This paper concerns a small graffito scratched on the end of
a stone gaming board.
The board was found in the excavation of a Late Iron Age house
at the Red Craig in Birsay, Orkney (Morris 1989). It was originally
thought to belong to the Viking period on the basis of parallels
with three other boards found nearby, but the subsequent publication
of another example from an earlier context at Howe in Stromness
suggests that all the boards are likely to be Late Iron Age/Pictish.
The suggestion offered here is that such a change in interpretation
offers new possibilities for interpreting the graffito and its cultural
|1. The Red Craig gaming board.
Reproduced from Morris 1989, 216.
The Red Craig gaming board was originally a stone of portable size
with a square grid of seven lines in each direction incised on one
face. When found it was broken across with about half remaining
There is a small group of graffiti at the side of the board, consisting
of an area of close parallel lines and a small "D" shape.
The D-shape has four lines at right-angles to its straight edge
each with a small angled mark at the end (Fig 2).
The grid and the graffiti are both informal and seem unlikely to
have been of lasting significance to the maker or to the players
but the D-shaped object has been drawn with care and seems to have
been intended to represent something specific (Batey et al, 1989,
220, RF 280; OM BY 280).
The find context
The gaming board fragment was found in a late occupation phase
of a cellular house, apparently deposited at a time when the building
was falling out of use and dumps of organic material were accumulating.
2. The Red Craig graffiti.
Photograph by David Mackie. Copyright Orkney Library Photographic
The fragment was in one of these dumps, along with 'iron objects,
flints and a possible whetstone' (Morris 1989, 156), in a context
which the finder recalls as containing very little other stone (Joyce
Gray, pers com). The remainder of the board was not found. Possibly
the game had been played a long time before the fragment was deposited.
The radiocarbon dates for the context in which it was found fall
in a broad late Iron Age/Early Viking range (Morris 1989, 171).
The architectural style of the Red Craig house belongs to Orkney's
pre-Viking building tradition, with parallels from the neighbouring
settlement site of Buckquoy (Ritchie 1977) and from the Brough of
Birsay (Hunter 1986), but clearly such houses could have remained
in use into the Viking period.
There is a strong assumption in the concluding discussion of the
original report that, though the gaming board was made on-site in
Birsay, its cultural connections were with Scandinavia and with
the Viking period, in line with the interpretation of the three
boards found at Buckquoy (Batey et al 1989, 225).
It was tentatively suggested that the D-shaped object might represent
the hull of a boat, though if it had four masts it would be "
. . . a remarkable depiction for the Early Medieval period, and
is quite unlike any remains, or depictions, of contemporary vessels
from Scandinavia or the British Isles." (Batey et al, 1989,
The closest parallels for the Red Craig board are three boards
from Anna Ritchie's excavation at Buckquoy and one from Howe in
Stromness (Ballin Smith, 1994). Each has a seven-by-seven grid drawn
on a portable sized stone, but none has graffiti comparable with
that from the Red Craig.
The Buckquoy site was only yards from the Red Craig house. Excavation
there revealed five phases of domestic buildings, of which the earliest
two were cellular and interpreted as 'Pictish' and the later three
were rectilinear and interpreted as Viking-period.
Of the three gaming boards from the site, one was found in the
midden in a barn belonging to the Viking phases. The other two boards
were found on the spoil-heap and thus are not stratified, though
the excavator thought they were also likely to have come from late
phases (Ritchie 1977, 187).
Claude Sterckx reported on the Buckquoy boards, identifying them
as boards for a 'battle' game of a type found in Scandinavian and
Celtic tradition, appearing in Iceland as hnefatafl, in Ireland
as brandubh and in Wales as tawlbwrdd (Ritchie 1977,
187). Ritchie believed that the Buckquoy boards were most likely
for hnefatafl, saying '
the Buckquoy boards belong to
a Norse cultural assemblage
' (ibid, ).
However, though the came from a Viking building, the associated
artefact assemblage is curious for almost all the finds are either
culturally-ambiguous or are Pictish. Almost the only culturally-Viking
artefact from the Buckquoy excavation is a broken perforated skewer-pin
from Phase 3 (Brundle et al, 2003, 96). Since the assemblage cannot
be said to be clearly Norse the cultural affinities of all three
Buckquoy boards are unclear.
The remaining gaming board is from Howe in Stromness, a site some
twelve miles to the south of the others. The board was found in
the upper rubble layers of a Middle and Late Iron Age settlement,
in a context 'probably from the 6th and 7th centuries and possibly
as late as the 9th
' (Ballin Smith 1994, 188).
There are few carbon dates from the Howe excavation so the estimate
of possible dates for the structures is very broad. However, not
only is there no artefactual evidence for Norse occupation on the
excavated site at Howe, but the finds assemblage contained little
of the fine bone and antler work normally associated with the latter
part of the Late Iron Age in Orkney. This suggests that the date
of the settlement is likely to be early in the Late Iron Age and
to have ended well before the Viking period and that gaming board
from Howe is very unlikely to come from a Viking cultural context.
Given the culturally-ambiguous find contexts of the boards from
Buckquoy and the Red Craig, and the similarity of all five boards
to one another, it seems likely that they are all Late Iron Age
/ Pictish rather than Norse and that the D-shaped graffito originated
in that cultural context.
The Late Iron Age in Orkney is customarily divided into two by
archaeologists with the first part (LIA I) running from about 200-625
AD and the latter part (LIA II) from about 625-800 AD. (e.g., Buteux
There seems to be a sharp transition in material culture between
the two periods, with fine pottery and high-quality bone and antler
artefacts characterising the latter period. It is the latter period
that archaeologists working in Orkney associate most strongly with
The Picts are one of the peoples of northern Britain, recorded
by Eumenius, Adomnan, Bede and many others, but they left no written
records of their own. They are best known for their remarkable and
enigmatic symbol stones. The distribution of these stones shows
that the territory of the Picts extended from Fife to Shetland (Foster
1997, 73). There are some 11 stones from Orkney bearing Pictish
symbols or figures (RCAHMS 1989, 36-8) as well as five carved bones.
Seen from one side the Red Craig graffito resembles a boat, but
turned the other way up it seems like an animal. The four lines
with their angled ends become four legs with feet and the D-shape
itself becomes the body, with a curved back. Drawings of animals
occur both in Pictish and in Viking art. Pictish animals on symbol
stones may be drawn with head and tail lowered, producing a curved
back line like that on the Red Craig graffito. The closest parallel
for a Pictish graffiti animal is a boar incised on a stone from
Old Scatness Broch in Shetland (RCAHMS 1999, 42).
The Scatness drawing is larger and much more detailed than that
from the Red Craig but they are stylistically similar; each drawing
has a vigorously-drawn horizontal line forming the underbelly of
the animal, with a D-shaped body above the line and the legs below.
Taking these similarities with the contextual evidence, it would
seem most likely that the Red Craig graffito is a Pictish animal.
If the graffito is a tiny Pictish animal, it is part of an intriguing
pattern. Pictish symbols and animals occur on a limited range of
objects in Scotland, and seem to fall into three broad categories.
The first group is the Class 1 stones, ranging from the very 'simple'
examples from Pool in Sanday and from the Earl's Bu in Orphir to
the magnificent stone from the Broch of Burrian at Garth in Harray.
(Ritchie, G., 2003).
The stones from Pool and from Burrian were found face-down, as
was the eagle-stone from Oxtro, now lost. Elsewhere, Neil Curtis
of the Marischal Museum has observed that the carving on stones
from Tillytarmont in Aberdeenshire was fresh when they were excavated
in the 1950s, but is now deteriorating after only some fifty years.
He suggests that it is likely that when they were made they were
not exposed for long (Curtis pers com). It would be interesting
to know if a significant number of stones had been deliberately
placed face-down, or if this small sample is only an erratic statistical
The second group includes the ostentatious objects, including the
Class 2 symbol stones which seem to have been intended for display.
These have not yet been found in Orkney, though perhaps the Pictish
eagle on the Corpus Christi gospel fragment might be included in
this group (Henderson, G., 1987, 78).
The third group consists largely of graffiti, whether on large
areas like the East Wemyss caves (RCAHMS 1999, 24) or on trivial-seeming
objects of bone or stone. Among others, these include the stones
from Old Scatness in Shetland (Nicholson and Dockrill, 1998) and
a stone disc from Jarlshof with a double-disc on one side (Hamilton
1956). There are carved bones found in Orkney at the Broch of Burrian
in North Ronaldsay (MacGregor 1974), Pool in Sanday (Hunter 1990,
186-7), the Knowe of Skea in Westray (Graeme Wilson, pers com) and
the Bu Sands in Burray (Lawrence 2004).
