A large-scale isotopic analysis of skeletons from the Scottish Highlands has provided evidence for the first time about the diet of the Picts, showing that these legendary people avoided eating fish despite their coastal proximity.
This Highland Pictish community had a noticeable lack of fish in their diet even though the Picts are known to have been seafarers.
Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers, Lecturer in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford, studied 137 skeletons buried under the old Tarbat Parish Church in Portmahomack, Easter Ross. They span hundreds of years of Highland history, including two periods of Pictish life: from the 6th century when the land was used by a farming community, and subsequently, as a Pictish monastery. By analysing the bones for stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios and combining this with evidence and analysis of the animal bones found on the site, she has been able to reconstruct the diets of these communities.
The Picts were one of Scotland’s earliest civilisations, skilled in farming and with a sophisticated culture, but until now little has been known about what they ate, hence this research offers a rare insight into Pictish subsistence.
The skeletal analysis showed that a small Pictish community (c550-c700) ate a healthy diet of plants such as barley, with some animal protein such as beef, lamb and pork, from both farming and small-scale hunting. It appears that the Pictish males ate more animal meat than females, possibly because they needed more sustenance to hunt. But there is no evidence that this group ate any marine or freshwater fish, despite its availability as a food source to these coastal inhabitants.
Dr Curtis-Summers said: “Pictish sea power is evident from archaeological remains of naval bases, as at Burghead, and references to their ships in contemporary annals, so we know they were familiar with the sea and would surely have been able to fish. We also know from Pictish stone carvings that salmon was a very important symbol for them, possibly derived from earlier superstitious and folklore beliefs that include stories about magical fish, such as the ‘salmon of knowledge’, believed to have contained all the wisdom in the world. It’s likely that fish were considered so special by the Picts that consumption was deliberately avoided.”
A simple monastery was later built on the site, and the majority of Pictish monks who then lived there (c.700-c1100) ate very little fish at all. However, they ate more meat than their Pictish lay predecessors, possibly due to being more skilled as pastoral farmers. The monks also had a diet of plant foods such as barley to make bread and pottage (a vegetable soup or stew), and meat consumption included beef, lamb, pork and venison. A large amount of animal bones was found from this time but a minimal amount of fish bones were found, barely a handful compared to hundreds of fish bones recovered from the later medieval period. However, one middle-aged monk stood out from the rest of his brethren by having higher a carbon isotope ratio that suggests a noticeable intake of fish.
Dr Curtis-Summers said: “It is possible that the monks at Portmahomack followed an early form of fasting that did not stipulate fish as a replacement for meat on fast days, and possibly some residual belief in the avoidance of eating revered fish, such as the salmon of knowledge, led to its absence. It’s not that they didn’t know how to fish, just that they chose not to for their main sustenance. But one monk was consuming fish protein, and it’s possible that he had a higher status, such as being the head of the monastery, with privileged rights to fish. It’s clear that fish was available to this monk and maybe some older monks of higher rank, but this was a rare privilege, possibly associated with entertaining very special guests at the monastery.”
Research by Dr Curtis-Summers also found that some monks seem to have eaten more meat during childhood, which reduced by adulthood suggesting a religious influence on their diets. It was also found that some older monks ate more meat than the younger monks, again, reflecting a hierarchy at the Pictish monastery.
After the decline of the monastery following a Viking raid in c800 AD, the site subsequently became a parish church, and in the mid to late medieval period, the local population ate a great deal more fish. Fish bones from this period were found in much greater quantities, and this coincided with growing populations, an increase in the fish trade and fish becoming more popular as a Christian fasting food. The archaeological and isotope evidence reflects the birth of Portmahomack as a fishing community, prior to the centre’s principal fishing industry that took off in the 1700s and 1800s.
The Pictish monastery at Portmahomack is one of the most important archaeological finds for decades when it was discovered in the mid-Nineties and is still revealing its treasures through scientific analysis such as that by Dr Curtis-Summers.
Dr Curtis-Summers said: “The Picts are commonly associated with being war-like savages who fought off the Romans, but there was so much more to these people and echoes of their civilisation is etched in their artwork and sculpture. Sadly, there are almost no direct historical records on the Picts, so this skeletal collection is a real golden chalice. Finding out about the health and diet of the Pictish and medieval people at Portmahomack has been a privilege and has opened a door into the lives they led.”
From Picts to Parish: stable isotope evidence of dietary change at Medieval Portmahomack, Scotland was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports