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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Pictish symbol stone discovered at Dyce

Pictish symbols

Pictish symbols: mirror (top), triple disc and notched rectangle.

A Pictish symbol stone has been discovered on the banks of the River Don at Dyce near Aberdeen. This exciting find was publicised today and is understandably attracting a lot of attention on social media. New discoveries of early medieval sculpture are as rare in Scotland as anywhere else, so the unearthing of a previously unknown Pictish stone is a significant event.

Photographs of the new stone published online show the carved symbols to be well preserved and easily identifiable. Archaeologists have recognised a triple disc, a notched rectangle and a mirror. The stone itself is an unshaped boulder with no overtly Christian carvings, so it falls into the category known as ‘Class I’. It was probably carved between the sixth and eighth centuries AD, before the influence of the Church led to Pictish sculpture becoming more sophisticated. Stones from the later classes tend to have regular shapes and Christian iconography. A common form of Class II, for example, is an upright slab with an ornate cross carved on one face and Pictish symbols on the other.

The new stone came to light because water levels in the Don had fallen after weeks of warm, dry weather. A fisherman spotted the stone and informed the University of Aberdeen, where the archaeology department is a renowned centre of research on the Picts. Historic Environment Scotland, the national archaeological body, subsequently became involved, together with the local authority and AOC Archaeology. A specialist team retrieved the stone from the river so that it can be conserved, studied and eventually put on display.

By the time my blogpost appears, the discovery of this stone will no doubt be well known in Scotland and beyond. I look forward to following the story in the weeks and months ahead. More information is sure to appear, with social media a good place to look for updates. With this in mind, I’ve included a useful and relevant Twitter account in the links below.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Dyce is already a familiar place on the Pictish sculpture map. At the ruined church of St Fergus are several stones, two of which stand out as fine examples of Class I and Class II respectively. The former is carved with two symbols while the latter has four. Common to both is the enigmatic ‘crescent and V-rod’ and I wonder if it might be significant that the Class II stone also shares the equally mysterious ‘triple disc’ with the new stone from the river.

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LINKS

The Scotsman newspaper: Stunning Pictish stone discovered in river by fisherman

Twitter: Bruce Mann (archaeologist for several local authorities including Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire) I regularly retweet news from Bruce Mann at my own account Early Scotland

Pictish stones at Dyce, St Fergus’ Church (Canmore database)

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Dandaleith Pictish Stone

Dandaleith Pictish Stone
This fabulous monument is a fairly recent addition to Scotland’s corpus of Dark Age sculpture, having been discovered only three years ago. It was unearthed in a field at Dandaleith Farm near Craigellachie in Moray and, after conservation work, is now on display in Elgin Museum.

It stands 1.7 metres tall and is a typical example of a “Class I” stone, being adorned with Pictish symbols but lacking any overtly Christian motifs. The date of carving is probably within the range 550 to 650 AD. Unusually, it has symbols on adjacent faces (or sides) instead of on one face only.

The symbols comprise two pairs: a notched rectangle & Z-rod below a mirror (or mirror-case); and a crescent & V-rod below an eagle. All four symbols are known from other stones elsewhere across the former territory of the Picts. The meaning of Pictish symbols remains a mystery and continues to spark lively debate in various quarters (including several threads at this blog). I’m inclined to interpret these enigmatic designs as names, seeing those in pairs as patronyms or matronyms, i.e. “X, the son (or daughter) of Y”. If this is the correct interpretation, the pairings could represent a Pictish equivalent of the Christian memorial inscriptions (written in Latin) on contemporary stones outside the Pictish lands, examples of which are found in southern Scotland, Wales and England.

I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more about the Dandaleith Stone in the near future. Its discovery raises many interesting questions that archaeologists will want to answer. For whom was it carved and what purpose did it serve? Was it a memorial to the dead or did it mark a boundary? Was there a Pictish settlement nearby or did the stone stand alone in its immediate landscape?

