Nakedness, tattoos and man buns - how Pictish warriors shook up the enemy

Tattoos and nakedness were two key looks of the Pictish warrior. PIC Wikicommons
Tattoos and nakedness were two key looks of the Pictish warrior. PIC Wikicommons
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They were positioned on the front line of battle, naked and painted with tattoos to “taunt and fearlessly flaunt themselves” in front of the Roman enemy.

Armed with spears topped with a round metal knob, the Pictish warriors were also equipped with another, more secret, weapon - the man bun.

This wooden replica of the 7th Century Collessie Man is said to depict the top knot hairstyle favoured by the Pictish warrior. The 'man bun' said to make fighters look taller to their enemy. PIC Flickr/Creative Commons.

This wooden replica of the 7th Century Collessie Man is said to depict the top knot hairstyle favoured by the Pictish warrior. The 'man bun' said to make fighters look taller to their enemy. PIC Flickr/Creative Commons.

While the male top knot has recently enjoyed a fleeting style revival, the northern tribes were using the look more than 1,300 years ago to strike unease into their enemies.

The Picts use of the hairstyle is depicted on the Collessie Man in Fife, a standing stone which dates from the 7th Century.

Elizabeth Sutherland, in her seminal book In Search of the Picts, notes how the hairstyle was documented by Tacitus, the Roman historian.

READ MORE: Why did the Picts mysteriously disappear?

In his work Germania 38, Tacitus referred to the “Suebian knot” worn by the Celto/Germanic tribe of the Suebi which was copied by others .

“The hair is twisted back so that is stands erect and is often knotted on the very crown of the head,” Tacitus said.

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The historian added that the hairstyle was not meant to please the ladies but to “give tribesmen extra height with which to frighten their enemies.”

Sutherland said the nakedness of the warriors gave the fighters both freedom to move during battle and an opportunity to show off the elaborate body decoration of tribes people described as the Picti, or painted people, by the Romans.

Tattooing or body painting was relatively common among people “north and north east of the civilised world,” noted Sutherland.

She added: “The custom may have lapsed during Roman times elsewhere in Europe but was retained by the Picts owing to what Thomas calls their ‘isolated conservatism’.”

How the tattooing was done is also detailed in Sutherland’s book, using accounts from the 7th Century and beforee.

A needle working with tiny punctures, together with the squeezed-out juice of native herbs were the basic tools.

Sutherland said: “The skin was pricked by bone or iron pins and rub bed with soot or herbal dyes to give it colour. Perhaps it was done with needles drawing threads under the skin to raise the flesh. It must have been an extremely painful undertaking and may possible have been combined with initiation rites.

“The primary reason for tattooing was probably to distinguish one tribal group from another in battle, as with standards carried by soldiers in another age.

“Personal pride and prestige would also have been important.”