Image of Tarbat Sculpture.Bulletin 1, 1995

Context of the Research

Martin Carver

Early Kingdoms of the North Sea (3rd-10th century AD)

For more than a decade, scholars in Britain and Scandinavia have been engaged in research programmes aimed at discovering the origins of the early kingdoms of north-west Europe in the first millennium AD. 'Kingdoms' here means the earliest post-Roman cultural and territorial units, which were referred to as kingdoms by contemporaries; they are the building blocks of the countries that we still have, and are by no means irrelevant to the politics of modern Europe.

Recent work across the North Sea has discerned the emergence of political units in SW Norway (Myrhe 1987) and Denmark (Hedeager 1992), while in Britain the origins of the kingdom of East Anglia was studied in the context of the campaign of excavation at the royal cemetery at Sutton Hoo (Carver 1992a). Here an attempt was also made to describe the economic and ideological imperatives which lay behind the new kingdoms (Carver 1989, 1992b; Scull 1992).

The Sutton Hoo studies led to a general hypothesis for tracking the political affiliations of the new kingdoms, which can be summarised as follows (see also Carver 1993):

Figue 1: The north sea region showing Tarbat connections

Figure 1: The North sea region, showing known Tarbat connections

It ought to be possible, therefore, not only to observe the formation of territories, but to track their alliances and convictions by examining the material culture of estuary zones along the east coast of Britain. The area of the &Moray Firthlands& in NE Scotland has been selected as a zone which is of high archaeological potential and in a crucial area of interaction between Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia.

The Moray Firthlands

The Moray Firthlands

Figure 2: The Moray Firthlands, showing sites mentioned in the text and areas of research
A: Dornoch Firth, B: Cromatry Firth, C: Nairn and the Moray Laich, D: Lower Ness.

Documentary Evidence

Historians have long been persuaded that there existed a northern kingdom of the peoples of eastern Scotland which had a nucleus in the area of Inverness, where Columba, freshly installed at Iona, encountered a Pictish leader about 565 AD (Skene 1876, 129; Henderson 1975; Smyth 1984, 103; Ralston and Inglis 1984, 13; Morris 1989; Ritchie 1994; Foster 1996, 78). The peoples settled around the Moray Firth were not necessarily converted to Christianity by Columba's mission, but are likely to have remained, over the next 200 years, the diplomatic target of Christian alliances with Irish Dalriada and Anglian Northumbria (Hughes 1980, 48-9; Henderson 1971, 40).

The Firthlands probably received a second initiative from the Irish church in the later 7th century. In 664, after the synod of Whitby had agreed to adopt a Roman alignment for Britain, the defeated Columban contingent under Saint Colman returned north to Iona and to Ireland. But Colman apparently returned to northern Scotland in 670, when new Columban alliances may have formed between east and west (Bede III, 26; Skene 1876, 259n, 276).

In the early 8th century, the pressure was from Northumbria and the Roman church, following the Anglo-Roman alignment of the (southern) Pictish king Nechtan who brought about the conversion or expulsion of the Columban clergy (Bede V,22). The new 'Roman' ecclesiastical authority is likely to have held sway as far north as Orkney and Shetland (Morris 1989, 9; Lamb 1995).

By the mid 9th century, Irish (Scottish) control had become effective over the lands of eastern Scotland, and a revival of Columban ideas might be expected (Foster 1996, 89). During the same period, the Firthlands felt the hunger of Scandinavian power which was to become dominant in Caithness and Orkney. The southern limit of Scandinavian control and settlement seems to have been the Dornoch Firth, the remainder of the Moray Firth area successfully resisting any long-term Viking domination (Crawford 1987, 35).

Archaeological Evidence

If a cursory review of the documentation already suggests the formation of a Firthland Kingdom fluctuating in its alliances, the material culture promises to define both its territory and its affiliations with still greater clarity. Sites of burial mounds, both round and square, which have been assigned to the early Pictish period, are being added annually to the map of Scotland by aerial photography (Ashmore 1980; Foster 1996, Fig.1). Their distribution (as currently known) shows major concentrations in the area of Inverness and on Tayside, and ought to signal the emergence of pagan power centres and territorial identity. The Pictish symbol stones, whilst distributed more broadly, are well represented in these same two zones, which reinforce their assignment as the focal areas of a Northern and a Southern Pictish kingdom. Art-historical studies indicate the Northern focus (the Moray Firthlands) as the area of origin of the Class I symbol stones (Henderson 1958; Foster 1996, 78), while the Class II stones are seen as the heralds of Northumbrian influence after Nechtan's Roman reforms after 710 AD (Henderson 1967, 132; Foster 1996, 92-3).

