Pan’s Cave – the secret of the stones

Monumental IconsThere are some heritage sites which are described as iconic.  Many of these sites are designated as World Heritage Sites, and are often a focus of contested histories.  Today, such sites become symbolic nodes in wider landscapes, entangled in conservation yearnings for authenticity, situated in desires for appropriate settings and presented with official heritage narritives for the global tourist.

Large sites with large political dimensions.

Such sites also have traces of individual expression,

Traces (685x1024)centuries worth of names and dates scratched into polished marble, each perhaps a small act craving Athena like immortality.

In contrast to the large public monuments at the top of the Acropolis there are also lesser known sites on its northern west side with deeper, perhaps darker, resonances, which are readily passed by with a touristic rush to the top.  This time the scratchings on stone, reveal the name of Pan.

Pans Cave 1A small labyrinth of arches and passages…

Pans Cave 2Rock Water (1024x685)at the heart of which a primordial water still seeps down the wall.

Pans Cave 3 (685x1024)Pans Cave 6 (685x1024)Parts of the labyrinth clearly still to be revealed…

Pans Cave 4 (1024x685) Pans Cave 5 (1024x685)To the west of Pans cave are the caves of Apollo and Zeus.  Niches carved into the rock, would have held marble tablets inscribed with dedications, now lie empty.

Cave of Zeus (685x1024)Other caves and shrines are found on the north-west side of the Acropolis.

An open air Sanctuary of Aphrodite and Eros has similar recesses for marble inscribed dedications, but here they are no longer empty.

ShrineNearly all have little offerings set within.

Niche 1Niche 2 Niche 3 Niche 4 Niche 5 Niche 6Quartz PotElsewhere pottery and stone has been arranged as small cairns, resting upon rock surfaces.

Micro-cairnTowersMicro-cairn 2What are these offerings, these tokens to Aphrodite and Eros ?


Such small acts are readily overlooked in a landscape dominated by the monumental.
But it is such small acts which so readily give meaning in the activities which may have taken place in the past at such monumental sites.  Fleeting moments, these traces readily fall and disperse, returning to the earth as
simple stones
which carry their secrets.

Power of the Picts

‘History is Silent on The Meaning of These’

I have been reflecting over the past few months on the Power of the Picts.

No I am not referring to the 1969 album ‘Power of the Picts’ by Writing on the Wall.

Rather on a visit to the recent laser scanning of Johnathan’s Cave as part of the Visualising Wemyss Caves Project I was reminded of the rich artistic legacy which has been left by the Picts and its continued ability to inspire creative responses.  The caves at East Wemyss, Fife, have a range of Pictish carvings dating to c AD 300 to 800. These include a series of familiar motifs, including abstract symbols such as double discs and z-rods.

Court Cave CarvingsThere are also more figurative forms of animals including fish, birds and beasts embellishing the walls.  The potent orders of sea, sky and earth combined in the otherworldly darkness of the cave.

Doo Cave Symbols

I must confess it was not these carvings, in the first instance, which started this line of thought.  Rather I had the opportunity to purchase (for a very reasonable price) a tea towel adorned with Pictish Symbols from Wemyss Caves.  I was informed that the piece has been undertaken in support of Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) in 1999 by the artist Marianna Lines.

Pictish Tea TowelThe work of Marianna Lines has involved a technique using natural dyes to produce images directly from Pictish and other stone carvings: she can be seen speaking to comedian / presenter Craig Ferguson in a (long forgotten?) Pictish themed episode of the Dirt Detective ‘Artists with Attitude‘.

Figurine and ClubAs I was thinking about this, I was reminded of another manifestation of the Power of the Picts, I saw nearly ten years ago in a suburban garden.

Clustered SymbolsMirror StoneModern PictThe Power of the Picts had inspired somebody to carve symbols on stones and arrange them in the form of a stone circle.  Evoking perhaps (? unintentionally) the relationship expressed in the early Historic period, where there was often a reuse of earlier prehistoric sites.

Reflecting on the power of Pictish symbol stones to inspire creative responses, I then decided to returned to stones in the National Museum of Scotland and pondered what I saw…

the ‘classic’ symbols…

Symbol Stone, Invereen, MoyThe remarkable Hilton of Cadboll Stone, with exquisite carving in c AD 800 and extended biography: toppled in the 17th century; the carving on the back face was chipped off and commemorative inscription to Alexander Duff and three wives was added; moved to the grounds of Invergordon Castle in 1860; then to the British Museum in 1921; and rapidly returned to Scotland. With a copy being produced in 1998 by sculptor Barry Grove to be placed at the original location.

Hilton of Cadbol Symbol StoneTo a broken slab found from a Fife hilltop not far from East Wemyss: one of my earliest memories of learning about Pictish art was when Professor Leslie Alcock took a class to the top of East Lomond Hill and explained that a fragmentary carving of an ox or bullock had been discovered within the fort at the top (I still remember pondering why, what was it doing up here !).   The discovery in the 19th century of 30 such carved bull stones from the harbour of Burghead, in close proximity to Burghead Pictish fort and remarkable subterranean well, is also highly evocative of the complex relationships to different kinds of place in the past.

East Lomond Hill Symbol StoneSo I was reminded that Pictish symbols on stone, had been deployed across all areas of the landscape from fortified hilltop, close to lowland settlement, in coastal cave and deposited in the sea.

I had not appreciated, that as well as the permanent collection at the National Museum of Scotland (NMS), there is currently a temporary exhibition Creative Spirit.

Creative SpiritA wonderful example of artists and craftspeople being inspired to ‘create again’.

RecreationPictish ThroneThis fantastic project has explored how artist and craftspeople can be informed by past objects but reinterpret them in new ways.  There are some great insights into this process of ‘Bringing the Past to Life‘ on the project website in relation to the wooden Pictish throne, Pictish drinking horns, early Medieval bells and the Loch Glashan leather satchel.

Also amongst the exhibition was portion of a hoard found in Fife, not far from East Wemyss Caves. The Norrie’s Law hoard, is the largest ever hoard of Pictish Silver, and was found in 1819 from the top of a Bronze Age burial mound.  When discovered the hoard was largely plundered and dispersed, but the surviving portion is still remarkable for the quality of craft displayed.

Norrie's Law HoardIntriguingly in 1839, 20 years after its discovery, a silversmith was commissioned to produce pewter replicas of the pieces by antiquarian George Buist: in hope seeing them would encourage people to provide information on the missing pieces.  A silver hand pin and plaque, apparently from the looted hoard of 1819, were then handed in to him.  However recent analysis by X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) has shown these were made from silver so pure they had to date from the 19th century: they were fakes !

Trio of 'Pictish' Pins

Original Pictish Silver Pin, 19th Century Pewter Replica Pin & 19th Silver Fake Pin

Now there is further use of technology by NMS to better understand and piece together the fragments of the past.  With the emergence of new forms of digital heritage, the copies of past sites and objects we can now make can be explored and manipulated in a remarkable range of ways.  For example, the remains of the face of the Hilton of Cadboll stone, which was chipped to pieces in the 17th century, were excavated and have been digitized.  You can spend hours on the Pictish Puzzle from the NMS in an attempt to establish how it may have looked originally.

Pictish PuzzleYet even as I was leaving the museum I encountered another example of the Power of the Picts.  A series of prints by Leslie Reid of Pictish symbols, which are created by carving replicas in sandstone then rubbed with handmade beeswax crayons onto calico cotton.

Burghead Pictish BullI am sure I have only encountered, and mentioned in this blog, a small proportion of the artists and craftspeople whose work is inspired by the legacy of the Picts.  It is clear from archaeological evidence that the Picts were aware of, related to and evoked a more ancient past through their practices.  From what I encountered, there is still a remarkable Power of the Picts in continuing an ongoing conversation through art and craft about our relationships with past and place !


History is Silent on the Meaning of These’
appears on the interpretative signage for the Moy symbol stone in the National Museum of Scotland, referring perhaps in part to the huge debate about what individual symbols may ‘represent’ and whether they had been combined in some form of grammar.
More information about Pictish Stones can be found here as can some three dimensional models of The Maiden Stone , Sueno’s Stone , Aberlemno Stone , Cossans Stone and The Duplin Cross.
The remarkable story of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone is presented in:
A Fragmented Masterpiece: Recovering the Biography of Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Cross-slab
The illustration of the Doo Cave Carvings originates from Stuart, J 1867 Sculptured Stones of Scotland v2, Plate 33 & 34. Edinburgh but displayed on the RCAHMS CANMORE entry for the site.   The picture of the three Norrie’s Law ‘Pictish’ pins is from the National Museum of Scotland Creative Spirit website.



In recent years excavations on Skye have explored a remarkable cave, High Pasture Cave, and rock shelter, Fiscavaig.  Discoveries at both sites suggest they were the focus for ritual, feasting and burial during the Iron Age: more details can be found here.

There will be a free day seminar ‘Underworld: the use of caves, rock shelters and underground places during the Scottish Iron Age’ in Inverness on the 27 April.  Speakers will present on the results of excavation and analysis of these sites, and it should prove to be a very interesting (illuminating !) day.

Illuminating the Darkness The experience of being within cave sites is a topic which I have blogged briefly on before in relation a conference last year on Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual activity in underworlds.  The experience of both the sites on Skye would have been particularly heightened by their landscape context, High Pasture Cave being deep underground with a burn flowing through the limestone of Skye, and the Fiscavaig being at the foot of overhanging basalt sea-cliffs.  The interplay of light, water, sound and rock would have undoubtedly contributed to aspects of ritual at these sites.


Please contact Highland Council Historic Environment Team to confirm your free place at the Underworld day seminar now. Telephone: 01463 702504 Email:

The pictures have been kindly provided by J Sievewright who experienced the remarkable adventure of descending into High Pasture Cave on a trip exploring an art project inspired by the site.