Height: 53.000 cm
Width: 55.000 cm (at base)
Gift of James de Carle Sowerby
Britain, Europe and Prehistory
Room 41: Europe AD 300-1100
Using this on a mobile device? Tap the image to watch.
On desktop, requires Flash player or click image to download.
The Burghead Bull
Pictish, 7th century AD
Found in Burghead, Morayshire, Scotland
Bull from a royal herd
This carved slab is one of six similar stones found together on the site of a major fortress on the north Scottish coast. Each has a similar figure of a bull. Old records mention thirty bull carvings like this uncovered during nineteenth-century building works.
The unique stone sculpture of the Picts is the main form of evidence that survives from these northern Celtic peoples. The uses and meaning of the carvings are not fully understood. Most are on free-standing stones and may have been memorials, like modern headstones, carved with animal portraits and abstract symbols to identify the dead. However these boulders each carved with one bull may have been part of a warrior cult of strength and aggression.
This carving is an example of the early Pictish incised style where the lines are pecked into the surface. The bull is shown in a strong and natural pose, with scrolls emphasizing its muscles and joints. The degree of naturalism is without equal in early medieval art. From the eighth century Pictish carving was in relief, using more complex, often Christian motifs. Standing stones in both styles can be found today throughout the former Pictish homelands of north-eastern Scotland.
I.M. Stead and S. Youngs, Celts, British Museum Pocket Treasury (London, The British Museum Press, 1996)
J. Close-Brooks and R.B.K. Stevenson, Dark Age sculpture (London, HMSO, 1982)
S. Marzinzik, Masterpieces: Early medieval a (London, British Museum Press, 2013)
C. Hicks, 'The Pictish class I animals' in The age of migrating ideas-1 (Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland, 1993), pp. 196-202
C. Johns, Cattle: History, Myth, Art (London, British Museum Press, 2011)
I. Henderson, The Picts (London, Thames and Hudson, 1967)
A. Ritchie, Picts (HMSO, Edinburgh, 1989)