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Dundee visual artist helps reconstruct digital images of 1,500 year-old ‘elusive’ Pictish fort

Michael Alexander speaks to Dundee-based visual artist Dr Alice Watterson who helped co-ordinate stunning new reconstructions showing how Scotland’s largest known Pictish fort may have looked 1,500 years ago.

Walk through the streets of Burghead in Moray, and its neat rows of cottages give away the work of Georgian town planners who developed a fishing community to cater for the herring boom of the early 1800s.

Yet at one end of the town, near the harbour, a grassy area with massive earthworks give clues to a much older settlement which, until relatively recently, remained largely a mystery.

Burghead today, including the ramparts.

That’s because underneath the quiet coastal village lie the subtle remains of Scotland’s largest known Pictish fort, which is thought to have been a significant seat of power between the 6th and 10th centuries.

In the 1800s, when it was thought the structures may have been built by the Vikings or Romans, antiquarian excavations uncovered rampart walls over 8m thick and 6m high amid evidence of timber framing.

During the same period, a large portion of the fort was destroyed during the construction of the modern town. The landward ramparts were levelled and part of the seaward defences were destroyed to build the modern harbour.

It was feared more recently that much of the 1500-year-old fort had been lost to 19th century development and modern landscaping.

Head of Archaeology at Aberdeen University Gordon Noble at one of the excavation sites.

However, when Aberdeen University archaeologists led by Professor Gordon Noble, and funded by both Historic Environment Scotland and the Leverhulme Trust, began new excavations there in 2015, they yielded some of the most significant Pictish items and building remains ever uncovered.

They include preserved floor layers, hearths, and artefacts from the everyday lives of the fort’s inhabitants along with weaponry and evidence of metal working.

In the upper citadel, the ramparts still stand to a height of almost three metres and show the complexity of the defences.

In the lower citadel, a large building or activity area has been found with sediment containing rich animal bone.

A spectacular well was also discovered enveloped in the ramparts of the fort while fragments of early Christian sculpture were also found, suggesting the fort had an early Christian chapel near the entrance.

The fort appears to have been destroyed in the 10th century – a period by which time the Pictish kingdoms had merged with the Dal Riata to create the kingdom of Alba, the forerunner of the kingdom of Scotland.

The site could have been destroyed by the Vikings or through internal conflict.

Significantly, however, the archaeological work has now enabled the creation of stunning new three-dimensional images of the Pictish fort.

Reconstructing the past

Funded by Historic Environment Scotland as part of a wider video project to enable the public to learn more about Scotland’s Pictish past, the images showcase the enormous defensive ramparts, as well as dwellings inside.

Burghead Pictish fort reconstruction.

“The scale of houses and buildings we have discovered evidence that this was a densely populated and important Pictish site,” said Professor Noble, of Aberdeen University, at the launch of the images.

“We have found many objects which have helped us to learn more about the everyday lives of Burghead’s inhabitants between the 6th and 10th centuries AD.

“From metalworking to weaponry and even hair and dress pins, with each new dig we are finding out more about our ancestors who lived here.

“The foundations of the huge ramparts have survived far better than anyone anticipated, despite their wilful destruction over the centuries and the midden layers, which is effectively where the Picts threw their rubbish, have provided startling insights into the lives of the Picts to the archaeologists.

Burghead Pictish fort reconstruction.

“It’s wonderful to see the work of our excavations spanning more than five years brought together in these stunning reconstructions which offer an amazing insight into how Burghead may have looked.”

It’s thought occupation ended when the fort was destroyed during the Viking Age, but the large fire that spelled the site’s demise also helped to preserve its remains into the present.

The blaze allowed oak planks set into the six metre-high walls of the fort defences to be preserved in situ and in great detail.

One of the main discoveries from previous seasons on site was a longhouse. An Anglo-Saxon coin of Alfred the Great (AD 871-899) was also discovered within the floor layers of the house.

Burghead Pictish fort reconstruction.

Dr Kevin Grant, the archaeology manager of Historic Environment Scotland said the fort at Burghead was one of the most important places in early Medieval Scotland, and was built to be “dramatic and imposing”.

He said: “These reconstructions help us imagine experiencing this spectacular site in its hey-day. We are also delighted to support these excavations, which are transforming our understanding of Pictish Scotland and saving important archaeological remains from being lost to the waves.”

