A Pictish fort that once occupied the Dunnicaer sea stack off the coast of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, has been reconstructed on video. Located near the site of Dunnottar Castle, which was built on top of a later Pictish fort, Dunnicaer is today disconnected from the mainland at high tide but is believed to have been a much larger and connected outcropping before erosion from the crashing surf whittled it into a sea stack.
Pictish symbol stones had been discovered there by adventurous young men in 1832, but because it’s so difficult to access, Dunnicaer has barely been examined by archaeologists. In 2015, a team from the University of Aberdeen enlisted the aid of mountain climbers to reach the summit of the sheer cliff face and excavate the surface. They discovered evidence of a hill fort with stone ramparts framed with wood timbers, floors and stone hearths. Some of the hearths were built on top of each other, indicating space was extremely limited and dwellings were constructed on top of old ones.
Radiocarbon dating of the timber placed its construction between the 2nd and 4th century A.D. That makes it the oldest Pictish fort ever discovered in Scotland.
“Dunnicaer appears to have been home to a significant fort, even at this early date,” Dr Noble added. “We can see there were ramparts, particularly on the south side, constructed of timber and stone. This is consistent with the style of later Pictish forts.
“The stone is not from the local area so it must have been quite a feat to get it, and the heavy oak timbers, up to such an inaccessible site.
“It is likely that the sea stack was greater in size than it is today as the fort appears to extend over a large area. Dunnicaer was likely to have been a high status site for a structure of this scale and complexity to have been present as early as the 3rd century.” […]
Aberdeenshire Council archaeologist Bruce Mann said “The dates for this site are truly amazing, and hugely important for Scottish archaeology. Towards the end of the 3rd century AD evidence of how and where people were living largely disappears, leading to all sorts of speculation over what happened during the next 200 years. This discovery now starts to not only fill in that missing story, but also helps us to understand the early origins of the Picts in the north east.”
It was hard to access even in back then, and the radiocarbon evidence indicates it was inhabited for a short time, likely abandoned in favor of Dunnottar when erosion made the sea stack dangerous. Unfortunately the heavy erosion has continued, taking significant portions of any archaeological materials crashing into the sea along with the cliffs.
Now a new virtual reconstruction of what the fort might have looked like in the 4th century has been created using information from the University of Aberdeen’s excavation. It’s fascinating to see how intimately the archaeology is linked to the geology of this unique environment.