Saturday, February 23, 2008

Pictish art and culture: the Hilton of Cadboll stone

Here's a long post for the weekend.

Thursday's Celtic tutorial was very good. Half of us were to do small, five-minute presentations on an example of Pictish sculpture and we all had a discussion of Pictish symbolism. It was interesting, and we also got a bit of a laugh out of it.

I chose the Hilton of Cadboll stone for two reasons. The first, because it's one of the most exquisite examples we have of Pictish art; the second, because it might contain some clues regarding Pictish culture, social and material.

Hilton of Cadboll is a Class II stone, that is, that the designs were carved onto a dressed stone, rather than simply carved onto a handy boulder. Class II stones also usually bear crosses and other Christian images, and this is true for the Hilton of Cadboll. Unfortunately, the cross side of the slab was defaced in order to be used as a gravestone. (For more on the history of the stone's location and movement, see here, from where I also stole the picture.) The reconstruction drawing on the GUARD site is notable because the cross is not of the "Celtic" style. This suggests that the slab may date from the eighth century onwards, as it was the English kind of Christianity endorsed by King Nechtan in 710, rather than the Celtic Christianity of Iona.

Looking at it, it's obvious that the stonemason who crafted this slab was extremely talented. Craftsmen were held in high regard in early mediaeval Ireland, and I imagine sculptors must have done extremely well for themselves in Pictish society. It's unlikely that our talented mason simply came up with this remarkable piece of work just for fun, rather he was probably commissioned by some high-ranking individual. He (or maybe even she?) might well have been a client of this individual.

Now, let's have a look at the images.

Hilton of Cadboll bears two of the most popular of Pictish symbols. At the very top can be seen two connected circles with a Z-rod slashed across the join. The Z-rod has been interpreted in many ways (perhaps a broken spear, perhaps a thunderbolt, etc.), and occurs commonly with the connected circles. Like most of the Pictish symbols, this one is impossible to interpret with any certainty. The panel below the circles and Z-rod is a panel bearing a V-rod superimposed upon a crescent shape - another distinctive Pictish symbol. The crescent is most obviously interpreted as a lunar symbol, but since it's turned over that way, I think that's probably unlikely. It does, however, appear over one hundred times in Pictish art, so it's evidently significant. Perhaps it's an emblem - of the Pictish royal house, the Picts' symbol for themselves (if they actually had any idea of themselves as one cohesive nation), or maybe a symbol representing a mythological ancestor or a deity... we really have no way of knowing. Below the crescent are two circles, unconnected, and again, they're impossible to interpret.

The sides of the slab are bordered with interlacing scrollwork of the type you would expect to find in, say, the Book of Kells. This typically Gaelic design is indicative of the influence that Scottish culture had on the Picts. Birds can be seen entwined with the knotwork: I think the animal motifs would have especially appealed to the Pictish sculptors, who really liked their animals. :) Also, interestingly, on the very bottom panel and also within the crescent symbol, there is a pattern that includes a variant of the triskele, the triple spiral, which is a common feature of La Tène art (a style considered almost synonymous with Iron Age Celtic culture). In this respect, by combining the knotwork and the triskele, the Hilton of Cadboll stone is very "Celtic" in its design.

Now, finally, let's look at the centre panel of the stone, which is the most interesting by far. Here's a nice close-up of it (pinched from here):

As you can see, it depicts a hunting scene: there are two men on horseback armed with lances, and the two sleek hounds in the bottom-left corner seem to have chased down a young deer. The animals, as usual with Pictish art, are beautifully realised (more so than the humans, who always look a bit cartoonish). Perhaps the Picts' attention to detail in their animal figures reflects something of their pre-Christian beliefs?

The mounted figures also bear small circular shields. Small shields, circular and square, seem to have been a very Pictish thing; they appear elsewhere on Pictish sculpture (like at the Brough of Birsay), and Tacitus mentions the small shields of the Caledonians at the battle of Mons Graupius in the first century. In this respect they are at odds with the typical longer shield of Celtic Europe (of which the Battersea Shield is a good example). The figures also give us a clue as to how the Picts looked. The riders' hair is roughly shoulder-length, and looks like it's been tied back with a little "bob" at the end. Interestingly, the trumpeters in the top-right don't seem to have the long hair. Perhaps this was limited to warriors (if that's what they are) - a sort of Pictish equivalent to the top-knot of the samurai? Or maybe they've just got it tied up so it doesn't get in the way while they're hunting. Also, we should note that all the men, including the trumpeters, are dressed in tunics, with what looks like some sort of short cloak or mantle over that, effectively banishing the stereotypical notion of the naked Pict. ;)

