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Pictspotting: Pictish symbol stones go to Hollywood

By Adrián Maldonado


The Picts are beginning to go mainstream. Thanks to a few hilariously bad films starring anachronistic Picts or Pict-approximations like Centurion and The Eagle (reviewed previously for Love Archaeology), they continue to pop up here and there, including the latest Asterix comic book. Recently though, it seems filmmakers have begun to realize there’s more than just whooping and hollering woad-painted wild men to go on, and actual Pictish stones have begun to creep into view. Mind you, none of these films takes place anytime during the actual Pictish era (Picti or Picts are only mentioned in contemporary documents from AD 297 to about 900) so we still have a ways to go, but it’s a start. This trend has not yet been the subject of serious academic study, and that’s certainly not going to start now. Instead, here is an inventory, because the Internet.

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Centurion (2010)

The film takes place in AD 117, a couple of centuries too early for Picts, but there are Pictish stones everywhere. To my nerdy delight, though, Pictish stones play important roles in this film and get a fair amount of screen time. Dominic West is chained to one for a lengthy scene, which means lots of close-ups of the glorious mish-mash of symbols on the fibreglass prop behind him.

In a later scene, lead Roman Michael Fassbender donates his centurion’s helmet to another small stone they come across while running for their lives. For nerd bonus points, you can say this design seems to be loosely based on the Dunnichen Stone in Angus.

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Brave (2012)

This beautifully rendered vision of early medieval Scotland supposedly takes place in the tenth century, by which point the kingdom of the Picts had been replaced by the re-branded Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Alba. However, there would certainly still have been Pictish stones lurking in the landscape, so it is entirely appropriate to find them here. The above image is one of the first scene-establishing shots at the start of the film, a mysterious and moody rendering of the Aberlemno Stone from Angus.

For fans of symmetry, the film also ends with a dramatic shot of a Pictish stone, this time less clearly identifiable and almost subliminal.

There is also an almost imperceptibly fast glimpse of another stone hiding in Mor’du’s lair – the top of the Hilton of Cadboll cross, incongruously placed within the ruin of a broch. Unlike the rather menacing presence the Pictish stones have in Centurion, they are more like frustrated, silent wood sprites cursed to watch in silence as Pictish stereotypes are paraded before them.

Bonus feature! There is a brief glimpse of the Hilton of Cadboll cross, again only the uppermost register with the symbols, in the Brave videogame. Could this be the first Pictish stone in a videogame?

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Pompeii (2014)

This may well be the most surprising inclusion on this list. When I was first informed by a fellow Pictspotter that there were Pictish stones in this film, I wondered if there was something I didn’t know about Roman Italy. Instead, it manages to out-anachronize Centurion (no easy feat) by placing a Pictish stone in a village fifty years earlier in AD 62. This is again the Aberlemno Stone, who will soon receive its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The film is deliberately vague on location, saying only that we are in Northern Britannia, and that Kit Harington’s oddly-named Milo is meant to be the last of his ‘Celtic Horse Tribe’. However, the presence of a Pictish stone could technically mean that Pompeii is the closest thing to a major film told from the point of view of a ‘Pict’.

As a bonus, the Celtic Horse Tribe’s pseudo-Aberlemno stone is placed alongside a second, larger pillar stone which initially looks like the chronologically more appropriate but geographically misplaced Turoe Stone, Co. Galway, with added spirals straight out of Newgrange, Co. Meath. In just a few brief seconds of screen time, the Horse Tribe is established as a pan-Celtic pastiche, although of course Harington speaks in his own posh accent rather than his Jon-Snow-honed northern brogue. At least it’s better than whatever Keifer Sutherland is mumbling.

The second pillar stone gets a lot of screen time later in the film when a replica is used in a big arena setpiece which should be a very emotional moment for the (presumably) traumatised Milo, but somehow just ends up looking a lot like Gladiator. In fact, that pretty much sums up most of the movie.

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To find out more about the Pictish symbols, head over to Historic Scotland’s Pictish Stones microsite.