These monuments hint at a kingdom already forming in the pagan Iron Age and pulled in different directions in Christian times. But the expected forts, beachmarkets and monasteries which would show us the social and economic organisation of its peoples and their agenda are elusive. There are few documented fastnesses which could form subjects for reconnaissance operations of the type conducted so successfully by Alcock in the last decade further south (1988). The hillfort on Craig Phadraig in Inverness was used in Iron Age and Early Historic times (Ralston 1987,23). The multi-vallate promontory fort at Burghead was in use from the 5th-7th century - during the 'Pictish' period - , but was almost certainly the site of a late Iron Age predecessor (Ralston 1987, 15; Shepherd 1993, 78). Ralston's discoveries at Green Castle, Portknockie indicate that other promontory forts of the Iron Age - Early Historic period may be expected along the costs of the Moray Firth (Ralston 1987). The Culbin Sands have produced pieces of fine late Iron Age metalwork (Shepherd 1993, 75); but this turbulent terrain, where the exercises for the Normandy landings were held, consists of extensive and mobile dunes containing evidence for occupation from many periods (Ross 1992), and it will be difficult to find and define the Early Historic beachmarket which may have once been there. Especially rich concentrations of Class II stones imply early Christian centres, perhaps monastic, at Kinneddar (Shepherd 1993, 83), Rosemarkie (Henderson 1990) and at Portmahomack, the subject of the present investigation.

The Research Mission

The search for settlements was given a new impetus by the Moray Aerial Survey (Jones, Keillar and Maude 1993), which reaped a rich harvest of new sites from the agricultural land of the Moray Laich. It was while engaged in this survey that the aerial photographer, wheeling outside the survey area, spotted the cropmark enclosure at Portmahomack. The survey reinforced how much there is still to know about the settlements of the first millennium AD in this pivotal area. Although the name of the Picts continues to weave its magic, our real target is the development of indigenous late Iron Age culture throughout the first millennium AD, and the detection of the impact of Anglian, Irish and Scandinavian initiatives upon it. To assist us we have the models developed by Alcock (1988), evoking heroic peoples organised for war, and by Smyth (1984) which allow them to be equally effective exponents of ideological diplomacy. Less certain is the way that land was actually used in the creation of wealth and the maintenance of power. Evidence for the expected exploitation of the fertile lowlands of the Black Isle, Tarbat Ness and Moray is practically non-existent. The lack of basic research reported by Gourlay in 1984 (Gourlay 1984, 100), has eased but little.

But the Firthlands offers opportunities of its own, rather more akin to those more fully exploited in East Anglia or Yorkshire, with both of which it has much in common. It is not a terrestrial zone but a maritime one, in which the eastern coastline of Britain plays the role of an arterial route, bringing all the estuaries of the east, in theory at least, nearer to each other than to their contiguous western land mass. There are easy contacts too from across the North Sea. As has long been known, the wind and weather of the North Sea favours sea travel by the peoples of Scandinavia over those of Britain (Brøgger 1929, 24; Taylor 1956, 18). Although some scholars are persuaded that North Sea traffic only took off with the Vikings (Crawford 1987, 11), others imagine a Britain which can have been the intended or accidental destination of Scandinavians before, perhaps long before, the Vikings became a political issue and entered the documentary record as pioneer voyagers (Carver 1990). It should at least be an option to study the Firthlands as a long term maritime zone in potential contact with Scandinavia, at least from the early first millennium. Such a study requires that the geography of the area is turned inside out, so that the coastal populations form the core of the kingdom not its periphery, and the mountains to the west and south comprise a barrier penetrated only by the narrow corridor of the Great Glen. In this redrawn seafarers' arena, Portmahomack on Tarbat Ness is a central place.

The research objectives of the Tarbat Discovery Programme are to map and chronicle the emergence of a late Iron Age (5th-7th century) kingdom in the Moray Firth, and to explore its changing allegiance during the early Christian period (7th-9th century). The archaeological campaign launched to this end will centre on the newly discovered site at Tarbat Old Church, Portmahomack.

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