The Mystery of the Rhynie Man
Back in 1978, Gavin Alston, an Aberdeenshire farmer was ploughing his field when he uncovered a 6 foot high Pictish stone. The stone was carved with a distinctive figure carrying an axe, it quickly earned the name the ‘Rhynie Man’, coined from the village in which it was found. It was ploughed up on Barflat Farm in March 1978 and is a rare example of a small series of Pictish stones depicting figures, probably dating from the sixth or seventh centuries AD.
The Rynie Man is widely acknowledged as the finest carved single figure in Pictish art ever found in Scotland. Only a hand full of carvings depicting figures have been found dating back to the Pictish period. The Picts are one of the great mystery of pre Scottish history so clues about this time would unearth a time lost.
The stone depicts a man, with a large pointed nose wearing a headdress and carrying an axe over his shoulder, he is clad in some sort of sleeved garment that comes to his knee. He appears to be walking.
So who was he? There is now a theory that The Rhynie Man may have guarded a Pictish Fort. The stone was placed at what looks like the entrance to a large Pictish fort, which evidence is pointing to it being a Royal Pictish site, and that the so-called Rhynie Man’s ax may have been a type that was used for ceremonies and animal sacrifice.
The Barflat – a Royal Pictish Fort?
Discoveries around Rhynie show how significant this region was during the time of the Picts, making it likely to be the key seat of power and a royal settlement in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Rhynie’s local mountain, Tap o’ Noth, with its supremely defensive Caledonian triple-ringed hillfort, can be seen for 30 miles in all directions. It is an Aberdeenshire landmark.
Eight Pictish symbol stones have been found at Rhynie, the other notable stone is the Craw Stone, this still stands in it’s original position. The Universities of Aberdeen and Chester have found definitive evidence of three fortified enclosures south of the town — a triple power center — in Rhynie’s ‘Royal Mile’ at Barflat, where an unprecedented total of eight Pictish (AD5th-6thCC) carved stones have been unearthed over the years, under the unseeing gaze of Caledonian Tap o’Noth.
It is also speculated that the famous Roman battle of Mons Graupius (AD83) took place in this area.
How to date him?
Because there is nothing really to compare the Rhynie Man and the stone he is carved on makes dating him extremely difficult. The absence of even a vague idea of a date makes it very difficult to agree what the stone actually depicts.
But there are no shortage of theories. The stone could date to any time between the 500s and the 800s. If it is of an early date, then Rhynie Man could be a depiction of the Celtic God Esus, who the Picts’ predecessors, the Celts, depicted as a woodman with an axe (and to whom they sacrificed victims who they strung up from trees). Alternatively, if the stone is of a later date, it could represent a Pictish King or a figure from legend, or even St Matthew.
Whoever the figure is intended to represent, he has a disproportionately large head complete with a distinctive haircut, beaked nose, pointed teeth and a long beard. He is wearing a tunic belted at the waist. It has been suggested that the very thin shaft of the axe Rhynie Man is carrying means it is intended for ceremonial purposes rather than as a weapon or a tool.
Where he lives
After the stone was first unearthed, Rhynie Man was housed in a small museum in the primary school until that was dismantled. It was decided then it should go to Aberdeen and everybody at that time allowed it to happen. The council said there was no suitable place to house the stone in Rhynie. A fibreglass replica was installed at the entrance to Rhynie School.
New findings at the same site
In 2011 excavations at Rhynie, near the site of the “Rhynie Man”, by archaeologists from Aberdeen University and Chester University uncovered a substantial fortified settlement dating to the early medieval period.
Shards of a Roman amphora, dating to c. 600, were found at Rhynie. Similar pots have been found at other high status royal sites across Europe; in Scotland, these are limited to Whithorn and Dumbarton.
Archaeologists working at the excavation have speculated that the settlement may have been a royal site occupied by Pictish kings
In 2012, the team found an axe-headed pin–their ‘star find’–which is very similar in appearance to the axe the ‘Rhynie Man’ carries (both pictured below). Dr Noble suggested this may have been a depiction of a ceremonial axe used to sacrifice cattle. The pin features an animal head biting down on the blade, with a curved tail sweeping down the shaft.
A Body Discovered
The remains of a body, believed to be that of a Pictish prince or princes were uncovered in a carefully made sandstone grave at the same site the Rhynie Man was found, adding to the theory that this was a royal site.
In 2013, archaeologists excavated a projecting ditch at the entrance of the site. Dr Noble compared this to Roman camps which had similar features intended to prevent a direct charge. While the site at Rhynie was clearly not defensible, the ditch may have been a symbolic defense of the site. Dr Noble concluded by highlighting the successful community engagement enjoyed by the excavation team, which included a Pictish café selling Rhynie Man gingerbread!
Rhynie Man stone scanned
The original Rhynie Man sculpture laser. This was a massive undertaking done by professionals from Liverpool Museum. The laser scan should provide us with a high quality 3D dataset. By analysing this dataset, they aim be able to ask questions about how the stone was carved. I can not find anything about what the results of this were
A custody battle between the residents of the village where it was unearthed and the local authority headquarters where it is on display. The most important Pictish Stone had just been placed at the entrance to the Woodhill House headquarters of Aberdeenshire Council in Aberdeen, standing next to all the mugshots of the council employees. A female artists collective known as “Rhynie Woman”, spearheaded a campaign backed by the local community council to have Rhynie Man returned to the village to help boost tourism.
Sadly this ancient stone is still in the entrance of the council offices.
On valentines day this year the Aberdeenshire community celebrated it’s love for this famous stone; letters and poems written by pupils at Rhynie School were delivered to the Pictish stone known as the Rhynie Man.
Council Archaeologist, Bruce Mann, said: “This is the first time I’ve heard of Valentine’s cards being sent to a Pictish stone and I love that members of the Rhynie community have done this to celebrate their area’s history.”
Claire Conner, Head Teacher at Rhynie Primary School, said: “The children loved making the cards. The project has fired imaginations and we will be taking this work forward in school through writing and art, to make sure Rhynie Man is never far from our thoughts.”
Now a team of archaeologists from Aberdeen University are preparing to dig deep into an Aberdeenshire field to solve a 1,000-year-old mystery.
Dr Gordon Noble, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the university, will be leading the excavation.
He said: “We did significant work at Rhynie in 2011 and 2012, and identified that the area was a high-status and possibly even royal Pictish site.
“We found many long distance connections such as pottery from the Mediterranean, glass from France and Anglo-Saxon metal work with evidence to suggest that intricate metalwork was produced on site.
“However, we don’t have a huge amount of archaeology to back any of these up so we want to explore the area in which he was found in much greater detail to yield clues about how and why he was created, and what the carved imagery might mean.”
So The Rhynie Man, a Royal Guard, a God or just a local man?