Archaeologists in search for 1,500 year-old axe-wielding Rhynie Man in Scotland

By Ben Miller | 25 August 2015

Stone of Rhynie Man who carried out animal sacrifices could have been created for royal ceremonies

A photo of an ancient carved grey stone showing the Ryhnie Man of Aberdeen
The Rhynie Man carries an axe on his shoulder© University of Aberdeen
Aberdeenshire’s axe-wielding oldest man, preserved in a six-foot Pictish stone carving discovered in a field in 1978, is being pursued with a dig in the village where high-status figures lived during the 5th or 6th century.

With a large pointed nose and a headdress, the Rhynie Man was originally unearthed by local farmer Kevin Alston’s ploughing at Barflat, which archaeologists are investigating alongside excavations at Craw Stane, another nearby Pictish standing stone.

A photo of a grey pictish stone on a green hill near a mountain, known as The Craw Stane in Aberdeen
The Craw Stane is thought to show a salmon and an unknown animal© University of Aberdeen
“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,” says Dr Gordon Noble, of the University of Aberdeen.

“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.

A photo of a series of grey pictish stones within a rural shelter in Aberdeen
A shielded set of the stones© Stanley Howe / geograph.org.uk
“Over the years many theories have been put forward about the Rhynie Man. However, we don’t have a huge amount of archaeology to back any of these up. 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.”

A public open day took place on Saturday (August 22), including stone carving and a Pictish café with Rhynie Woman – an artist collective aiming to raise awareness of the local landscape.

A photo of a diagram of a series of pictish stone symbols on a churchyard path in Rhynie, Aberdeen
A notice outside Rhynie old kirkyard© Stanley Howe / geograph.org.uk
“From the evidence we have already, it looks like the Rhynie Man stood somewhere near the entrance to the fort,” says Dr Noble.

“We want to try and identify exactly where he was standing as this will give us a better idea how he fits into the high status site and what his role may have been.

“The Rhynie Man carries an axe of a form that has been linked to animal sacrifice and we hope to discover more evidence that might support the theory that he was created as part of ceremonies and rituals for high-status events, perhaps even those for early Pictish royal lineages.

“This may also help us to better understand the imagery used and why the Rhynie Man is depicted in this way. Standing at more than six feet high, the stone must have been an impressive sight to anyone coming to Rhynie some 1,500 years ago.”

A further public open day will take place on Saturday (August 29), 10am-5pm.

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Three museums to see Pictish stones in

Elgin Museum
Perhaps the oldest independent museum in Scotland - it was established in 1836 - Elgin's museum includes Pictish stones, fossils and a Romano-Celtic collectio in its Italianate home.

Gairloch Heritage Museum
Home to one of only two pictish stones found on the west coast mainland of Scotland, this award-winning museum also features displays recreating a croft house interior, schoolroom, village shop, parlour and more.

Kirriemuir Gateway to the Glens Museum, Angus
Eighteen finely carved early medieval stone sculptures have been found in Kirriemuir and form part of the museum's collections. '1 - 17' are displayed at the Meffan Museum at Forfar, while number 18 is on display at Kirriemuir. The number of elaborately carved stones found strongly suggests that the area had a sophisticated Christian community in that period.
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