Iron Age Newark Pictish Stone

Pictish cross-slab discovered in Deerness

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.
The Pictish Cross Slab. (Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark)

An eighth century AD Pictish symbol stone has been successfully recovered from an eroding bank in Orkney’s East Mainland.

The carved stone, which features a cross on one side and Pictish motifs on the other, was spotted by Dr Hugo Anderson-Whymark protruding from a bank at Newark, Deerness.

The area is plagued by coastal erosion and the stone had been exposed by stormy weather leaving it projecting precariously from the face of the bank.

Nick Card, senior projects manager at ORCA contacted Historic Environment Scotland, who, realising the significance of the find, offered funding support to investigate, remove and conserve the symbol stone.

A rescue excavation was launched, supported by Historic Environment Scotland and led by ORCA, to recover the artefact before it was damaged by the elements.

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

Once the carved stone was carefully lifted, the significance of the find was clear – it was a Class II Pictish symbol stone, probably dating from the eighth century AD.

The exquisitely carved design was weathered, but an intricately carved cross flanked by the dragon or beast was still clearly visible. On the reverse side another Pictish beast design could be seen, it’s open mouth grasping what looked like a staff.

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

Nick Card explained: “Carved Pictish Type II 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,” added Dr Kirsty Owen, Historic Environment Scotland’s 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 stone has now been removed from the site and is scheduled for conservation work and possible display. The site may be re-evaluated with funding being sought for further work.