Dundee research group

The digital reconstructions were co-ordinated by Dr Alice Watterson of Dundee University with additional filming and editing work by Kieran Duncan and aerial drone filming by Dr Kieran Baxter, members of Dundee’s 3DVisLab research group.

Dr Watterson told The Courier Burghead was the biggest reconstruction she’d ever done. She usually does smaller sites and interiors.

Dr Alice Watterson, digital archaeologist, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. Dundee.

However, a lot of the techniques they used in Burghead draw more on the disciplines of animation and visual effects than the production processes used in film and TV.

Dr Watterson, who is based at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, explained that while growing up in Inverness, she toyed with the idea of going to art school.

However, she ended up studying archaeology at Glasgow University having been inspired by historic sites discovered in the wilds of Scotland during family kayaking holidays.

Half-way through her degree, she discovered that she was good at illustration. She started helping lecturers with artefact illustrations “for beer money”, going on to study a masters in visualisation and archaeology at Southampton University, where she trained in 3D reconstruction and animation.

Kieran Baxter, drone pilot.

Her PhD at Glasgow School of Art followed, combining science and illustration, and included work on sites at Orkney and St Kilda.

Today, she teaches an undergraduate module in scientific illustration at Dundee. This includes archaeology, medical illustration, natural history illustration, botanical illustration and paleontology – recreating dinosaurs.

“It’s nice to be able to work with students who are studying art and coming to scientific visualisation – working with them on the meeting points between the two disciplines,” she says.

Understanding the ‘lingo’

Dr Watterson, who has recently returned from Greenland doing 3D heritage workshops with local communities, acknowledges she’s not a specialist in Pictish history.

Kieran Baxter with collaborator Alice Watterson and Jan Dalley, arts editor at the Financial Times, in 2016.

However, her training as an archaeologist has helped her understand “the lingo” when working closely with the Aberdeen dig team.

“What’s quite good about working digitally is that you can draft up the models, you can send them to the archaeologist, and they can come back with a million corrections,” she laughs.

“You can go through that process back and forth. For me personally I think working digitally is really fluid because you can make changes quite quickly and that’s quite helpful in a field that’s so based on interpretation like archaeology is.”

Dr Watterson said the Burghead reconstruction was “interesting” given that part of the site is under the modern settlement.

Burghead Pictish fort reconstruction.

Using multiple sources, she was able to look at plans and maps made hundreds of years ago to roughly work out where the ramparts were in the area of the town that’s completely covered by modern settlement.

While the main components of the exposed site are still visible, archaeologists dug test pits a metre square, and from there, worked out where to put 10m x 10m trenches to find out more.

“You can see on the ground where the big ramparts would have been,” she says. “But what the excavations have done is help us understand where the smaller buildings are within those big enclosures.

“They also did some excavation in the lower citadel as well, so from that they were able to work out there was an area where there had been a graveyard, and another series of big structures.

“What I’m given from their process is the site plans from the trenches. Even if you’ve just got one end of a building, you’re able to estimate where the rest of it goes. They can also use geophysical survey to discover what’s underneath the ground, even without excavating.”

Northern Picts

The Burghead film is the third in a trilogy of interpretative films about the excavations Aberdeen University have been doing on Pictish sites as part of the Northern Picts project.

“The first we did was Rhynie which was reconstructing a timber palisaded enclosure, just outside the modern village there,” she says. “In 2017/18, we did the Dunnicaer film, between Dunnottar Castle and Stonehaven.

“That was really interesting because similarly to Burghead it was a coastal site.

“We had to climb up the side of this sea stack that would have originally been connected to the land.

“They’d employed a climber to repel off it. That was my most Indiana Jones moment!” she laughs.

In addition to Greenland, Dr Watterson has been working in Alaska and with the Stromness Museum in Orkney. She also does a lot of community archaeology.

“For the projects in Alaska and Canada, I’ve been working with indigenous communities and hopefully at some point in Greenland,” she says.

“That has involved working closely with communities to find out how they want to shape their heritage.

“There’s obviously a difficult history there in terms of how indigenous peoples have been represented previously. A lot of the work there is making sure the communities get a voice in how they want their story to be told.”

Elusive people

There’s no doubt the Picts remain one of the more elusive early medieval kingdoms of Britain.

However, through her role as a  reconstruction artist, Dr Watterson hopes she can help “bridge the gap” between the specialist, often technical data created by archaeologists, and being able to create compelling story telling for general audiences.

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