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Who Owns The Santa Maria? Shipwrecks and the UNESCO 2001 Convention

Guest blog by Robert F. MacKintosh, PhD candidate at the University of Southampton

The announcement last Tuesday that the wreck of Christopher Columbus’ flagship the Santa Maria had potentially been found in Haiti caused a wave of excitement around the world. If the wreck does turn out to be the Santa Maria it will be one of the most important discoveries ever made, and even if it is not the famous ship, any vessel of the age of exploration would still be of immense archaeological and historical value. Either way, the vessel will be the target of intense international scrutiny, as pointed out by Peter Campbell in a previous post.

Focus will be on the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, an international treaty designed to protect underwater cultural heritage (UCH) including shipwrecks. Will the Convention be able to protect such a high profile example of UCH? If so, it will showcase the benefits the Convention can provide to its ratifying states and may clear up some of its ambiguities. In short, the Santa Maria could be a landmark case for the 2001 Convention and the protection of cultural sites worldwide.

The 2001 Convention came into force in 2009. To date, 47 states have ratified it, including Haiti, and the vessel was found off Haiti’s north coast in territorial waters. The Convention places an obligation on all of its States Parties to preserve UCH, and to cooperate to achieve this. Since the Convention regime is still in its infancy, the current situation provides an opportunity to see how some of its mechanisms will be applied, and how effective they are.

Application of the Rules

The Convention addresses each maritime zone differently. States have the exclusive right to authorise and regulate activities in their territorial sea, but are required to apply the ‘Rules’ to any activity directed at UCH.

The Convention’s 36 Rules are a set of objective and internationally recognised standards. To meet the Rules, in situ preservation should be considered as the first option for the wreck (Rule 1). However, there are exceptions. The site could make a substantial contribution to knowledge, and it will no doubt be argued that the need to identify the vessel is significant enough to warrant excavation. Protection of the site can also be cited as a reason for intervention, and as the wreck has been looted before excavation, it may be necessary to protect it.

If activities are authorised these must not adversely affect the underwater cultural heritage more than is necessary for the objectives of the project (Rule 3), and non-destructive techniques must be given preference to destructive ones (Rule 4). The remainder of the Rules place a high standard on those seeking to investigate UCH and ensure a minimum quality of archaeological research when an intervention is made. Sound straightforward? The situation is complicated by a number of issues.

Sovereign Immunity

A number of people commenting on the news have stated that Spain (another of the Convention’s ratifying states) may claim jurisdiction over the vessel using the principle of sovereign immunity. This would impinge on Haiti’s exclusive right to regulate and authorise activities in its territorial waters. Sovereign immunity was developed to ensure that nobody interferes with sunken state vessels (mainly warships) without express authority of the flag state. It is slightly different to ownership, but the two are interrelated and often conflated, and Spain may well be able to claim both. However, the Convention does not deal with ownership; it does not matter who owns UCH as it is protected under the Convention regardless.

Spain has had recent experience of claiming sovereign immunity on a vessel located in international waters. In 2011 in the case regarding the looting of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (often known as the Black Swan case), Odyssey Marine Exploration was ordered by a US court to return approximately 594,000 coins salvaged from the vessel to Spain. Despite this case, and the efforts of a number of flag states (most notably the USA), it is questionable that there is enough precedent for sovereign immunity to be considered as a principle of customary international law. The situation is especially complex when the vessel is located in another state’s territorial waters, like the putative Santa Maria wreck.

So how does the Convention deal with this? If the wreck is identified as a state vessel, Haiti ‘should inform the flag State Party’ (i.e. Spain) of the discovery (Article 7(3)). This is a compromise between the rights of the coastal and flag states and is one of the Convention’s more contentious provisions, providing one of the reasons many major maritime nations do not feel they can ratify it.

The older a wreck is, the harder it will be to both identify it and establish that it is a state vessel. The Santa Maria itself was owned by Juan de la Cosa and the voyage was only partially funded by the Spanish Crown, making Spain’s case trickier. If the wreck is not conclusively identified as the Santa Maria, or if it is considered not to have been owned or operated by Spain for government purposes, only the normal convention regime will be applied.

Trickier still, the word ‘should’ in this Article (rather than ‘shall’ which is used elsewhere in the Convention) suggests that if the wreck is classed as a state vessel, there is no enforceable duty for Haiti to inform Spain of the discovery. There is certainly no obligation for Haiti to seek Spain’s consent before authorising activities directed at the vessel, as there would be if it were located in a different maritime zone. However, a duty to cooperate for the protection of UCH underpins the whole Convention. One would expect that if Haiti were acting in the spirit of the Convention that the two states would cooperate for the benefit of the UCH, no matter the precise wording of the Convention. It will be interesting, in this light, to see how the situation progresses.

