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Article exploring the ancient Pictish constellations depicted on stone sculptures in the north-east of Scotland.
Vivid Imaginations - The Pictish Astronomers I first learned about the Picts and their remarkable carved stones when I was an art student back in the eighties. I did not know about them as a child when the stones were close at hand and should have been part of my own history. The earliest of their stones are sculpted with a system of enigmatic symbols. Some are rich with elaborate knotwork while others are elegantly plain. These have been left for us dotted throughout the north-east of what is now Scotland. I would like to offer a radical new explanation of the origins of these Pictish symbols. The Picts had a unique vision of the night sky. They were early astronomers who saw a system of star pictures which resonated with them in the context of their own myths and beliefs. In the north, a complex play of symbolic shapes with rich interwoven meanings turned about the astral pole. The great Pictish Beastie - the largest constellation - could be seen from the Autumn equinox and throughout the Winter. Overseeing all, it travelled overhead from east to west during the course of the night. The constellations of the Picts were recorded on stone as symbols of birds, animals and geometric shapes. Observation Different cultures throughout the world have assembled their own unique systems of asterisms, and many are recorded either as images or within writings. From India to North America, from Africa to Tibet, there are ancient constellations based on the myths and religious beliefs of the people. In northern Europe we have evidence of star signs seen by the early people of Ireland and others seen by the Vikings. Over time the predominant system of constellations has become that of the ancient Greeks interlaced with the zodiacal figures of the Babylonians. The only evidence of the constellations seen by the Picts may be the unique symbols surviving for us to see on stone and a few pieces of metalwork. These early symbol stones of the Picts were carved in the years before the coming of Christianity with its own powerful stories and symbols, before the spread of learning which introduced the Greek constellations to the symbolic imagery used by these early Christians. We have evidence of much earlier astronomical knowledge in the many stone circles and alignments found throughout the land that was home to the Picts. They may have had an understanding of how these ancient sites were designed and knowledge of their purpose. Some of their symbols hold intriguing links with the forms found in extremely ancient tombs and the placing of megalithic stones. In the time of the historical Picts there would certainly have been a tradition of looking to the skies for knowledge, inspiration, guidance. One of the most famous stories of the Picts is that of the Saltire, seen as an omen in the sky before the battle of Athelstaneford. Stars can be observed over many months and the apparent annual movement understood to be connected to the passing seasons. Observation of the changing stars and the solstices and equinoxes provide the careful watcher with the most accurate calendar. The movement of the earth around the sun, and the consequential seasonal change in the stars, is the natural measure of the year. For the Picts this natural progression was given a pictorial dimension in the form of a zodiac; a calendar of the native animals and birds with which they shared the land, moving across the southern horizon in the company of axe-bearing giants. Just above the horizon the Salmon and the land animals face to the right following the direction east to west in which the stars move during the course of the night. The water horse turns its head to the left as if to look behind. Looking south at the winter solstice we see the Stag, with the head of the Red Deer following higher in the sky. Then comes the Winter Giant followed by the Wolf. At the spring equinox we have the Eagle high in the sky, followed by the Bear just above the horizon, then the Goose again high above. At the summer solstice the Boar is followed by the Water Horse, then comes the Horse. As summer changes to autumn, up behind the Horse there follows the Long-necked Bird. At this time the Summer Giant is overhead, head towards the south, feet to the north. At the autumn equinox the southern sky is the domain of the Salmon. Until recently I was puzzled by an area of stars known to us today as the Crow and the Cup. They seemed to form the shape of an animal rather like the stars of the Boar. Then, in 2003, a sandstone slab was uncovered at Old Scatness Broch in the course of the annual archaeological excavation. This stone had the image of the native brown bear and I was able to identify the mystery constellation. The calendar animal symbols are relatively sparse compared with the numerous Crescents, Double-discs, Serpents and Beasties. At present, three wolves, three geese, three deer, three boar, one horse and now one bear, have been found. Some of the symbols feature a broken line, either V or Z shaped, which cuts across the main image. In the constellations the direction of these lines can be followed and they are found to align with other constellations. Work still has to be done on possible alignments of the Pictish stones with the stars. Carvings on the sandstone walls of caves at East Wemyss in Fife are among the oldest Pictish symbol carvings surviving. They appear to be early and relatively simple versions of the symbols, an early working-out of how the star pictures appeared to the observer, star maps to pass on the knowledge of the stars to others. At some time around 1400 years ago, the Picts began to carve the star symbols onto standing stones choosing a variety of local stones for their work. Slabs of grey, pink or red sandstone were chosen for many of the sculptures, heavy dark whinstone for some and fine pieces of hard gneiss, granite and gabbro for others. We can only speculate why certain symbols were chosen to embellish particular stones, or why these stones were placed in a particular location. The use of star signs as symbols does not preclude any of the other possible reasons for marking stones set in the landscape: e.g. tribal badges, territorial boundaries or memorials. A cross above a Christian grave does not simply mark the last resting place of a human body. It is also symbolic of the religion and beliefs of the dead person and his or her community. In this way the Pictish symbols may have been marked to give spiritual authority or rightness to the social message of the stone placements. Later symbols, carved on the Christian cross slabs, mix with biblical imagery and it is from this time that the link with the stars may have been broken as more widely accepted constellation images took the place of the Pictish designs. Perception New understanding of the Pictish symbols leads to questions about perception. The human mind has such a yearning to find meaning in the surrounding world that images can be seen in the textures, light and shadows of natural phenomena. The human face is discerned in rocks, in the bark of trees, or in cloud formations. Pictures are seen in the flames of a fire, in the tea-leaves at the bottom of a cup and among the stars in the night sky. While most of these images may be fleeting and observed only by an