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What lies beneath?

From Pictland to Scotland
Tarbat Discovery Centre, Portmahomack (formerly St Colman’s Church)

Some years ago I read New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh’s novel When in Rome, in which her suave gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn joins a select group on a murderous tour of the Basilica di San Tommaso.

The setting is based on a real church, the Basilica di San Clemente, an ancient site where archaeologists have discovered at least three levels of buildings, the oldest being deep under the present ground level.

On top sits the 12th century basilica. However, below that archaeologists have unearthed a 4th-century basilica, originally part of the sumptuous home of a Roman nobleman. Below that again, is a lower basement which served as a mithraeum (a temple for the worship of Mithras) until that religion was outlawed. It’s even possible that the home of that wealthy Roman nobleman had been built on the foundations of a much older republican-era building, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of AD 64. These discoveries have shed a great deal of light on the turbulent history of Rome and the varied lifestyles of its inhabitants.

But what has this to do with our mysterious ancestors, those elusive Picts? Those tribes who spoke a Celtic language and lived from the 3rd to the 9th centuries in eastern Scotland? Just as there’s been a lot of digging in Rome, discovering what lies beneath, there has been a surge in archaeological projects in Scotland in recent years. These excavations have unearthed finds that have added greatly to our knowledge and understanding of the Picts.

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