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Photos show the graves and surrounding ditches of a small Pictish cemetery under excavation in March north-east of Perth
Pictish cemetery excavated near Perth
Archaeologists have excavated a complete cemetery near Perth that may be all that remains of an otherwise unknown small Pictish community. The early medieval graves were found during routine evaluation of a field destined for agricultural development. There were no prior signs of any historic activity on the site, but when exploratory trenches revealed graves and barrow ditches, the area was opened up and entirely excavated.
Five graves had been laid out in a line running approximately east-west. Each was set at the centre of an enclosing ditch and, perhaps, beneath a low mound, all traces of which had gone: a double square barrow (in which two barrows shared a common ditch) stood a little apart from two round barrows and a small rectangular barrow. The circular ditches were continuous, but the square ditches each consisted of straight segments with small gaps or causeways at the corners.
Skeletal material was recovered from four of the graves, and where this could be discerned the bodies had been laid out straight with their heads to the west. The well-drained sandy subsoil had not helped preservation, and the sites of bodies were mostly marked by dark stains; sufficient remained, however, that some analysis and dating should be possible. No associated grave goods were found.
Several dozen cemeteries of this type are known across eastern Scotland, where they are generally ascribed to the Picts, a generic term for the early historic descendants of the region’s indigenous iron age people. Most barrow groups are known only from cropmarks seen from the air, however, and there have been few modern excavations. This is the first group to have been completely sampled.
Other comparable excavations were university research projects. Cropmarks at Redcastle, Angus, were partly excavated by Edinburgh University in 1997–98 when the ditches of five square barrows and two round barrows, and nine unenclosed burials, were uncovered. As at Perth, the square barrows contained a central burial surrounded by ditches with corner breaks, and none of the graves contained artefacts. The cemetery was radiocarbon dated to the third to eighth centuries AD. Five unenclosed graves and two conjoined square barrows were excavated by Glasgow University at Forteviot, Perthshire, in 2007. Again, heads were laid to the west. Martin Cook, who directed the Perth excavation for AOC Archaeology in March, noted that paired square barrows are characteristic of these Pictish cemeteries. He wondered if the graves were for closely related people.
6|British Archaeology|May June 2012