The origin of the Pictish symbols

Logie Elphinstone Pictish symbol stone

Pictish symbols on a stone at Logie Elphinstone in Aberdeenshire (from J. Stuart: Sculptured Stones of Scotland)


Nothing epitomises the mysteriousness of the Picts so much as their symbols. I’ve written about these strange designs in a number of blogposts, as well as in my book The Picts: a History. Like many people I have a particular view on their possible ‘meaning’, while acknowledging that it might not be the correct one. It’s a topic that has always attracted competing theories, as can be seen in the comment threads here at Senchus and in a plethora of other places online. The symbols have been seen as representations of various kinds of objects or ideas – religious, agricultural, astronomical, and so on – or as a form of writing like Egyptian hieroglyphs. My own belief is that they represent the names of individual Picts in a pictorial way that to some extent imitates the Latin alphabet. The latter was adopted by the southern neighbours of the Picts, i.e. the Britons whose lands had been conquered by the Romans. I’ve long tended to assume that this imitation coincided with the appearance of Christian memorial stones among the Britons in the period c. 450 onwards, after the Roman withdrawal. The British memorials I had in mind were those typically inscribed in Latin with ‘X son of Y’ in commemoration of the deceased. It seemed to me that the pairs of symbols on many Pictish stones might be an attempt to replicate this kind of inscription, with the most frequent symbols representing the most common Pictish names. Where three symbols occurred together on a Pictish stone, I interpreted them as commemorating ‘X son of Y son of Z’. I always felt on fairly solid ground with this theory, mainly because I wasn’t alone in supporting it, but I continued to keep an open mind and listened to other explanations. A variant idea, for instance, saw the symbols as name-elements or components that could be combined in different ways to represent complete names.

Last month, the journal Antiquity published an article presenting new research on the chronology and purpose of the Pictish symbols. As one of the most significant contributions to the debate in recent years it has rightly received a lot of media exposure. To anyone with an interest in the symbols I strongly recommend reading this article (see the link below). Briefly, its authors propose that the symbols comprise a system of writing comparable to Irish Ogam and Scandinavian runes. It sees all three systems as responses by non-Romanised ‘barbarian’ cultures to the Latin literacy that had taken root among their neighbours inside the Roman Empire. As far as the Picts are concerned, the key point is that their symbols seem to have originated in the third and fourth centuries AD, contemporary with Ogam and perhaps slightly later than runes. This is a couple of hundred years earlier than the conventional chronology which has tended to place the origin of Pictish symbols in the sixth century, long after the end of Roman rule in northern Europe, rather than in a period when the Empire still flourished.

Assigning precise dates to abstract carvings isn’t an easy task but the new chronology is based on scientific dating of archaeological material from recent excavations at a number of Pictish sites. In Aberdeenshire, at the high-status sites of Dunnicaer and Rhynie, the symbol-carved stones appear to be contemporary with material that can be dated to the third and fourth centuries AD. This is the very period when the Picts were first identified as a distinct group by Roman writers. One crucial piece of data from the excavations at Rhynie is that the main occupation phase lay in this early period. If, as seems likely, the symbol carvings are associated with this phase, we can infer that the symbol system was devised when the notion of Pictishness itself was taking shape, both developments being part of a cultural response to the Romanising, Latinising influences to the south. Like Ogam and runes, the Pictish symbols did not replicate the Latin alphabet but instead offered a home-grown alternative to it that was overtly (and probably deliberately) non-Roman in form. On the purpose of the symbols, the article notes their proximity to carved human figures on a number of later stones (from the eighth century) and suggests that they were ‘labels’ representing personal names in a non-alphabetic way. This fits with my own preferred interpretation as outlined above. Others will find that the article challenges rather than validates their ideas. On the chronology, however, there seems little reason to doubt that the new, earlier origin-date for the Pictish symbols is correct.

Reference and link:
Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg and Derek Hamilton: The development of the Pictish symbol system: inscribing identity beyond the edges of Empire Antiquity vol. 92, no. 365 (October 2018), pp. 1329-1348

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4 comments on “The origin of the Pictish symbols

  1. William J Warman/Waiman,Pasgen ap Urien King/Warmund/Worman says:

    Very interesting

  2. Helen McKay says:

    The dating given in this paper tells us that the symbol stones at Rhynie come from the 3-4 C AD, and the informal carvings on the walls of of ritual caves and the Dunnicaer sea stack a bit earlier. It is such a relief to have broken the old paradigm of late Christian dates, but the paper only gives a date by which the symbols are already present in their integrated form, and obeying their rules of carving, in a few places. In other words, the symbols themselves must be a good bit older again, possibly from the late centuries BC. Which means that, if they are a response to the Romans, which isn’t necessarily the case, then it is the rise of the early Roman empire in Europe that is precipitating them.

  3. Helen McKay says:

    The notion that the symbols hold names is easily refuted, by maths and by linguistics. https://www.academia.edu/36379910/WHY_THE_PICTISH_SYMBOLS_ARENT_NAMES_ALMOST.docx?fbclid=IwAR3_cjNEG84DAxd0aQTpWSRzzlxbC8wnR04-gK9SJiRzEtWc7JG82q1NC5Q (This note also looks at the other two seminal papers, that of Forsyth and Samson.) The authors of the Antiquity paper are not linguists themselves, but archaeologists. Unfortunately it is this incorrect language aspect of their paper which has been grabbing headlines around the world, probably because in the end people really just want to know what the symbols ‘mean’.

    • Tim says:

      Thank you for posting a link to your article, Helen. You make a very good case for rejecting the symbols=names theory. A big problem for those of us who still favour it is, as you point out, the need to explain why the Crescent+V-Rod and a couple of other symbols outnumber the rest. The most obvious explanation (i.e. that the Pictish elites over-used a tiny handful of personal names) is indeed difficult to sustain without some kind of special pleading.

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