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who is the rider, what is he doing and why is he there?

7-8 October 2023


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THE BULLION STONE: who is the rider, what is he doing and why is he there?

The Bullion Stone was found at Invergowrie in Angus while constructing the Dundee ring-road, in 1934. It was given by Angus County Council to the National Museum of Scotland where it has become a visitors’ favourite. In spite of appearing on a popular range of museum merchandise, little is known about the meaning and purpose of this quintessentially Pictish figure. The simple image of a warrior drinking copiously from his horn while his weary horse plods on demands explanation. This international on-line conference will demonstrate how much the endearing figure reveals about contemporary Pictish society, within an historical context. Summaries follow the running order.

Saturday 7 October


13.30-13.40  Log on 

13.40-13.50  Welcome remarks

13.50-14.30      Keynote Speaker: Victoria Whitworth.  ‘Wine is a luxurious thing, and drunkenness riotous; whosoever is delighted therewith, shall not be wise’: Solitary Excess, the Misuse of Power, and the Bullion Stone

14.30-14.40      Q&A

14.40-15.20      Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha.  Taking the pledge: clientship, drinking and dying in medieval Ireland

15.20-15.30      Q&A

15.30-15.50  Break

15.50-16.30      Cullen J. Chandler.  Drinking in Frankish Society

16.30-16.40      Q&A

16.40-17.20      Carol Neuman de Vegvar. The Bullion Stone rider and his drinking horn

17.20-17.30      Q&A

17.30-17.35      Closing remarks


Sunday 8 October


13.30-13.40  Log on 

13.40-13.50  Welcome remarks

13.50-14.30      Jane Geddes. Bullion Man, Silenus, and the Classical Dimension

14.30-14.40      Q&A

14.40-15.20      Louisa Campbell.  The Roman Rider: a Precursor to Pictish Practice?

15.20-15.30      Q&A

15.30-15.50  Break

15.50-16.30      Rena Maguire.  Low Rider: an archaeo-equestrian analysis of the Bullion Stone 

16.30-16.40      Q&A

16.40-17.20      Mark Hall.  Looking for Gowrie: a Geo-Cultural Context for the Bullion Stone

17.20-17.30      Q&A

17.45-18.00  Closing remarks


Tickets £12



‘Wine is a luxurious thing, and drunkenness riotous: whosoever is delighted therewith, shall not be wise’: Solitary Excess, the Misuse of Power, and the Bullion Stone

This paper will revisit and develop some of the points I made in conclusion in my 2022 PAS paper on the Bullion Stone, where I briefly drew attention to Biblical criticism of men on horseback and drunkenness, and their echoes in Insular writing such as Gildas’s De Excidio Britonum. Alcohol, weaponry and horses – the attributes of Bullion Man – are markers of masculine status, adulthood, bonding, and companionship, all capable of both use and abuse. Here I take a much deeper dive into Biblical texts and commentaries, and Insular literature and iconography, as well as providing an anthropological framework for understanding the complex functions of alcohol in a face-to-face Late Iron Age society. I will also consider issues of date, the self-conscious deployment of genre and convention, and the relationship of Bullion Man to other transgressive and solitary figures in Pictish Art.
Dr Victoria Whitworth, formerly of Orkney College UHI, is now a freelance writer and independent scholar in Edinburgh. She has a forthcoming book on the Book of Kells (London: Head of Zeus) and is completing a monograph re-evaluating the stone sculpture of the 9th to 11th centuries in southern Scotland, northern England, and the Isle of Man (Oxford: OUP). 


Taking the pledge: clientship, drinking and dying in medieval Ireland

This paper will consider some of the abundant evidence in early medieval Irish sources for the role of the comól'communal drinking, drinking feast' in reinforcing the loyalty of clients to their lords, particularly in the context of military service.  It will look at realistic and ritualistic aspects of the comól (drink-types, ceremonial cups and their circulation, seating arrangements, the swearing of oaths, the uses of poetry and song, the timing of the comól). Finally, the question of how Irish contemporaries might have interpreted the work of the Bullion Stone artist will be broached.

Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha is Prof. Emeritus of Old and Middle Irish at the University of Galway.  She has edited and translated a wide range of texts from the period 700–1200 and later, and is particularly interested in the socio-cultural context of medieval Irish literature, including the links between patronage, poetry, drink and violence.



Drinking in Frankish Society

Bullion Man is clearly an early medieval elite warrior, mounted on a horse and drinking from a horn. He rides rather than sits with his comrades in the warm and happy confines of a great hall. He is also a product of Pictish imagination, and there is precious little textual evidence for social and cultural meanings of drinking among the Picts. This paper seeks to provide a parallel for thinking about Pictish drinking culture by drawing on what can be known about the better-documented, contemporary society of the Franks. As might be expected, we see two attitudes toward drinking among the Franks, one approving of conviviality and building a sense of camaraderie, the other admonitory about drunkenness and loss of control. The Franks also distinguished between high- and low-status alcoholic drinks. Wine, inherited from the Mediterranean culture of Rome and so important to Christianity, was superior to beer. The Franks were not the only people in the early medieval west to hold these notions about drinking, so in sharing what insights I can on Frankish drinking culture, I hope to offer ideas that may be of help in trying to fully understand the context of Bullion Man.

Cullen Chandler is the Frank and Helen Lowry Professor of History at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where he also serves as Director of the Lycoming Scholars program for high-achieving undergraduates. He teaches broadly in ancient and medieval European history (and a bit beyond) and researches the Carolingian period in particular. In fact, he is currently finalizing a survey treatment of the period, “A History of the Carolingian Age,” and progressing on a project about early medieval food and culture. He serves on the editorial board of The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe ( His recent publications include “Charlemagne’s Table: The Carolingian Royal Court and Food Culture,” Viator 50.1 (2019): 1-30; Carolingian Catalonia: politics, culture and identity in an imperial province, 778-987. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.



One for the road: The Bullion Stone rider and his drinking horn

The Bullion Stone rider, drinking from a large horn while its avian terminal stares back at him, has numerous but inexact parallels in visual imagery and material culture, complicating rather than clarifying the stone's iconography. Early medieval metalwork from drinking horns has rarely been found in Scottish archaeology; finds are mostly from western coastal sites with strong Norse connections, but multiple appearances of drinking horns in stone sculpture indicate that they were known in Scotland, and horns decorated with fine metalwork may also have figured in diplomatic gift exchange within and beyond the Insular world. However, the Bullion rider's solitude is anomalous: figures holding drinking horns elsewhere in Pictish/Scottish sculpture are not alone and probably relate variously to the social uses of horns. Drinking while riding is also an uncommon motif: two 10-11 century spur pricks from Cotes in Charnwood (Leics.), and Seehausen (Saxony-Anhalt) are the Bullion Stone's closest early medieval parallels. The Bullion horn's avian terminal reflects metalwork examples found in Germany and Scandinavia starting in the Iron Age, in England beginning in the 6th century and in Ireland from the 8th century onward. However, all early medieval Insular horn terminals discovered to date originally faced away from the drinker, perhaps to keep watch while the user's sight was partially blocked. The Bullion terminal's pivot to face the rider is paralleled in a 1st-century bovine terminal from a horn or staff from Needham (Norfolk), but chronological discontinuity makes a connection improbable. The focused gaze of the Bullion terminal, directed at the drinking rider, probably participates in the relief's overall meaning by deviating from contemporary material-culture norms. 

Carol Neuman de Vegvar is professor emerita of art history at Ohio Wesleyan University. Her work focuses on the social roles of objects and images; she writes on drinking horns and the contexts of feasting. Recent publications include 'Minding the Gaps: Early medieval elite sites in England and the perimeters of current knowledge', in Global Perspectives on Early Medieval Britain, ed. Karen Jolly and Britton Brooks, (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2022), pp. 53-73; and 'Beyond Valkyries: Drinking horns in Anglo-Saxon women’s graves', in New Readings on Women and Early Medieval English Literature and Culture: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Honor of Helen Damico, ed. Christine Kozikowski and Helene Scheck, CARMEN Monographs and Studies (Leeds: Arc-Humanities Press, 2020), pp. 43-60.



