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Rethinking the Picts Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004
by David Keys

[image] The top of a stone Pictish cross from northern Scotland depicts two saints with the Holy Ghost in the form of a raven between them. (Historic Scotland) [LARGER IMAGE]

"Loathsome hordes, dark swarms of worms that emerge from the narrow crevices of their holes when the sun is high, preferring to cover their villainous faces with hair rather than their private parts and surrounding areas with clothes."

So wrote the sixth-century British churchman Gildas, lamenting the depredations of Pictish and other Scotland-based barbarian "butchers" a century earlier following Rome's abandonment of its British provinces in A.D. 410. This characterization of the Picts as illiterate, uncivilized, scantily clothed, and promiscuous heathens has clung to them to the present day. And although over the past half century scholars have regarded the cleric Gildas as a somewhat biased commentator, most haven't tended to see the Picts as outstandingly civilized either.

Now, however, one of the most detailed surveys of their art has revealed that these archetypal barbarians actually developed a deep knowledge of the Bible and of some aspects of Roman classical literature. "Over the years, the public has often been fed a somewhat distorted view of the Picts. The truth is, they were in fact much more sophisticated than most people have suspected up till now." So say leading medieval art historians George and Isabel Henderson, the husband-and-wife team who produced the new survey, published earlier this year as The Art of the Picts. George Henderson is emeritus professor of art history at the University of Cambridge, England, where Isabel also taught the subject for over 20 years.

David Keys is a contributing editor to Archaeology. Art of the Picts is published in the United States by Thames and Hudson.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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