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A huge Scottish hillfort was the largest settlement in medieval Britain

EnlargeUniversity of Aberdeen

On a hilltop overlooking a small Scottish village lie the buried remains of the largest settlement in medieval Britain. About 4,000 people lived within the communitys earthen ramparts during its heyday in the 400s and 500s CE. Thats around the time the Picts of northeastern Scotland were banding together into kingdoms to defend themselves against rival groups.

Until recently, archaeologists assumed the fortified community was much older and much smaller. But a recent lidar survey, combined with excavations on the hill, revealed a large urban center thriving in the centuries just after Rome left Britain. A drone carrying lidar instruments sent over the site, called Tap ONoth, mapped the long-buried foundations of about 800 huts, clustered in groups and along pathways. The huts were all within the 17 acres encircled by an earthen rampart on Tap ONoths lower slopes. If each hut was home to about four or five people, thats a total population of 3,200 to 4,000.

“Thats verging on urban in scale, and in a Pictish context we have nothing else that compares to this. We had previously assumed that you would need to get to around the 12th century in Scotland before settlements started to reach this size,” said University of Aberdeen archaeologist Gordon Noble. In an email to Ars, he added, “We really dont have any parallels for a site this large in early medieval Britain.”

“We have nothing else that compares to this.”

The Picts were a Celtic-speaking culture that mostly made its living by raising livestock and farming grains and vegetables. Until the Romans arrived in 43 CE, most Picts lived in small communities, but the threat of Roman invasion changed everything. It didnt take long for the small Pictish farming communities to mostly vanish from the map.

“In the 3rd and 4th century people may have coalesced at sites like this in response to the threat of attack from the Roman Empire,” Noble told Ars. “There were various Roman campaigns into northeast Scotland, and the Picts were a known enemy of the Romans.”

That seems to be what happened at Tap ONoth. The oldest hillfort, perched at the very summit of the hill, dates to between 400 and 100 BCE, and radiocarbon dates from a few test excavations at the site suggest that the settlement started to grow in the 200s CE. But the lowest, widest circle of ramparts was built in the 400s.

“We dont know for sure if Tap O Noth was a permanent settlement,” Noble told Ars. “It could have been a seasonal assembly site where people gathered at certain times of the year. However, there has been a huge amount of labor expended on the site and its defenses, so it could be a year-round settlement—in that case given the limits on agricultural land then it seems likely that the community would have to be supported by tribute or render from a wider population.”

A coalescing kingdom

The large, fortified community was part of a complex Pictish landscape thats a bit hard to see in todays rural setting. Another fortified settlement at nearby Cairnmore dates to the same period, although its much smaller than the one at Tap ONoth (everything from medieval Britain is smaller than the settlement at Tap ONoth, after all). And in the valley below Tap ONoth, on what is now Barflat Farm, archaeologists have excavated another fortified settlement that seems to have had far-flung trade connections. Excavations have found goods from the rest of Europe: Mediterranean wine, French glassware, and intensive metal production. A carved standing stone, known locally as Rhynie Man, also still stands at the site.

Noble and his colleagues arent yet sure how all these Pictish sites fit together, but the sites were bound to have shared social, political, and economic links. There were probably a number of early Pictish kingdoms that started to emerge in the wake of Roman withdrawal. Noble says that, after the Roman threat was gone, these Pictish groups banded together to defend against aggressive neighbors and rival kingdoms.

But whether Tap ONoth was the economic base for a political center at nearby Barflat Farm, with its abundance foreign luxury goods—or the other way around—isnt yet clear.

“It could be thatRead More – Source