The team of archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen found the six-foot-long stone in early 2020 while conducting geophysical surveys in a farmer’s field near Aberlemno. This village has an established Pictish heritage in the form of five large carved standing stones — thought to date back to the seventh to ninth centuries — the most notable of which is thought to depict scenes from the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685AD. This conflict between the Picts led by King Bridei III and the forces of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria led to a resounding defeat for the Northumbrians, weakening their expansion into northern Britain and setting the stage for the creation of what would become Scotland.
The researchers’ subsurface scans revealed anomalies that indicated the presence of a potential settlement buried under the field.
However, when they dug a small test pit to see if they had indeed detected the remains of any buildings, the archaeologists were flabbergasted to come straight down onto the carved stone.
While their efforts to properly examine the stone and the surrounding settlement were hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the team were eventually able to return to their dig and excavate a large part of the settlement to place the stone’s discovery into context.
As with Aberlemno’s other symbol stones, the new find is intricately decorated with various classic abstract Pictish symbols – including a comb and mirror, a crescent and V rod, double discs, and triple ovals.
In an unusual twist on the norm, however, the new stone appears to show evidence of the carvings having been made at different periods of time — with some of the symbols overlapping each other.
Excavation leader Professor Gordon Noble said: “Here at the University of Aberdeen we’ve been leading Pictish research for the last decade but none of us have ever found a symbol stone before.
“There are only around 200 of these monuments known. They are occasionally dug up by farmers ploughing fields or during the course of road building but by the time we get to analyse them, much of what surrounds them has already been disturbed.
“To come across something like this while digging one small test pit is absolutely remarkable and none of us could quite believe our luck.
“The benefits of making a find in this way are that we can do much more detailed work in regard to the context. We can examine and date the layers underneath it and extract much more detailed information without losing vital evidence.”
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Dr James O’Driscoll — the archaeologist who initially unearthed the stone — described the euphoria of the discovery: “We thought we’d just uncover a little bit more before we headed off for the day. We suddenly saw a symbol. There was lots of screaming.
“Then we found more symbols and there was more screaming and a little bit of crying.
He added: “It’s a feeling that I’ll probably never have again on an archaeological site. It’s a find of that scale.
“It’s the find of a lifetime, genuinely.”
The stone has recently been transported to a conservation lab in Edinburgh, where more detailed analysis of the artefact will be undertaken.
According to Prof Noble, it is hoped that the stone will shine fresh light on the importance of the Aberlemno area to the Picts – one of Scotland’s earliest civilisations.
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Also known as the “painted people,” the Picts are thought to have got the nickname from their custom of either tattooing their bodies or embellishing themselves with “warpaint”.
Prof Noble added: “The stone was found built into the paving of a huge building from the 11th or 12th century. The paving included the Pictish stones and examples of Bronze Age rock art.
“Excitingly, the 11th-12th century building appears to be built directly on top of settlement layers extending back to the Pictish period.
“The discovery of this new Pictish symbol stone and evidence that this site was occupied over such a long period will offer new insights into this significant period in the history of Scotland as well as helping us to better understand how and why this part of Angus became a key Pictish landscape and latterly an integral part of the kingdoms of Alba and Scotland.”
The research team were aided by both the Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service, Historic Environment Scotland and the Pictish Arts Society in their efforts to get the carved stone sent for analysis and radiocarbon dating.
Aberdeenshire Council Archaeologist Bruce Mann said: “We have been providing a service to Angus Council for many years and I can say this is one of the most important discoveries made in the area in the last thirty years.
“To find prehistoric rock art re-used in the floor of this building would be exciting in its own right, but to have the Pictish symbol stone as well is just amazing.”
The archaeologists are now working with the Pictish Arts Society to raise funds to ensure that the stone can be appropriately conserved and placed on public display.