Medieval(ish) matters #4: back to Braveheart, Viking river boats, Picts, and the Crusades

HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove rounds up the latest medieval stories on the website this week – talking to experts about Viking river transport and Pictish settlements and remembering Braveheart a quarter of a century on from its release

This is the famous Rhynie Man carved stone, thought to be Pictish in date. (Photo by © Aberdeenshire Council Archaeology Service: www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/archaeology)

It’s all about Picts, logboats and the crusades this week, plus the small matter of our virtual Medieval Life and Death Festival.

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First up, logboats, which are – as the name suggests – boats made out of logs, otherwise known as dug-out canoes. There have been a fair few such craft found in archaeological contexts, with dated examples back to the Mesolithic and Neolithic.

Because they are hewn out of single logs, they are limited in size and girth, but they would have been perfectly serviceable boats. I actually did my undergraduate dissertation on the possibility of prehistoric logboat navigation on the River Exe. Quite a few people have made replicas to prove what they were capable of, and I’ve seen modern examples being used on pretty large and fast-flowing rivers in Nepal (as I paddled past in a much less elegant modern plastic kayak).

Nevertheless, you don’t necessarily think of Vikings and logboats in the same breath. Vikings travelled around in much grander longships didn’t they?

Well, yes, and no. A week or so ago, Bristol University archaeologist Dr Cat Jarman posted on Twitter about a new potential find of a Viking Age logboat, which I thought was rather exciting, so I asked her for a bit more information.

She explains: “The logboat was found at the edge of a small lake on a farm in Agder, southern Norway. The farmer, Frode Øina Andreassen, was recutting boggy ground near an old channel when he accidentally came across the boat and lifted it out.

“His great-grandfather had found two very similar boats nearby on the same property in 1932, and those have been dated to 600-900 AD, so Viking Age or just before. Because of that, it’s likely that this dates to the same period too and an expert from the Norwegian Maritime Museum has estimated a date of 500-1000 AD.

“They’ve now taken samples for radiocarbon dating. A Viking Age date would be exciting because it would add to what we know about transport by small vessels in this period.

Logboats like this would have been used for hunting and fishing

“Logboats would have been used for hunting and fishing, or for transport of people and goods. Learning more about boats like this is particularly important for understanding the use of rivers and inland waterways, where Viking ships and other boats would be too big or inconvenient.

“In inland parts of Norway, there were important resources like iron, firs, and soapstone that were traded far and wide in exchange for exotic goods.

“We don’t have many logboats that securely date to the Viking Age, but historical sources from eastern Europe tell us these boats were used by the Rus (eastern Vikings).

“Using and controlling rivers was a key part of the Vikings’ success across Europe, so understanding the mechanisms that made this possible gives us vital new information about the Viking worlds.”

Cat Jarman has a book out called River Kings next year (February 2021), which is going to be looking at Viking river transport, among other things, so we’ll hopefully be going back to her for a podcast when that is out.

A remarkable Pictish hillfort

Someone who I’m planning to have a chat with sooner than that is Professor Gordon Noble, the archaeologist behind the project that has just revealed that a hillfort in Aberdeenshire, Tap o’ Noth, was both huge (housing perhaps 4,000 people) and Pictish (5th–6th centuries AD, maybe back to the 3rd century AD) in date.

That’s a pretty remarkable find, and one that’s going to force a bit of a rethink about Pictish society. This follows hard on the heels of the story that sent me off into a fishing frenzy last week about the Pictish diet.

The Picts are having a bit of a moment

So the Picts are having a bit of a moment – and I’m going to talk to Gordon, and his colleague Dr Nicholas Evans, in the next week or so, to record a podcast on what we now know about this fascinating late Iron Age/early medieval Scottish civilisation (they have a book on the topic). I did have a bit of an email exchange with him straight away after the news of his Tap o’ Noth research was released, asking what link there was between the huge, and well-defended, hillfort and the contemporary nearby high-status valley site at Rhynie (where the famous Rhynie Man Pictish symbol stone was found, and where the similarly notable Craw Stone still stands).