individual, the patterns of the stars - seemingly unchanging - circling to mark the hours of the night and the seasons of the year, have been given shapes and names identifiable by groups of star watchers. The symbols are the pictorial language the Picts used to express their beliefs, their ideas and their myths. What can we learn from this symbolic language? There are no written records from the past which conveniently explain this language; no oral tradition keeping its memory alive. While we can look for spiritual concepts based on our understanding of other cultures and imagine the stories, perhaps part of a rich oral tradition which might be illustrated, in the absence of written corroboration from the Picts themselves this will always remain speculative or intuitive at best. There is of course a clear literal meaning in some of the symbols, a healthy red-deer or a swimming salmon, but what cultural meanings can we read? An animal symbol can be a sign for perceived qualities such as courage, strength, clear-sightedness or the less concrete qualities of wisdom or magical powers. The geometric symbols may be ambiguous representations of actual objects. I believe that they share with the animal symbols a visual polysemous nature, holding multiple meanings of complexity and richness. For example I have speculated that a certain symbol represents a doorway. This I believe to be a sign for door. Not a representation of a specific doorway, but rather a sign for the concept of doorway or of passing through from one state to another. There is certainly a sense of movement in the flowing lines of the carvings, the distinctive spiralling joints of the animals, the swirling nature of the Beastie reminding us of currents in water and the perpetual interlacing of knotwork. Do these elements deliberately reflect the movements of the skies and the waves, movement in space and movement in time? This direct reading of the symbols and our newly-found knowledge of the constellations they mirrored points to the Picts as having a holistic view of the world which was both complex and elegant; an interconnected poetics in which to base their communities. It led to the development of a society which incorporated deep thinkers and highly-skilled craft workers. Creation How can contemplation of the Pictish symbols help us to understand the cultural history of Scotland? A quick internet search of the words ‘scottish’ and ‘culture’ brings up a vast selection of web pages devoted to tartan. I haven’t anything against tartan as such, a system of pattern design which combines the subjectivity of colour symbolism with a rigid set of rules to dictate warp and weft is a wonderful thing for a nation to have as both product and symbol and the true history of the various tartans is a fascinating story, but the swathes of tartan do tend to obscure other equally important facets of Scotland’s cultural history; a rich history already clouded by hundreds of years of violence and destruction. There have been recent attempts to rectify this leaning towards the dark events of the past. For example, studies by Professor Martin Carver have shown that in the eight century, residents of the Pictish monastery at Portmahomack were using Latin script, producing books on velum as well as fine metalwork for ecclesiastical use and using the principle of the golden section in their architecture. Written histories of Scotland have always seemed to focus on the bloody battles and power struggles. How much more enriching to part the tartan curtains and peer through at the achievements of creativity and the imagination. Can the creative work of the Picts inform art work today? Can contemporary Scottish artists connect with our far-distant forebears? Much of what is presented as art today reflects popular culture. In the twenty-first century many works of painting and sculpture are derived from cartoon imagery; advertising puppets; consumer society; the intention in such work that of subversion and/or celebration. At the same time, perhaps as a reaction against these brash spectacles, natural forms, raw materials, the emotional application of colour are often used in conceptual works. Another strong trend today is the placing of art works within communities, where aspects of local culture are commemorated or celebrated and community totems created, often in an attempt to revivify a sense of unity in people who have lost the shared work-based connections that held them close in the past. Each of these basic elements of art work; identification with the concerns of the population, interconnection with the surrounding world and the placing of powerful artefacts in the landscape, can be seen in the monumental sculptural work of the Picts. They had the ability to combine accurate observation with freedom of imagination. Thoughtful consideration of their work can reward us with insights and enrich our own creativity. We can explore the different ways we express our attitudes towards the world through our work; how we project meanings onto our surroundings; how we can express our values through the elements we choose to work with. We can study the rhythms of landscape and find ways to add emotional and spiritual content, a magical element to our work. In my own painting and design work there is a direct connection with both my physical surroundings and my study of the rich interwoven meanings held within the Pictish designs. Along with the Pictish symbols from deep within my own roots, ideas for paintings and woven panels come from ancient cup marks on standing stones, paintings in the caves of France and from the forms of leaves and lizards, trees and stones. The Picts looked to their surrounding landscape, the wild creatures and the stars for inspiration. In appreciation, I tried to reflect this in the text for my book The Lost Language of the Stars by bringing in the colours and characteristics of the stars, the types of rock chosen for the Pictish sculptures and the natural history of the animals and birds chosen by the Picts as their symbols. To illustrate the book I chose examples of each symbol and made simple line drawings. Tracing the lines of Pictish images, with pencil or paint, makes apparent their geometric complexity. It can also aid the mind in focusing on subtleties of form and sometimes a sudden recognition of meaning occurs. So it is with the ghost-like figure from the Inchbrayock cross-slab. Combined in one image is shroud-wrapped death, a knotwork of bare bones, and yet also the germinating seed sprouting new life. With the mineral colours of the earth I attempt to bring these thoughts into my own works. I hope that the rediscovery of the Pictish constellations will spark new interest in the Picts - a people still much neglected in historical writing and education - and will help to emphasise the importance of the carvings and archaeological sites associated with them. In recent years they have attracted more interest as exciting new finds have been made; such as the remains of the first known Pictish monastery at Portmahomack in Easter Ross, established 1300 years ago. However, lack of funding for preservation and protection work has left important national treasures such as the Wymyss caves and their carvings in danger of being lost forever. Heather Connie Martin heatherconnie @ hotmail.fr 30940 Saint André de Valborgne FRANCE virevolte
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