Three of these bones are cattle phalanges, likely to have been
gaming pieces. If the grafitto on the Red Craig gaming board is
a Pictish animal drawing, it might be part of a pattern linking
Pictish graffiti to gaming, but the other Pictish symbol-bone from
Pool has no obvious gaming connection, nor does the piece from the
Knowe of Skea.
One of the Scatness stones was part of the kerb of a hearth, but
generally Pictish Art has not been found in domestic settings, on
pottery, nor on personal and household artefacts. No sensible interpretation
will be possible until there is an inventory of portable Pictish
Art like the RCAHMS list of the carved stones.
| The Picts may have had their designs tattooed
on their bodies, singly or in groups. This crescent and V-rod
on Sean Mullan's arm combines two Orkney versions of the design.
Photograph by Sean Mullan
The first of these groups of Pictish Art may have had spirirtual
significance, the second political display or signs of affiliation
- or they may not. Given that the surviving household and personal
goods of Late Iron Age Orkney are not decorated with symbols, it
is tempting to think that the graffiti might have been produced
by a special group of people, or in circumstances distinct from
daily life, but the evidence is incomplete.
Archaeology can only find the more durable Pictish artefacts, and
not all of those. There is no record of how wood, leather or cloth
may have been decorated, nor of whether the Picts really did paint
or tattoo their own bodies as has sometimes been suggested. All
that can be said is that enormous amounts of information are must
Given the number of Late Iron Age sites that have been excavated
in Orkney over the last thirty years, the wonder is not how many
examples of Pictish art we have but rather, how very few.
- Ballin Smith, B (ed) 1994 Howe, Four Millenia of OrkneyPrehistory
soc Antiq Scot Mono no 9, Edinburgh.
- Batey, C.E. et al, 1989, 'Excavations beside the Brough Road,
Birsay: The Artefact Assemblage' in Morris, C.D., 1989.
- Brundle, A., Lorimer, D.H. and Ritchie, A., 2003 'Buckquoy Revisited'
in Downes, J and Ritchie, A., 2003, 95 - 104.
- Buteux, S., 1997 Settlements at Skaill, Deerness, Orkney. Excavations
by Peter Gelling of the Prehistoric, Pictish, Viking and Later
Periods, 1963-1981. BAR British Series 260.
- Downes, J and Ritchie, A., 2003 Sea change: Orkney and Northern
Europe in the Later Iron Age AD 300-800, Pinkfoot Press, Angus
- Foster, S.M., 1997 Picts, Gaels and Scots Historic Scotland/Batsford,
- Hamilton, J.R.C., 1956 Excavations at Jarlshof,Shetland MPBW
Arch Rep no 1, Edinburgh
- Henderson, G., 1987 From Durrow to Kells: The Insular Gospel
Books 650 - 800, London
- Hunter, J.R., 1986 Excavations on the Brough of Birsay, Soc
Antiq Scot Mon no 4, Edinburgh.
- Hunter, J.R., 1990 'Pool, Sanday: a case study for the Late
Iron Age and Viking periods' in Armit, I (ed) Beyond the Brochs,
175 - 93, Ediburgh.
- Lawrence, D., 2004 'A new Pictish figure from Orkney', this
- MacGregor , A., 1974 'The Broch of Burrian, North Ronaldsay,
Orkney' Proc Soc Antiq Scot 105, 1972 - 4, 63 - 118.
- Morris, C.D., 1989 The Birsay Bay Project Volume 1, Brough Road
Excavations 1976-1982, Univ of Durham Archaeol Mon Ser no 1, Durham.
- Nicholson, R.A. and Dockrill, S.J. 1998 Old Scatness Broch,
Shetland: Retrospect and Prospect. Department of Archaeological
Sciences, University of Bradford, Bradford
- RCAHMS, 1999 Pictish Symbol Stones: An Illustrated Gazeteer.
- Ritchie, A., 1977 'Excavation of Pictish and Viking-age farmsteads
at Buckquoy, Orkney' Proc Soc Antiq Scot 108, 1976-7, 174 - 227.
- Ritchie, G., 2003 'Pictish art in Orkney' in Downes, J and Ritchie,
A., 2003, 117 - 126.