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Chariots in Pictish Art

Due to the recent discover of the Iron Age (250 BC) chariot burial in Newbridge (10 km West of Edinburgh) I thought it might be beneficial to give you a quick overview of chariots in Pictish times.

Numerous chariot examples survive on Irish high crosses. Chariots played a very large part in early Irish history. The ancient story of Tain bo Cuilagne (cattle raid of Cooley) indicates that the elite fought from 2 wheel chariots. Not only was chariot warfare in effect, but chariot racing was also a form of entertainment. The Irish story, The Curse of Macha, weaves a tale in which a 9 month pregnant Macha runs a race against the kings chariot to prove her husbands bragging as true. She wishes to hold off on the race until the baby is born but the men demand that she race immediately. She wins, gives birth to twins at the end of the race, and then curses the men so that they feel the pangs of birth in their greatest time of need.

Similarities in art often occur between the Irish and the Pictish. However, any literature produced by the Picts, besides a list of kings, has been lost to us and we only have one visual example of a chariot in Pictish art. The Meigle #10 stone, sadly now lost, is our only glimpse of a "Pictish" chariot. At one point the stone rested on a mound in the Meigle Churchyard; today we only have a sketch (found in Allen & Andersonís, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland) of the original stone.

Two, side-by-side, horses with braided tails draw the Meigle chariot. There is a seated driver at the front and two passengers, sitting one in front of the other, behind the driver. The chariot has an awning stretched over the two passengers and the wheel, underneath the passengers, has twelve spokes.

It is in question whether the chariot on the stone represents a Pictish chariot, a Roman chariot or the artistís perception of a Biblical times chariot.

Aberlemeno Pictish Stone 2

Aberlemeno Pictish Stone 2

Dr. J. Anderson suggested that the chariot scene on Meigle #10 represented the Biblical ascension of Elijah. It has also been noted that the Roman processional carts (carpentum) also had awnings stretched over them. Without more archaeological evidence of early Scottish/Pictish chariots it is hard to know whether the Meigle chariot is supposed to be a Pictish representation, a foreign representation or a Biblical representation. However, we know that chariots were used in early, present day, Scotland. Tacitus claimed that the Caledonians used chariots at Mon Grapius in 84 AD. The last recorded use of chariots in a Celtic battle was by the Dal Riadans at the battle of Moin Dairi Lothair in 563 AD.

Picture of Newbridge Chariot Burial

Newbridge Chariot Burial

Although only one representation of a formed chariot exists in Pictish art, it has been suggested that the notched rectangle symbol is an abstract representation of a chariot. (The two inner circles [notches] represent the wheels underneath the chariot [chariot viewed from above]). This symbol, without a Z-rod, appears only on Drumlanrig jewellery and on Jonathanís Cave in East Wemys, Fife. With the Z-rod the symbol shows up on numerous Class I stones and on only two Class II stones: The Maiden Stone and the Aberlemno #2 stone.

What separates Class I from Class II stones is the introduction of Christianity. (Class II stones usually have a cross displayed on one side of the stone and human activity on the other). The use of chariots also began to disappear around the same time (7th century) as Christianity began to take root in Pictish settlements. This goes far in explaining why the suggested chariot symbol is found on numerous Class I and on only two Class II stones.

So, if the Picts used chariots, then why has archaeology yet to uncover any from the Pictish era?

It seems that the Picts did not find it necessary to bury their chariots. In fact, when it came to burials, the Picts did not appear to include any burial goods in their traditions. Chariots were no exception.

Due to this unfortunate circumstance we may never unearth a chariot from the Pictish era. However, Iron Age burials, like the one found in Newbridge does give us a glimpse at the design that may have directly influenced the Pictish chariot centuries.

Drawing of Newbridge Chariot Burial
Drawing of Cariot

By Historian Sarah Fisher

Acknowledgements: Newbridge Chariot pictures Headland Archaeology Ltd

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Chariots in Pictish Art, Scotland