Usually, when Vikings went in to attack an area, they aimed to destroy it. Killing the occupants and burning the buildings to the ground was a great way for the Vikings to eradicate their enemies. However, it has been discovered that this method has actually helped to preserve a Pictish location rather than destroy it.
In the coastal areas of Scotland during the Viking Age, the Vikings were a real threat to landowners called the Picts. Fierce battles erupted over land ownership between the two groups as a result. The Picts are a mysterious race of people who dominated the north and east mainland of Scotland for many centuries before eventually merging with the Scottish Gaels and forming a single Scottish entity by the 10th century AD. Little is known about this group of people as they never recorded any of their histories for future generations and a lot of what we know about them today has been gleaned from archaeological finds.
However, according to The National, a site has been discovered that has been preserved thanks to Vikings burning it. Burghead is near Lossiemouth in Moray and is currently the largest known fort of the Picts. In the 10th century AD, this fort was set on fire by the Vikings in an effort to destroy it. It is likely this resulted in “ending the Pictish occupation of that part of Moray.”
Thanks to this fire, though, archaeologists from Aberdeen University have discovered material on the site that would normally have rotted away many years prior to now. As a result of this, they are garnering a new insight into the Pictish way of life and their history.
In April, the Aberdeen team, led by Dr. Gordon Noble, who is the University’s head of archaeology, set about exploring the site in search of more information about the Picts. This dig was a continuation of one from 2015, according to The Times.
There was also a previous archaeological dig on this site in the 19th century by the archaeologist Hugh Young. However, it was expected that most of his discoveries had been lost when a significant rebuild of the town occurred in 1805.
Instead, they found evidence of the defensive structure as well as “areas where the Picts disposed of their rubbish,” according to The National. Also found were the bones of animals rarely seen on Scotland’s mainland. The Times also states that “intricate dress and hairpins, including one with a decorative bramble design,” were found in the dig.
The University issued the following statement about the find.
“Although Burghead’s significance as a seat of Pictish power is well known, little archaeological work has been undertaken there as it was believed all significant evidence of its earlier life was destroyed when the building of the modern town commenced in 1805. The Aberdeen team began excavations in 2015 and their efforts have already yielded significant finds including a Pictish longhouse and Anglo Saxon coins of Alfred the Great. This time they were granted scheduled monument consent to dig in the lower citadel for the first time and at the seaward ramparts of the upper citadel.”
So, how did Viking fire preserve the site?
According to The National, because the fire resulted in charring of the wood used to construct the fort, the material was better preserved in the soil rather than rotting away as wood normally does. It will also mean that carbon dating can be used to help further date the site.