We shall have to wait and see. In the meantime, here are some links to further information:

Elgin Museum archaeological collections [look out for the Dandaleith Stone in one of the photographs]
Aberdeenshire Council: Sites & Monuments Record
National treasure: Museum to unveil rare Pictish Dandaleith Stone
Archaeologist try to unlock secrets of Pictish find

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A note on the illustration

Having not yet visited the Dandaleith Stone I don’t have any photographs to put at the top of this blogpost. I merely offer a very rough sketch, using a simple outline technique (I cannot claim any artistic talent whatsoever). My points of reference were photographs and drawings found online, none of which are in the public domain so I couldn’t reproduce them here. I should add that my intention was to evoke the style of John Romilly Allen (1847-1907) who produced so many fine illustrations of Pictish stones for his and Joseph Anderson’s magisterial ECMS (The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, published in 1903). The result of my efforts is little more than a homage to Allen’s brilliantly effective artwork. On a personal level it helps me to imagine how the Dandaleith Stone might have appeared in ECMS if it had been discovered in 1813 rather than 200 years later.

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Searching for Pictish gold

Stonehaven

Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, on a postcard from c. 1900.


Dunnicaer, a stack of rock off the Aberdeenshire coast near Stonehaven, was in the news last year. On the summit, archaeologists found evidence of a very ancient fortification dating back to the third or fourth century AD. In May, I wrote about this significant discovery in a blogpost called Picts at Dunnicaer. Two months later, the Scotsman newspaper ran an article under the heading ‘Pictish fort near Stonehaven – oldest in Scotland’. The article included a quote from archaeologist Dr Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen:

“We knew that the site had potential as in 1832 a group of youths from Stonehaven scaled the sea stack, prompted by a local man who had recurring dreams gold was hidden there. Unfortunately for the youths they didn’t find the gold, but they did find a number of decorated Pictish symbol stones and, as they were throwing them into the sea, noticed some were also carved. Several years later, when knowledge of Pictish stones began to circulate, a number were recovered from the sea.”

I briefly mentioned this instance of nineteenth-century ‘heritage vandalism’ in the comments below my blogpost, in a reply to fellow-blogger Jo Woolf. Later, while replying to a comment by Helen McKay, I said that I was drafting a separate post on this topic. Unfortunately, the major distraction of a book-writing project meant the new post didn’t get finished. However, in the last week or so I’ve been able to return to it, and the result is the little story below….

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Searching for Pictish gold

The former fishing village of Cowie, once famed for its smoked haddock, lies on the north side of Stonehaven. Nearly 200 years ago, in the early 1830s, one of its inhabitants was an old man called Blair who worked as the local grave-digger. Every night – so he said – he experienced a recurring dream about Dunnicaer, the steep and rugged sea-stack south of Stonehaven. In the dream, he imagined that a secret cave lay beneath the summit, and that in the cave lay a great hoard of gold. Among the folk who heard his tale was a group of young men from Stonehaven. They listened eagerly when he described his vision of hidden treasure. He told them of his regret that he was too old to scale the perilous rock and retrieve the gold for himself. The Stonehaven lads, however, were up for the challenge, despite the risk of serious injury or death.

One day, in 1832, three or four of these intrepid treasure-seekers climbed to the top of Dunnicaer. On reaching the summit, they saw that it was partly enclosed by a low wall surmounted by roughly hewn stones. Some of the stones were engraved with strange symbols and patterns, but these were of little interest and were duly ignored. The lads began to dig down through the soil, expecting at any moment to catch a gleam of gold. To their dismay, they found nothing except bare rock. Disappointment turned quickly to boredom, so they decided to amuse themselves by pulling the carved stones off the top of the wall and hurling them down into the sea below. Many stones were quickly dispatched in this way.

Having discovered no treasure, the explorers climbed back down to the seashore and headed for home. One of the group was Donald Ross, who was then around 20 years of age. He went back to Dunnicaer the following day, though he did not make a second ascent of the rock. Near the base he spotted one of the engraved stones and took it home.

The years passed. Donald Ross became an engineer at the Stonehaven gasworks. By the early 1840s he was a husband and father and a respected figure in the community. It was probably around this time that he made another expedition to Dunnicaer, not to hunt for gold but to find more of the stones that he and his friends had thrown down from the top. He had recently become aware of a growing interest in ancient sculpture and realised that the carvings he had seen in 1832 were special. Searching the seashore, he didn’t seem to be having much luck until his eye was drawn to a stone completely covered with seaweed. Peeling the weed away, he saw the engraved shape of a fish – clearly a salmon – below a small triangle. He took it home, perhaps intending to sell it, but did nothing more than keep it safe. His retrieval and possession of this stone ultimately ensured its survival.