The other slippery legal issue raised by Article 7(3) is that of the ‘verifiable link’, as (again if the wreck is a state vessel) “other States with a verifiable link, especially a cultural, historical or archaeological link” should be informed of the discovery. It is as yet unclear just what can constitute a verifiable link, as state practice on the matter is still developing. The clause suggests that cultural, historical or archaeological factors are important, but are not the only foundations of a possible link. Spain would almost certainly have a verifiable link to the vessel, being the state of origin. Italy (also a State Party) may also claim a link, as Columbus was Italian (or at least Genoese) and Italians provided some of the finance for the voyage. Could the definition go any further? It may be that a verifiable link should be able to accommodate states that feel they identify with particular UCH, and in this case most states in the Americas could probably claim a link, especially where Columbus plays an important role in a country’s national history, like he does in the USA.

Haitian Archaeological Capacity

One final complication in the proper application of the Convention’s Rules may be Haiti’s archaeological capacity. Haiti might unfortunately not have either the money or expertise to excavate and conserve a find such as this. Underwater archaeology is a discipline in its infancy in Haiti, which has not declared a national competent authority for the purposes of managing UCH under the 2001 Convention.

Eight autonomous bodies work under the Ministry of Culture and Communication in Haiti, including the Institut de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National (ISPAN) and the National Bureau of Ethnology (NBE) which is responsible for advising the Secretary of State for the Interior on when to grant permission for archaeological excavations. However, the earthquake of 2010 destroyed the premises of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, ISPAN and the NBE, and also badly affected the National Library and the National Archives. Heritage efforts since then have largely been focused on rescuing some of the countless monuments and sites that were severely damaged by the disaster.

One of the greatest benefits of ratification of the Convention however, is its cooperation scheme. Financial assistance is possible through the Underwater Cultural Heritage Fund (the Fund), and States Parties have an obligation to assist each other in the protection and management of UCH. Such assistance can include the provision of training, the sharing of expertise and technology, and direct collaboration in UCH projects. Assistance and funding from the Convention’s other States Parties could ensure the appropriate investigation and protection of the wreck.

Overall, there is nothing to stop Barry Clifford (who discovered the wreck) or anyone from continuing the research if they comply adequately with the Rules of the Convention. Yet it is hoped that aid is provided from other States Parties in order to demonstrate the benefits of the Convention, provide a boost for Haitian maritime archaeology, and give Haiti the capacity to properly engage with its other UCH. Providing for proper conservation and curation of the UCH could also lead to the creation of a world class museum, increasing tourism, creating employment and helping the wider Haitian economy.


Whether the ship is identified as the Santa Maria or not, this case provides an opportunity to show that the 2001 Convention can adequately protect a high profile example of UCH. It can demonstrate the benefits provided by the Convention to states which have not yet ratified, including the tangible advantages to developing states in the form of financial, technological and professional help from other states. The situation could also alleviate the concerns of a number of flag states by showing that even if Spain may not be able to claim sovereign immunity in the territorial waters of another state under the strict terms of the Convention, they can still be involved in the management of their vessels if both states have joined the 2001 Convention and act in its spirit.

Ultimately UCH should be used for the benefit of humanity and it is hoped that proper application of the 2001 Convention can ensure such a significant find can be primarily used to benefit of the people of Haiti.

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Discovery of Columbus’ Santa Maria: What Happens Next?

A guest blog by Peter B. Campbell, Archaeological Director of the Albanian Center for Marine Research and PhD candidate at the University of Southampton


On Tuesday, May 13, it was announced that treasure hunter Barry Clifford had located the shipwreck of the Santa Maria, flagship of famous explorer Christopher Columbus. Found in shallow water off the coast of Haiti, the wreck’s size and location on the reef fits Columbus’ historical records. However, proving the identity of an early wooden shipwreck is difficult, as there is no nameplate or ships’ bell that gives its identity. Other shipwrecks in the area have been misidentified as the Santa Maria before, so it will take careful scientific excavation to determine if the ship is in fact Columbus’ flagship. Following this announcement everyone seems to be wondering, “What happens next?”

