Iron Age ORCA

Pictish carved stone discovered in Orkney cliff

The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), with support from Historic Environment Scotland, has completed a delicate rescue mission to recover a rare Pictish carved stone from an eroding cliff face in Orkney's East Mainland.
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The Pictish Cross Slab. (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), with support from Historic Environment Scotland, has completed a delicate rescue mission to recover a rare Pictish carved stone from an eroding cliff face in Orkney’s East Mainland.

Erosion by the stormy seas surrounding Orkney is a tangible threat to coastal archaeological sites. This situation is brought home especially during the winter months when high tides and powerful winds combine to batter the coastline of these beautiful islands. However, sometimes these same waves, can reveal unique and important finds that have been lost to view for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Following one of these storms, Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark, an archaeologist based in Orkney, was examining an area of the East Mainland coast that had been particularly hit during a south westerly gale and discovered something amazing – a stone that had been unearthed by the sea, projecting precariously out of the soft, cliff face. This stone, on closer examination, was different to the other rocks at the site – it had obviously been worked and designs were visible and clearly ancient.

A dragon motif tantalizingly peered out from the emerging stone slab and pointed to a possible Pictish (3rd-8th centuries AD) origin, but further examination was difficult due to the location. This carved stone was clearly significant and needed to be quickly recovered before the next forecast storms that were due to hit the following weekend.

The race was on.

Nick Card, senior projects manager at ORCA (University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute), contacted Historic Environment Scotland, who realising the significance of the find offered funding support to investigate, remove and conserve the precious object.

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The reverse side of the slab. (UHI Archaeology Institute)

When the carved stone was carefully lifted, the significance of the find was clear – a Pictish cross slab, probably dating from the 8th Century AD, emerged as the soft sand fell away from the front face. The exquisite design had been weathered, but an intricately carved cross flanked by the dragon or beast was clear to see. On the reverse side another Pictish beast design stared out from the stone face – beak open grasping what looked like the remains of a staff.

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Sean and Dave excavating the stone. Photo: UHI Archaeology Institute.

Nick Card explained: “Carved Pictish Type 2 Stones are rare across Scotland with only two of this type having been discovered in Orkney. This is therefore a significant find and allows us to examine a piece of art from a period when Orkney society was beginning to embrace Christianity. Now that the piece is recorded and removed from site, we can concentrate on conserving the delicate stone carving and perhaps re-evaluate the site itself.”

“The Orcadian coastline is an extremely dynamic environment, and it was clear that we needed to act quickly” said Dr Kirsty Owen, HES senior archaeology manager. “Because the stone has been properly excavated, we have a better chance of understanding how it relates to the development of the site.”

The excavation of the Pictish stone was undertaken with funding from the Historic Environment Scotland Archaeology Programme, which is primarily intended to rescue archaeological information in the face of unavoidable threats.

The stone is now removed from the site and is scheduled for conservation and possible display at a future date. The site may be re-evaluated with funding being sought for further work.