Dunnicaer Pictish stone

By 1857, Donald had risen to the position of manager at the gasworks. In that year, he was visited by Alexander Thomson – a resident of Banchory and an active member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Thomson had been reading John Stuart’s recently published book Sculptured Stones of Scotland and was intrigued by one of the plate illustrations depicting two symbol stones from the Stonehaven area. Stuart’s accompanying description said that “they are now in the possession of the Keeper of the Gas Work at Stonehaven, who found them at Dinnacare about sixteen years ago”.

Thomson bought both stones from Donald Ross for an undisclosed sum. During their conversation, Ross told him about the 1832 expedition and the stone-throwing but not, apparently, about the tale of hidden gold. Thomson didn’t learn the full story until February of the following year (1858) when he received a letter from James Christian, a writer who lived in Stonehaven. Christian had himself purchased another of the Dunnicaer stones from a certain Andrew Brown whose father, a fisherman, had taken it from the summit c.1819. The price paid by Christian was a half sovereign, for which he received the stone shown below.

Dunnicaer Pictish stone

Christian wanted to climb the rock-stack himself, in spite of the danger. He was curious to see what the summit looked like. Andrew Brown said that he, too, might make the attempt – presumably in the hope of finding more stones. He was, as Christian observed in his letter to Thomson, “tempted by the half sovereign”, though he reckoned his advancing years would make the climb more difficult. Brown’s wife, however, had no such anxiety about the ascent. Christian noted that she seemed “quite pleased” by the idea and added “I should not be surprised if she went up”.

In his letter, Christian also mentioned the old grave-digger whose dream of buried treasure had stirred the curiosity of young Donald Ross and his companions. Christian wondered if the dream might have been based on local legend. In any case, he didn’t think there was any substance to it:

“I suspect this idea of the old man’s must have arisen from some traditional habitation of the rock which he had heard of in his youth. But all these old people are now dead; and, after all, fisher traditions are not of much value.”

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Notes

Donald Ross died in 1863, three years after the publication of Alexander Thomson’s paper on Dunnicaer in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The paper refers to him simply as ‘Mr Ross’ and calls him ‘the intelligent manager of the gas work’ but doesn’t say much more about him. However, his important role in the story of the stones prompted me to seek out some additional biographical information.

The two illustrations are from Thomson’s paper which I have as a download and a photocopy. In both formats the original drawings lose a bit of definition so I’ve enhanced them slightly for this blogpost. As in my previous post I’ll cite the full reference:

Thomson, A (1860) ‘Notice of sculptured stones found at “Dinnacair”, a rock in the sea, near Stonehaven’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 3, pp. 69-75.

Lastly, here’s a lnk to the Scotsman article mentioned above: Pictish fort near Stonehaven ‘oldest in Scotland’

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Drawing a Pictish symbol

John Romilly Allen

John Romilly Allen (1847-1907)


Whenever someone adds a comment here at Senchus, a small picture or ‘avatar’ shows beside their name. These images are generated automatically, unless the person already has a WordPress account of their own with an avatar attached to it. My own avatar is a representation of the ‘Crescent & V-rod’, a Pictish symbol, which I also use on my Twitter profile. I’ve been using this for about 7 years. It’s my own variant on the symbol and was created on a computer using Photoshop.

avatar

If I was more artistic I could quite happily spend time designing variants of other symbols, perhaps even building up a stock of avatars that I could then rotate around my social media profiles. In the absence of such a talent, I simply resort to admiring the artwork of others, most notably John Romilly Allen. Today, no new book on the Pictish symbols is complete without a selection of Allen’s fine drawings. The originals were published more than a century ago in ECMS (The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland), a comprehensive survey of Scotland’s Dark Age sculpture compiled by Allen himself and Joseph Anderson.

I’ve always liked Allen’s distinctive style which is characterised by bold shapes in black ink on a plain white background. It really makes the Pictish symbols stand out. In this blogpost I’ve reproduced a few examples of his drawings from ECMS. These show four Pictish stones from north-east Scotland and one from Orkney, the common link between them being the Crescent & V-rod symbol.

Pictish Stone Dingwall

Dingwall, Easter Ross (front and rear of stone).



Pictish Stone Inverurie

Inverurie, Aberdeenshire.



Pictish Stone Rosemarkie

Rosemarkie, Easter Ross (rear of cross-slab).



Pictish Stone Craigton

Craigton, Sutherland.