While the riders and the musicians are detailed in themselves, they're obviously not what we're supposed to be focusing on in this scene. The main figure on this panel is the one in the top-left, whose horse is noticeably larger and finer than those of the other two riders. What's striking about this rider, however, is that she's a woman. Looking at her, it's obvious that she's the focus of the picture, the one who seems to be leading this hunt. And she's clearly a woman of some status. For one, the hunt has always been a pastime of the wealthy. Secondly - it's hard to make out - but she seems to be wearing a large brooch of penannular style at her breast, and brooches appear to have been a recognisable symbol of status in early medieval Ireland. It's likely that the sculptor has exaggerated the size of the brooch to emphasise that it's there, that this woman is important. She certainly looks like a noble lady: she's sitting very primly side-saddle (as does the goddess Epona in Celtic sculpture, by the way), and is wearing a long dress or skirt beneath a long outer garment, probably a cloak. It looks like it might be pleated, or those might just be the folds of the material. Her hair is long and looks almost like it's been curled or crimped. That doesn't really mean anything in itself, but it could be that curled hair was fashionable among the Pictish nobility (for example, a slab at the Brough of Birsay in Orkney depicts a line of three warriors, and their leader has noticeably curly hair). It's a thought. I'm throwing it out there. :)

So, what does this tell us about Pictish society? Well, nothing really, but it does leave room for some intriguing speculation. One of the most unique aspects of the Picts is their alleged and hotly debated system of matrilineal inheritance, which leads onto the question of women's place in Pictish society. (Edit: Carla Nayland has posted an article on Pictish matrilineal descent here.) Celtic women in general seem to have had a better deal socially than their classical counterparts, though it's hard to say exactly how much. The Hilton of Cadboll woman, however, seems to be very well appointed. She's clearly got class and status, and seems very much to be leading the hunt. Also, if you look carefully, it seems that there is another horse hidden behind hers. We talked about it in the tutorial, and most of us thought that the rider of the hidden horse is probably the lady's husband - which, if that is the case, very much suggests that the lady is the dominant partner in this relationship! The limelight is firmly on her. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Picts exalted the feminine above all, but it does hint that Lady Hilton of Cadboll is an important figure in her own right, that she doesn't require the image of her husband next to her to affirm her rank. Perhaps she was the one who commissioned the slab in the first place? Also significant is the mirror and comb symbol that appears next to her. This rather common symbol is usually assumed to have something to do with women, and since it appears here next to a female figure, that seems to me very likely. Perhaps it stood, almost like a hieroglyph, for "woman", whose meaning in this context could extent to the title "lady"?

As for the hunting, in Dark Age societies it seems it was strategically important for the nobility to be able to entertain clients and patrons alike through feasts and hunts, etc. If we apply this to the Hilton of Cadboll slab, then perhaps it means that Pictish women had the right, not only to be involved in such activities, but to host them as well, which perhaps gave them a firm footing in Pictish politics, maybe an active role?

There are other things to consider as well. We don't know for sure what this scene really depicts. Is it celebrating the life and times of the woman and her companions? The slab was found near a mediaeval church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which gives us two very prominent female figures being celebrated in close proximity. Is there perhaps some sort of link? (Granted, my knowledge of the Bible is quite scant, but I don't really remember anything about Mary leading a full-blown hunting party.) Given the Christian context of the slab, the scene may be from Pictish mythology (whatever that was), which the sculptor found to have allegorical similarities with Christianity. Perhaps the woman is meant to be an old Pictish divinty of some kind, bestowed by the artist with contemporary symbols of status?

Who can say for sure? Though I have a feeling our huntress may soon find herself in a book. :)

Does anyone have any thoughts on the Hilton of Cadboll slab, or Pictish symbolism in general?

(Btw, a short list of references and further reading, since I think I should:

- The RCAHMS entry for the Hilton of Cadboll stone.
- Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation, by Martin Carver (Birlinn, 1999). A good introduction to Pictish history.
- A Wee Guide to the Picts, by Duncan Jones (Goblinshead, 1998). Nice, short little book which gives a quick history of the Picts, a guide to the individual symbols and possible interpretations, and a list of where to find the Pictish stones.)


Gabriele C. said...

Though I have a feeling our huntress may soon find herself in a book. :)

In two books, most likely. :)

This is fascinating stuff, and what a beautiful stone. I've got pics of some stones in books about the Picts but none with a female huntress so far.

Concerning the symbols, I have some suspicions about Pictish craftsment sitting together and discussing how to make future archaeologists tie their brains into Celtic knots. *grin*

Carla said...

For what it's worth, I like the theory that the symbols represent names. They follow a similar numerical distribution to the names in the Pictish king lists, and early medieval Wales went in for inscribed stones commemorating named individuals (as did the Vikings a bit later). I rather like the idea that the Pictish symbol stones do the same, but in sort-of hieroglyphs instead of a script we can read. (If only someone would dig up a Rosetta Stone!). There's also a theory that the comb and mirror symbol indicates a woman, which perhaps suggests that male and female names shared the same symbols and so needed a way of indicating gender. A bit like adding '-a' to a Latin name to get the feminine form. If true, this would be an absolute blessing to writers of Pictish-set HF, because it would solve the female name problem! Just invent a feminine ending and apply it as needed to the male names!
The Birsay warrior does have the most amazing perm, doesn't he? I wonder if that's related to the elaborate hairstyles that Classical writers describe for the Gauls? Not necessarily the same style, but the same use of impressively coiffured hair as a mark of status.

Kirsten Campbell said...