Some have also asked, “Who is Barry Clifford?” He is a treasure hunter famous for finding the pirate ship Whydah off the coast of Massachusetts in the 1980s. While he is not an archaeologist and has no formal training, he has since been looking for other celebrity shipwrecks and had success locating them, though not profiting. For-profit shipwreck hunting has not gone well for Clifford with the Whydah project losing approximately $5.9 million according to numismatist John Kleeberg, which is par for the course for treasure hunting ventures. To try to raise more money Clifford designed a traveling museum exhibit about pirates, but it has barely broke even. According to one investor, “[t]here isn’t anything left over. It’s enough to keep us in the water.” 32 years later and investors are still waiting for a return.

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Exhuming Atari, or Punk Archaeology Levels Up


A guest blog by Andrew Reinhard, Punk Archaeologist without Borders


There’s vintage, and then there’s old, but time is flexible, relative. If we travel the speed of light on a return orbit back to Earth, we haven’t aged much within ourselves, but the culture of the planet has changed hundreds of times over. Or has it? Maybe it takes an archaeologist to know. Archaeologists travel through space-time continuously, inhaling that mélange of trench-spice putting us simultaneously in the present and the past. We fold space every meter we go down. We rescue the old from the past, view it in the present, and preserve it for the future. Our trench is the singularity tying everything together, a convergence of all time to a single focus. The material artifacts we recover are important only in what they tell of that is of cultural value, both then and now. We cannot predict what the future will think, or what it will believe.

We study our history and our primary sources: Heinrich Schliemann identified the site of Troy from reading Homer. We talk to living primary sources, too: Yannis Lolos talked to locals in tavernas throughout the region of Sikyonia to identify hundreds of sites unknown to anyone outside the villages. Thousands of years have passed, and still the living know where to look, if only you know how (and whom) to ask.

The Atari excavations in Alamagordo, New Mexico, were no different than those at Troy or elsewhere in the ancient world. There was a legend: in 1983 Atari reportedly trucked tons of broken and returned games to a landfill, and over the course of a weekend, the city had the games crushed, then topped with a coating of cement, then buried thirty feet underground, never to be seen again. The New York Times ran a brief story on the event, as did the Alamogordo local newspaper. But before the cement was poured, and before the hole was backfilled, the local kids came to scavenge, plucking all they liked from the pile, escaping into the darkness. They carried the myth with them. Over the next 30 years, the myth grew into an urban legend despite previous reporting and even admission that Atari had dumped its product (most notably the E.T. game) far from its El Paso warehouse. People began postulating that E.T. had almost ruined the nascent gaming industry and nearly destroyed Atari. It didn’t. Video games thrived. But we came quite close to playing cornhole instead of Yar’s Revenge. People are interested in “almost”. And they love secrets.

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Well, now you can study online for your OWLs. A fantasy learning institution, with a slicker website design than most universities, now physically exists in cyberspace. What an odd culture future archaeologists will find us

Well, now you can study online for your OWLs. A fantasy learning institution, with a slicker website design than most universities, now physically exists in cyberspace. What an odd culture future archaeologists will find us

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These are the ‘experts’ that assisted Nat Geo’s “Nazi War Diggers” in Latvia. These are their own videos of their work. Horrible practice, disrespectful treatment of human remains, and sieg heiling over artefacts are only some aspects of the very, very troubling ethical and methodological concerns over the show. Archaeology is always embedded in politics, and this show is a nexus of many problematic issues with conflict archaeology of the modern world. Let Nat Geo know your feelings: 

Russell Barnes, executive producer at ClearStory, production company that made and sold the show to Nat Geo 

Betty Hudson Head PR person for National Geographic   

Victoria Kirker   National Geographic Channel International

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Ruin Lust | Tate

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DigIt! 2015 - Discover Scotland's Stories

DigIt! 2015's flash new website

2015 is the year of Scottish archaeology and the folks at DigIt! 2015 are officially launching the project (and its website) TODAY at Rouken Glen Park. LoveArch will be there - will you?

Sexy Olympic archaeology. Abandonment, and the archaeology of modern society and sport. 

Sexy Olympic archaeology. Abandonment, and the archaeology of modern society and sport. 

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