of raw material, for the production of leaded bronze objects. A similar process is also likely for other raw materials brought to this site.