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The Fires of Tap O’ Noth

What Did the Ancient Picts Know and When Did They Know It?

Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen admit being amazed by their latest discoveries at Tap O’ Noth, an ancient Scottish settlement. The virtual iron age metropolis in Aberdeenshire may, at some point, have been populated by as many as 4,000, in about 800 huts, high atop a hill near the modern town of Rhynie. Generally believed to be Pictish, the community has been carbon dated to as early as the third century AD, and, say the scientists, was one the the largest post-Roman settlements ever found either in Europe or the British Isles. (

Some historians believe King Arthur’s bride Guinevere was a Pictish princess, but the lost Pict people of Scotland have long been considered, though highly artistic, still, quite primitive. That view has been challenged by some recent research, like that at a Pictish monastery at Portmahomack on the Tarbat peninsula in Scotland, demonstrating that as early as AD 500, Pictish artisans and architects were using the ‘golden section’ or ‘golden ratio’ in the building of Christian chapels. Expressed numerically at 1.618, the ratio appears often in nature and has been a frequent tool of sophisticated designers in both ancient and modern cultures.

Yet, with all the amazement over the sheer size and advancement of the site at Tap O’Noth, there is still no believable explanation for one of its greatest mysteries, and, indeed, of many other such hillforts. How was it that so many of their ancient walls, when destroyed, were turned to glass, or ‘vitrified?’ But, they were. Some enclosures in this category are as old as 2500 hundred years, yet the remains of their walls were melted by some—as yet unexplained—heat source, far greater than that of any known furnace for centuries to come.

As recently as 2018, at the vitrified fort of Dun Deardail, researchers from Scotland’s Stirling University claimed that they could now explain how the ancient stone walls became molten and melted. But, critics point out, even though the researchers succeeded in experimentally producing some very hot spots, the spots were relatively tiny, and far short of what would have been needed to generate the massive melting of stone now evident.

The Stirling experiment was the latest to take up the vitrification question, first faced in 1934 by University of Edinburgh archaeologist Gordon Childe. According to researcher Nick Redfern writing for Atlantis Rising Magazine in 2016, Childe and his team “carefully constructed a series of walls that were comprised of fire-clay bricks, timber, and basalt rubble. They then proceeded to place no less than four tons of brushwood, and extra timber, against the walls and set them on fire.” The ultimate result of more than four tons of burning brushwood and extra timber, was, alas, just a few, melted droplets. Obviously, a concentrated, far more powerful, longer-lasting heat source had vitrified the fortresses.

Building on the Childe effort, Dr. Ian Ralston (at Edinburgh University’s Department of Archaeology) undertook, in 1980, an even more ambitious project in northeast Scotland, when he built his own twenty-five-foot-long, partial recreation of a stone fort. In 2004, renowned futurist Arthur C. Clarke described the Ralston experiment on his Mysterious World television series. “Professional dry-stone wallers toiled for days to build the wall of rock laced with timber,” which was set alight. “After several hours and many tons of wood, a load of old furniture has to be commandeered from the local dustman, as the only way to keep the temperature up. Later, another consignment of wood, the sixth of the day, arrives to keep the fires burning. As night falls over Aberdeen, weary helpers begin to realize the true extent of the mystery of the vitrified forts, to wonder not only how the fort builders could achieve the searing temperatures needed to melt the rock, but how they managed to drag vast quantities of wood up to the tops of the hills with only primitive transport. The morning after … twenty-two hours after the first fire was lit … at first sight, the result looks disappointing. There are no ramparts of fused stone. The search is now on for any rocks that have melted” (, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World).

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The Heat of Battle

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The Heat of Battle