Bullion Man, Silenus, and the Classical Dimension

Bullion Man is a drunken warrior on horseback holding his drinking horn. Although unique in Pictland, he appears to be a quintessentially Pictish creation, in every material detail. However this image or trope can be traced back to the classical god Silenus, teacher to Dionysus/Bacchus. He appears in a similar pose in Roman art, and he was subject of a cult in Roman Britain. He occurs in the context of Bacchus’ entourage, along with hippocamps and centaurs, hybrids well recognised as classical imports into Pictish iconography. Far from being disreputable and a figure of fun, Bacchus (plus entourage) was appropriated by Emperor Constantine as a suitable persona for imperial iconography.  This talk compares Bullion Man with classical imagery, and then examines the cult of Silenus himself, its context, followers and function. Silenus, centaurs and hippocamps are all participants in the Bacchic gatherings depicted on Roman tableware. It is proposed that all these three images reached Pictland through treasures like the Traprain and Mildenhall hoard, and all of them were rapidly assimilated and modified to suit Pictish tastes. 

Professor Jane Geddes is President of the Pictish Arts Society. She formerly taught at the University of Aberdeen and is author of Hunting Picts: early medieval sculpture at St Vigeans, and the catalogue of early sculpture at St Andrews Cathedral for Historic Environment Scotland.



The Roman Rider: A Precursor to Pictish Practice? 

It is helpful to consider the iconography that Pictish artisans would have been exposed to which influenced their representation of horseback riders in the development of stone carving traditions. This paper tracks the trajectory of horsemanship through iconography from Antiquity up to the post-Roman period. Iconic scenes of Roman cavalrymen riding down and impaling northern warriors with spears are more common occurrences on the frontiers, rather than overtly inebriated riders. Instead, monumental sculpted reliefs depict brutal representations of battle-ready riders on military campaigns with roots in Greek traditions. On the surface this theme differs markedly from the Pictish tradition, but the depiction of noble mounted warriors is evidently a golden thread running through practices from other cultural contexts that Pictish sculptors were exposed to and would very likely have had influence on their chosen themes, if not direct emulation of protagonists in action.  

Dr Louisa Campbell is the Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Leadership Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. Her research crosses traditional disciplinary divides by using emerging heritage materials science techniques to analyse polychromy on sculpture from Prehistory to the Medieval period. Her research has led to rediscovering previously unexplored layers of meaning bound up in monumental sculptures and sculpted relief.



Low Rider: an archaeo-equestrian analysis of the Bullion Stone

The Bullion Stone, dating circa AD 900, shows an unflattering depiction of a horse and rider in the Pictish art style. By examining the image using knowledge of equitation past and present, details of Pictish equestrianism can be gained, while comparison to other images through Scotland may shed light on extinct animal types and riding methods. 

  Rena Maguire is an IRC-Funded Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in University College Dublin, Ireland. She specialises in Iron Age material culture, particularly metalwork, but especially ancient equitation and lorinery and has published extensively on these topics, including the Times Literary Supplement -recommended Liminal Horse (Trivent publications), and  Irish Late Iron Age Equestrian Equipment in its Insular and Continental Context ( Archaeopress).



Looking for Gowrie: A Geo-Cultural Context for the Bullion Stone 

This paper will move away from the specifics of the Bullion Stone to think about its find spot of Invergowrie as one of the places of Gowrie. When and what was Gowrie? The aim will be to explore the possible extent of this kingdom specifically through an assessment of the locations and range of the surviving early medieval sculptures and other elements of material culture. The boundary with Atholl will be a particular focus of attention. 

Dr Mark Hall currently curates the archaeology collections at Perth Museum. He has a long standing interest in things Pictish and is currently working on the new Perth Museum project, which will include the display of all the Museum’s Pictish sculpture for the first time.

The Pictish Arts Society




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