Gabriele - It is a beautiful work of art, isn't it? And that woman is just demanding a story. She's been doing so all day. :) It's odd you've not seen this one already; it's one of the favourites. There was a big outcry when they tried to move it down to the British Museum, and they hastily decided to put it in the National Museum of Scotland.

As for those Pictish craftsmen, I agree with you! And I bet that slippery old druid Broichan had a hand in it somewhere, mwahaha. >:)

Carla - Hello, and thanks for stopping in. I think the theory that the symbols might represent the elements of names is highly plausible. If only we did have a Pictish Rosetta Stone. I remember that in one of my Archaeology lectures, Professor Stephen Driscoll suggested that the symbol stones might have been the Picts' response to the inscribed stones elsewhere in Britain. The way the symbols are usually positioned vertically could be a mimicry of ogham inscription. Maybe the Picts used symbols because they thought they could do better than the chicken-scratch of the Latin and ogham alphabets. :) They might very well be a sort of hieroglyphic system, albeit a bit simpler than the thousands of symbols the Egyptians used.

Regarding the hair, it also reminded me of the hairstyles of the Gauls. Maybe we should be looking at some of the symbols as hairdressing implements!

Crystal said...

Good post Kirsten! I bet you can't wait till you graduate! That is a neat picture of the stone. How many different classes are there that you were talking about?

Kirsten Campbell said...

Crystal - Noooo, I don't want to graduate! I want to stay at Glasgow Uni forever! :) I can't actually believe I've completed a whole semester already; it flew by so fast.

The Pictish stones are sorted into three classes. The Class I stones are the earliest, and they're simply rocks which have had the symbols incised onto them, with no Christian imagery. The Class II stones are dressed slabs which usually have a cross or other Christian imagery alongside the Pictish. The Class III stones are the latest, and don't have any of the Pictish symbols.

Harry said...

Fabulous stuff. Wish some of my professors had been able to explain symbolism and art that way back in the day.

(Hi, by the way! Commented on your Vindolanda post a week or so ago, so I'm only sort of coming from out-of-the-blue here.)

Does the lack of stirrups help tidy up a date at all? I think I remember they made it to the Continent in the 8th C. Did they arrive too late in Scotland to make a difference?

There, random question from random blog-reader. My work here is done. :)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Harry - Hello, and a very belated welcome to you! I can't believe I missed your comment. Really should look over older posts from time to time to see if there's anything new.

That's a very interesting point you raised about the stirrups (or lack thereof). It did cross my mind, very fleetingly, but I didn't think to go after it. I'll look into it. Thanks!

Glad I caught you this time! Hope to see you back!

Jack Dixon said...

Hi, Kirsten.

I've read (I forget where, unfortunately) that the cartoonish representations of humans was because of a persistent pre-Christian belief that humans were not worthy of accurately re-creating the human form, that it would be viewed by "the gods" as presumptious of godly ability to create humanity (or something like that). I don't know, of course, how accurate that might be.


Crystal said...

Girl, you sound like I did when I went to college! I absolutely LOVED going to school! Of coarse I was in my late 20's when I went back and actually loved it and graduated!!! But still, I did so enjoy it! Glad you do as well;o)

Kirsten Campbell said...

Jack - That's an interesting idea, and might very well have some merit. I've always found a bit odd that the Picts were so good with their animals and symbols, but didn't quite manage to create more realistic humans. I suppose, like most of Pictish culture, one theory is as good as another.

Crystal - Oh, I do. I do. I was actually a bit apprehensive before I went because I'd heard my friends saying that Glasgow was dead snobby. I was very pleasantly surprised when everyone - all my fellow students, lecturers and tutors - turned out to be so knowledgeable, and so nice. In actual fact, I've yet to meet a single snob. :)

Bob said...

The interlace decoration around the edge is called inhabited vine scroll - the Northumbrians were very keen on this type of decoration - check out Bewcastle, Ruthwell, Jarrow, etc - and it seems that the Picts got the idea from there…

Julia Bolton Holloway said...

That last comment on the inhabited vine motive, is what led me to this blog. See, which includes material on Wearmouth Jarrow and Ruthwell using it, from the stone masons acquired by Benedict Biscop from the Continent and sent by Ceolfrith to King Nechtan of the Picts in 710.

Colin Macaulay said...

@bob: Isn't it just as possible that the Northumbrians took the idea from the Picts? The fact that the N'brian examples come from the northern parts of the kingdom, whereas the Pictish examples come from all over Pictland, would suggest this.

Kirsten, great blog! I happened to be looking up the H of Cadboll stone on Goofle and your site came up. Best wishes,


Julia Bolton Holloway said...

Bede described King Nechthan being sent stone masons from Wearmouth Jarrow to assist him in building Roman Christian churches and monuments. Bewcastle and Ruthwell mix Roman and Celtic styles in consequence.

Cain said...

HI there, great article, I'm actually studying this in an History of Art degree at Edinburgh, I was wondering though, some people have suggested the hunting scene being symbolic of the conversions of pictish peoples to christianity? Almost chasing the animalistic paganism away, through the hunt and embracing the 'word of god'
. What are your thoughts on this idea?

Many thanks