Surprising Find Suggests Medieval Scotland Actually Land of Wine-Sipping Big-City Folk

A recent excavation has found a massive 6th-century settlement in Scotland—by far the largest of its kind—where urban inhabitants may have clinked glasses of imported Mediterranean vintages

Surprising Find Suggests Medieval Scotland Actually Land of Wine-Sipping Big-City Folk
The Tap O' Noth site was a splendid "city" on a hill. Right, the Bullion Stone is a rare depiction of Pictish thirst-quenching (from a cow's horn), though it postdates the founding of Tap O' Noth. (Courtesy of the University of Aberdeen / Johnbod, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0)
May 26, 2020

We know there were plenty of city slickers among the ancient Greeks and Romans, hoisting cups of wine at taverns and soirees like cosmopolites have ever since. But the hardy, mead-swilling tribes of the northern reaches of Britain were surely not an urbane brunch crowd, right? Not so fast. A team of Scottish archaeologists has found evidence that the Early Medieval dwellers of the area were living in much bigger settlements than we knew—and drinking fancy imported wine like true metropolitans, over 1,400 years ago.

Tap O' Noth Hillfort excavation
A density map indicating where all the Picts on Tap O' Noth built structures. (Courtesy of the University of Aberdeen)

For almost a decade, Prof. Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen has led digs in a valley near the Aberdeenshire town of Rhynie, exploring 5th- and 6th-century A.D. settlements built by the Picts, a Celtic-speaking people. These sites turned up evidence of a Pictish ruling class, and of their likely potable pastime: wine drinking. “Our excavations from 2011 [through] 2017 at that site identified an elite center of the Pictish period,” Noble told Unfiltered via email. “It is here that we had evidence of the amphora coming from the Mediterranean and glass [drinking beakers] from France.”

Things then took a surprising and exciting turn in 2017 when Noble’s team started excavating a nearby hill, Tap O’ Noth. The hill, it was thought, would yield only scattered evidence of settlements much older than the Pictish sites. But when the archaeologists started radiocarbon dating the finds from the dig, they discovered that the same group of Picts had likely settled there, too—and in huge numbers.

Tap O' Noth Hillfort excavation
Prof. Gordon Noble's team digs for traces of a thirsty civilization at Tap O' Noth. (Courtesy of Prof. Gordon Noble)

This hillfort complex measures about 40 acres, massive for the period. “It is very large,” Noble explained, “larger than any Early Medieval confirmed fort from Britain and Ireland by a factor of at least two.” Drones and laser cameras were dispatched, and the photos indicate there were around 800 huts on the site at its prime—potentially home to some 4,000 people.

“In terms of population numbers at that time, it would certainly have felt like and been seen as a ‘city’ in those terms,” said Bruce Mann, Aberdeenshire Council’s archaeologist, though he stressed that further mapping is in the works. "We just really hadn’t thought that sites on this scale existed in this time period,” said Noble.

But, to ask the important questions, did these urban hill-dwellers drink wine? The Tap O’ Noth dig has only just started, so there’s no direct evidence yet. Still, there’s a good chance. Per Noble, the hillfort population was part of the same community as the high-status Rhynie wine drinkers, with their amphoras and French glasses. So maybe the hill settlement was serving a house (or, we guess, "fort") red, too?

While these wine finds are certainly intriguing for vino-history buffs, they're an even bigger deal for the archaeologists trying to piece together a picture of the elusive Picts. As Noble put it, “[It] shows for the first time that the Picts were linked into the trade routes that connected western and northern Britain to the Byzantine Empire.” Mann said the finds are a game-changer. “The discovery of wine-related objects has changed our appreciation of what Pictish society was capable of.”

Tap O' Noth Hillfort excavation
The hillfort is deceptively quiet now. (Courtesy of the University of Aberdeen)

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