On a barren hill in the wilds of Scotland, a team of archaeologists is hard at work. They’ve been digging for four years, hoping to discover the meaning behind a series of mysterious carvings. And as they learn more about the site, they realize that an age-old legend may be about to be uncovered.
Compared to other, more well-documented eras of British history, relatively little is known about the period that came between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. With few records, artifacts or artworks to study, historians unsurprisingly refer to it as the Dark Ages.
And consequently, in the absence of verifiable history, many myths and legends have sprung up to fill the gaps. The most famous of these is that of King Arthur, the legendary king who was said to have united Britain against Saxon invaders.
But while King Arthur was said to reign from the kingdom of Camelot in the south, the northern part of Britain had its own ancient realms. In the region of Yr Hen Ogledd, or the “Old North,” the land of Rheged was home to its own legendary king.
Urien Rheged is thought to have ruled at some time in the late 6th century. Legends say, moreover, that he went on to become a figure at King Arthur’s court. But while scholars debate the likelihood of Camelot’s existence, most agree that Rheged was once a real kingdom.
Further, it is believed that Rheged once covered much of what is now Cumbria, a county in northern England. Some believe that the kingdom of Rheged stretched as far as Dumfries and Galloway in southern Scotland and perhaps even down to Rochdale, England – a distance of around 150 miles.
Urien and his descendants are believed to have ruled over Rheged for some time. However, in the year 638 the princess Riemmelth married a prince from nearby Northumbria, and the two kingdoms subsequently became one. Old English supplanted Cumbric, the language of Rheged. And consequently, the once-distinct realm faded into obscurity.
Today, most of what is known about Rheged comes from the writings of the Welsh monk Nennius and the Celtic poet Taliesin. Yet despite continued interest in the ancient kingdom, experts have historically failed to pin down its exact location and borders.
However, in 2012 archaeologists in Galloway, Scotland, were working on what they thought was an entirely different problem. At a local site known as Trusty’s Hill, they had discovered symbols left by an ancient people known as the Picts.
But there was one problem. The Picts were known to have inhabited northern and eastern Scotland. Galloway, however, is in the southwest of the country. What, then, could they have been doing there?
When the symbols were rendered in the early Middle Ages, Galloway would in fact have been home to another ancient people – Britons – rather than Picts. So just how did these Pictish inscriptions find their way to Trusty’s Hill?
Intrigued, a team of archaeologists from the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society set out to answer that question. But what they ended up finding would surprise them all.
As archaeologists and volunteers began to dig, they soon realized that Pictish carvings weren’t the only things buried on Trusty’s Hill. Yes, they also discovered the remains of ancient stone and wooden fortifications, suggesting that the hill had once been a stronghold of sorts.
And that wasn’t all. In fact, on the lower slopes of the hill they found evidence of a series of enclosures and defensive structures. These finds meant that Trusty’s Hill could be classified as a “nucleated fort” – a type of structure usually built to house royalty.
Moreover, further investigations confirmed the theory that Trusty’s Hill had once been a fortress of some significance. In fact, archaeologists began to suspect that the site could once have been the center of an ancient kingdom.
Excavations revealed that rooms in the fortress had once been set aside for production, with evidence of leatherwork and food preparation having been discovered at the site. Also uncovered was a workshop, where it’s thought that jewelry and metal tools were once forged.
Perhaps what’s most impressive, however, is that the archaeologists also found evidence of a symbol-covered entrance to the fort. Marked by Pictish carvings and featuring a basin cut from the rock, it has been compared to a ritualistic pathway discovered at the ancient fort of Dunadd in Argyll and Bute, Scotland.
And just as Dunadd was likely once the capital of Dal Riata – an ancient Scottish kingdom – some began to suspect that Trusty’s Hill had been of similar significance in its day. So, when the site was dated to the year 600, archaeologists began wondering if they had finally uncovered the center of the mysterious kingdom of Rheged.
Indeed, although nobody can be entirely certain that Trusty’s Hill really was the capital of the Rheged of legend, the evidence seems to point towards this conclusion. In 2016, for example, two members of the archaeological team published a book about their findings. Its title? The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged: the Discovery of a Royal Stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, Galloway.
So, the builders of the ancient hill fort have likely been identified. But unfortunately, the Pictish carvings that pointed researchers in the right direction remain a mystery. With no means of translating them, archaeologists suspect, sadly, that their true meaning may never be discovered.