Here’s what he told me…

“We have three contemporary sites in the valley now – Tap, Barflat (Rhynie) and a ringfort at Cairnmore.

It is possible that Tap was occupied seasonally, and that is an idea we will work on – we are applying to dig more house platforms to address how many are contemporary and questions surrounding seasonality etc. We have only really dug one platform in detail [on Tap o’ Noth] and we had imported Roman pottery (of probable third century date) and metalworking moulds (of the fifth to sixth centuries).

“So, [there is] reasonable evidence of relatively high status occupation of Tap too. And given the investment in platforms and the rampart, I would suspect this was a permanently occupied site – at least for some of the population. My best guess is that Tap is the main settlement whereas the Barflat complex is one for feasting and ritual activities, but may have had a residential component too – for the elites and given the placename (Rhynie derives from the early Celtic word for king – rig) perhaps an elite royal lineage.

“The Rhynie Man carries an axe type linked to animal sacrifice and there is a warrior carving from the cemetery near to the village – so we can see ritual and a warrior ethos part of the symbolism of power down in the lowland sites. But those are just working ideas – we really don’t have any parallels for these sites so it is all cutting edge research on this period and the Picts.”

Dr Nick Evans adds: “Tap O’ Noth is so exciting because the period from the Third to Sixth century AD is one where the textual evidence on the Picts is pretty poor, so we have very little idea about social structure and politics in this period. For instance, in the Fourth Century the raids on Roman Britain might indicate that some larger scale political units existed among the Picts. However, that is uncertain, and we don’t know what effects the end of Roman rule further south had on those in Britain to their north. We’ve tended to assume that large kingdoms would have disappeared for a while, until perhaps the late sixth or seventh centuries, but Tap O’ Noth, through further investigation, might indicate that our assumption that there were only relatively small-scale kingdoms in that period is mistaken.”

If you want to see more about Prof Noble’s research in Rhynie and surrounds, there is a great 3-minute video on the Northern Picts Project home page, and Nick Evans has delivered an online lecture about the Picts too. Also, since publishing this blog, I’ve seen a great tweet of a 3D model rendering of the Tap O’ Noth fort, which is worth a look.

Back to Braveheart

Given all this news on the Picts, I wonder if anyone is planning a feature film on them? It is, after all, 25 years this month (in the US, later in the UK) that another rather famous Hollywood blockbuster on Scottish medieval history came out. I couldn’t secure an interview with Mel Gibson to talk about Braveheart and William Wallace, but you can read a round-up of historically inaccurate films on this very website. If you want to know more about the historical Braveheart, the current issue of BBC History Revealed also has a feature on Wallace, so have a read of that too.

Last year we had another film, Outlaw King, which was more about Robert the Bruce than William Wallace, but in both films, England’s King Edward I is very much the bad guy. Read this piece on the Hammer of the Scots to help you get to grips with what sort of man Edward really was.

Before his Scottish expeditions and indeed before he was king, Edward went on crusade to the Holy Land in 1270. He started for home when he heard of the death of his father Henry III in 1272 (and look out for an upcoming feature in July’s BBC History Magazine and podcast from Professor David Carpenter on Henry III). Edward’s expedition is sometimes called the Ninth Crusade, but Prof Rebecca Rist, who I’ve interviewed for this Sunday’s ‘Everything you want to know’ podcast on the Crusades, didn’t count that in the list of main crusades when I asked her the question ‘How many crusades were there?’. Listen to the podcast to find out why, and much more besides. It should be live on Sunday lunchtime. In the meantime, we have loads of other great Crusades podcasts in our back catalogue.

Finally, we are right in the thick of our Virtual Medieval Life and Death week. We’ve had some great talks already and a lot of you have already watched the lectures on medieval violence, food, and religion. And we still have love and medicine to come. Don’t worry if you’ve missed them – you can still watch them all on the website. I hope you’ve enjoyed the talks and the virtual festival feel – I’d love to hear what you thought of them, or any of my witterings – tweet me.

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David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove