This is the kind of thing that makes archeology exciting. While looking for something else, researchers in Scotland recently discovered the location of the lost Dark Ages kingdom of Rheged, the mysterious sixth century land ruled by King Urien, made famous in early medieval poetry and long believed to have been located near Carlisle and Cumbria. This exciting new discovery and interpretation of carvings puts it instead over 100 km (60 miles) away at Trusty’s Hill Fort in Galloway.
For those who slept through Olde English poetry class, most of what we know about Rheged and King Urein comes from the Book of Taliesin, which is believed to be the work of the poet Taliesin, who is referred to by later poets and writers as Taliesin Ben Beirdd (Taliesin, Chief of Bards) and was assumed to be the king’s bard. The book described the courts of King Urien, his son Owain mab Urien, King Brochfael Ysgithrog of Powys and his successor Cynan Garwyn.
Rheged was annexed to Northcumbria, most likely as the result of a royal marriage, in the early 8th century and historians, while having no physical evidence, have long believed it would eventually be found in Cumbria. Archeologists in the Galloway area instead spent their time excavating and analyzing artifacts related to the Picts, a tribe from the same era known for its carvings in the local bedrock. The Galloway Picts Project began in 2012 to find and study them in greater detail.
What the Galloway Picts researchers found instead, particularly at the location of the Pictish fort on Trusty’s Hill, was evidence not just of a fortification but of an entire working kingdom. That evidence included an entrance-way used for royal parades, a workshop for making metal implements and jewelry and household rooms set up for spinning wool, fashioning products out of leather and preparing foods from beef and grains. Dr. Christopher Bowles, co-director of the project, describes what this discovery means:
This household is likely to have been connected with an international trade network that linked important sites around the Irish Sea with Continental Europe. The power of this royal household was maintained by bonding the people of this land and the districts beyond by gifts, promises of protection and the bounties of raiding and warfare.
With the age of the artifacts dating to the sixth century, the royal household is now believed to be that of King Urein and the area was likely the seat of the kingdom of Rheged until the Trusty’s Hill fort was destroyed by fire in the seventh century – a time that coincides with the end of Rheged and its annexation by Northcumbria that confused historians looking for it.
Researchers are looking at the Pictish carvings with this new information in an attempt to re-interpret their meanings. Unfortunately, finding out more about the lost kingdom may be a lost cause, according to researcher Ronan Toolis.
The literal meaning of the symbols at Trusty’s Hill will probably never be known. There is no Pictish Rosetta Stone. But these symbols and the material culture we recovered provide significant evidence for the initial cross cultural exchanges that forged the notion of kingship in early medieval Scotland.
More information on their discovery can be found in The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged by Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles.