THEY have been regarded as one of the lost peoples of history, enigmatic savages who were mentioned by the Romans but left few other traces. 

But now a long-running project to shine a light on the Dark Age Picts of north-east Scotland has found that, far from being backward natives on Europe’s fringes, they were a sophisticated people with a developed culture whose reach stretched to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and beyond. 

For six years the Northern Picts Project, which is mostly run by the University of Aberdeen, has been probing the secrets of one of Caledonia’s earliest people to expand upon their place in Scotland’s story.

The Picts arose around the third century AD to dominate parts of north-east Scotland, Orkney and Shetland until they mysteriously disappeared around 900 AD, leaving behind only a written record of their kings, scattered archaeological remains and strange carved stones dotted around the land. 

Even the name they called themselves has been lost, as Roman writers dubbed them Picts because of their habit of painting, or likely tattooing, their bodies. 

HeraldScotland:

Roman versus Picts reanactments are popular to this day 

The Scotland they knew was a different world compared to the modern one.Wolves and bears still roamed in wild lands and elk and boar could be hunted in the forests.

People were chiefly organised into scattered farming and fishing communities, and society was only just leaving its tribal past behind. 

Over time, myths have grown up around the Picts, such as the claim of the ancient writer Bede, who insisted the Picts were descended from Scythian tribes who migrated from the shores of the Black Sea.

Professor Gordon Noble, who heads up the Aberdeen University project, explained that the lack of written sources makes the period difficult to study. 

READ MORE: The mysterious isle where sick Picts went to be healed 

He said: “You can take what Bede says with a lot of salt. We do not have a huge amount of knowledge of the Picts in terms of historical sources and what we do have is mostly from external ones. 

“There’s late Roman writings and Irish and Anglo-Saxon sources but all we have from the Picts themselves is the ‘king list’. 

“They are most likely a collection of the Iron Age tribes which lived in Scotland at the time slowly coming together to form a cohesive kingdom.”

The project set out to investigate sites close to long-standing symbol stones to carry out fresh excavations in the hope of forming a better understanding of this mysterious people.

A major discovery was made at Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, a landlocked village south of Huntly on the A97, where eight carved Pictish stones – among them the carved “Rhynie man” and the Craw Stane – had long been known about. 

HeraldScotland:

The Rhynie man stone carving

Archaeologists now believe the site was home to a major royal enclosure comprised of several buildings, one of them constructed from massive curved oak beams, surrounded by a wooden wall four to five metres high.

But it was fragments from Roman vases known as amphorae recovered in digging work which provided the most tantalising clue to the reach of the Picts. 

Vase pieces have been found at only three other sites in Scotland, including Dumbarton Rock, the seat of the ancient rulers of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. 

READ MORE: Secrets of the Picts rise from the ashes of Viking raid

Those found at Rhynie indicate it may well have been the dwelling place of a high-status Pictish ruler whose world stretched far beyond the north-east.

The few records that remain also suggest the Picts may have had a far more unified kingdom than their neighbours to the west, organised along lines seen in Europe and to the south in England.

Mr Noble said: “Rhynie is the most northern site these fragments have been found at, and they show that the Picts were part of a trading network which stretched far and wide into the Roman world. 

“The Picts are quite unusual in having an over-kingship of such an extensive area. In Ireland at this time there’s more than 400 or so petty kings ruling very small kingdoms but what we see in Pictland is something that’s a lot more like the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

“These are not a people on the edge of Europe but one that’s developing like its southern and eastern neighbours.

“There are influences of western art and a great deal of commerce. The Picts are very much a part of wider European developments.” 

READ MORE: Dig may unlock secrets of ancient Pictish carving

More recently, the project’s archaeologists probed the symbol stones themselves and concluded they contain writing as well as art. Crucially, they claim, this developed in the third century and was likely influenced through contact with the written word of the Romans. 

It is now believed the symbols carved into the stones were a form of naming system that communicated the identities of Pictish people and places and are the last surviving fragments of their language.

HeraldScotland:

A Pictish symbol stone discovered in the River Din near Dyce

Mr Noble said: “These stones occur at prominent places in the land and on Christian Cross slabs on graves, most likely telling something about the person’s rank and identity. They were probably developed in a similar way to Ogham script in Ireland and Scandinavian runes.”

While the Northern Picts Project has gone a long way to re-evaluating their place in Scottish history, much still needs to be done to flesh out the picture.

Current work centres on a large fort at Burghead on the Moray coast. This site, which was destroyed in the ninth century, may hold clues to the eventual fate of the Picts.

While there is evidence of a slow merging with the western kingdom of the Gaels, the people of the north-east were facing a new threat: the Vikings.

Mr Noble added: “The Vikings were bad news for just about everybody in this period. But there’s still much we need to know before we can say where the Picts went.”