‘Carving Pictish Symbols: Conventions and Competence’

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On 8 January 2013, the Centre, in collaboration with the First Millenia Studies Group, was pleased to welcome Martin Goldberg from the National Museum of Scotland, who discussed Pictish symbols. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Martin began the lecture by challenging Robert Stevenson’s idea that the Pictish symbol was in decline from an indistinct ‘Classical ideal’. Instead, he posited that the symbols were locked in an evolutionary process, often becoming increasingly elaborate in design and intricacy. He also emphasised the distinction between decoration and style with competence in the use of symbols. The basic form and purpose of the symbols was to convey meaning, with artistic decoration a secondary goal. Therefore, he seeks to understand how they were used in communication, if ultimately, the actual meaning of the symbols remains difficult or impossible to understand.

Martin noted conventions in Class I Pictish stones (Class I stones consist of “incised symbols, but not crosses, carved into unshaped stone slabs or boulders”) including use of the ‘S’ rod, animals (especially mammals) facing right and the appearance of mirrors and combs. He noted that not all animals could be grouped together as fish, eagle and serpent depictions do not conform to the ‘right-facing’ convention. A tempting way to determine chronology is by assessing the mirror and combs, generally Class I stones feature a single-sided comb and an early mirror, with a notable shift to a double-sided comb and later mirror design in Class II stones. However, he noted there was significant overlap which makes dating problematic.

The conventions of Class II stones (Class II stones are “carved in relief, usually on both faces of dressed stone slabs. One face always includes a Christian cross, the other may have Pictish symbols, biblical scenes or other motifs.”) are much more variable, with increasingly complex artistic composition and less strict rules regarding the orientation of animal symbols. Yet while more complex, Class II stones had a more limited repertoire of symbols, with increased use of the common, crescent, ‘S’-rod and Pictish beast types, at the expense of other symbols often seen in Class I, such as one symbol Martin described as ‘the cauldron’. If these particular symbols did appear, it seems likely they were intended to convey a complex message.

Instead of approaching them in isolation, combining these conventions together and even comparing multiple stones from the one site, may make a vague, ‘floating’ chronology apparent. For example, one stone from Inveravon features a later mirror, a double-sided comb and has greater elaboration of the symbols, while another has an earlier mirror, a single-sided comb and a more simple style. Taken together, it seems like the latter stone was made earlier.

There are exceptions to this rule, which suggest there was some degree of overlap between Class I and Class II stones. Martin also discussed whether the changing mirror/comb symbols exhibits a shift in the artifact they depict, with newer styles replacing the old. Martin also argued that early Class II cross slabs were developed from existing skills in sculpture and were not necessarily out-sourced to Northumbrian masons by King Nectan as noted by Bede. This ties in with his conception of an evolutionary process, instead of Stevenson’s idea of decline from an ancient perfection.

There were many questions after the lecture and they inspired quite heated debate. One person commented that a possible reason for the animals generally facing right was psychological. An experiment determined that 80% of people draw animals/people facing right. Another noted that the artists’ preferred hand may have been a contributing factor, while Prof. Clancy raised the notion of situational landscape as a reason for orientation. There was fiery debate regarding the Pictish beast symbol, with some noting its remarkably stable survival, while others felt its shape was ever-changing and unconventional.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues with another in the Vox Populi series next Tuesday 15th January at 5.30pm, in 611 of the Boyd Orr Building. Rhona Brown will be discussing, ‘Wilkes and Scottish Liberty: The Reception of John Wilkes in The Weekly Magazine’.

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