Almost nothing is known about the Picts. These mysterious people dominated Scotland for around 1200 years—yet sometime around 900 A.D., they vanished, leaving no writings and just a scattering of archaeological sites. Now, a discovery on the remote island of Rousay adds another fragment to these sparse details about Europe’s lost people: the smeared handprint of a long-forgotten metalsmith, left on his stone anvil.
The anvil was found in an excavation co-led by Stephen Dockrill, senior lecturer in archaeology at the U.K.’s University of Bradford. Staff and students from the City University in New York worked with archaeologists to excavate the remains of the substantial Pictish settlement on the island. Rising tides are eroding the structures there, forcing archaeologists to act quickly to salvage what they can. But while no one knew quite what they’d find, Dockrill said they were so taken aback by the discovery of such human evidence of the structure’s former occupier, excavators initially assumed they had left the prints themselves.
“Analysis of crucible fragments and the floor deposits demonstrated that a coppersmith worked in the building,” Dockrill told The Guardian. “The analysis of the floor enables us to say with confidence where the smith worked, next to a hearth and two stone anvils. The biggest surprise came when we lifted the larger stone anvil and cleaned it; we could see carbon imprints of the smith’s knees and hands.”
A closer view of the handprint.
The smith worked in cramped, uncomfortable conditions, half-underground. To reach it, the handprint’s owner would have made his way down a curving passageway and through a hinged door. A well-placed stone protected the site from drafts. The near darkness, a blog post from the Swandro-Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust explains, would have helped him see the glowing metal and gauge its temperature by its color. Knelt by the hearth, he held each piece of metal over the flames, then quickly moved it to the anvil before shaping it. Researchers estimate that the prints are from as long as 1,500 years ago, though it’s hoped that carbon dating will clarify their age.