Pictish Stone Paplay

Paplay, South Ronaldsay, Orkney (front and rear of stone).

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J.R. Allen & J. Anderson (1903) The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh)
[Available as a 2-volume reprint from the Pinkfoot Press, Brechin]

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Free Pictish stuff

Groam House Pictish Lecture
The good folk of Groam House Museum have made available as free downloads seven out-of-print titles from their Annual Academic Lecture series.

Groam House, as many of you will know, holds a superb collection of Pictish sculpture. The museum is located in the picturesque village of Rosemarkie in Easter Ross, on the shore of the Black Isle. Many of the museum’s carved stones come from a nearby ecclesiastical site known in early medieval times as Ros Maircnidh. This was a major monastery of the Northern Picts. At the end of the seventh century, the abbot of Ros Maircnidh (Rosemarkie) was Saint Curadán or Curetán, a signatory to the famous ‘Law of Innocents’ promulgated by Adomnán of Iona in 697.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

The hardcopy versions of the Groam House booklets are very nicely produced. I’ve purchased a few over the years and keep them within easy reach on my bookshelf. I really ought to obtain more titles in the series – ideally all of them. Most of the ones I do possess are from the 1990s so I need to catch up and fill the gaps. The booklets are a handy size for quick reference and I frequently consult them on specific points – or simply browse them at leisure.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

I have all but one of the seven out-of-print lectures, the exception being Isabel Henderson’s The Art and Function of Rosemarkie’s Pictish Monuments. So far, I only possess two lectures from the current century: Fraser Hunter’s Beyond the Edge of the Empire and Sally Foster’s Place, Space and Odyssey. These aren’t free but both are well worth buying.

Groam House Pictish Lecture

This year’s Annual Academic Lecture was presented in May by Victoria Whitworth under the title Bodystones and Guardian Beasts: The Pictish Recumbent Grave-Markers in Their Wider Context. I would have liked to attend but was unable to make the trip, so I will definitely buy the published version when it appears.

Click the link below to go to the download page.

Free publications from Groam House Museum

Groam House Pictish Lecture

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Picts at Dunnicaer

Pictish symbol stone Dunnicaer

Fish symbol and triangle on a stone from Dunnicaer.


Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have recently discovered a Pictish fort on the summit of Dunnicaer, a ‘sea stack’ near Dunnottar Castle. Dunnicaer lies approximately 1 mile south of the town of Stonehaven but is isolated from the mainland at high tide. A number of stone fragments inscribed with Pictish symbols were found there in the nineteenth century, suggesting that it was a significant place in early medieval times. However, with steep slopes and rugged cliffs, it is hardly the most accessible archaeological site in Scotland – which is probably why it had never been excavated before. The Aberdeen team needed the guidance of a professional climber to help them get to the top.

Dunnottar Castle, situated a quarter of a mile further south, stands on a prominent headland jutting into the North Sea. Built in the twelfth century, it served as a stronghold for Clan Keith from the 1300s to the 1700s and was an important strategic site. References in medieval texts show its frequent involvement in warfare and dynastic politics. Older sources relating to the Dark Ages refer to a fortress called Dun Foither (the Gaelic name for Dunnottar). Contemporary annals state that this was besieged twice in the seventh century – in 681 and 694 – probably during wars between rival Pictish kings. It has long been assumed that the fortress in question stood on the headland now occupied by the castle. However, excavations conducted thirty years ago failed to reveal any evidence of Pictish settlement, prompting a suggestion that the original Dun Foither might instead be Dunnicaer.

Dunnottar Castle
[Above and below: two nineteenth-century views of Dunnottar Castle]

Dunnottar Castle

The recent excavation at Dunnicaer has now confirmed that this remote sea-stack was indeed the site of a small Pictish fortress. It was built sometime between c.400-600 and comprised a timber house or hall defended by an outer rampart of stone. Upon this defensive wall the symbol-inscribed stones discovered in the nineteenth century were probably displayed. It is also likely that the occupants devised a more convenient method of access than a scramble up the steep sides. They may, for example, have built a wooden bridge as a link to the mainland.

Archaeological finds – including charcoal from a hearth in the house – are now being anlaysed by experts. These may give clues about how, when and by whom the site was used. Was it perhaps the residence of an important local family, or some kind of military lookout post?

Pictish stone Dunnicaer

An ornate double-disc & Z-rod symbol on a stone from Dunnicaer.

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Links

These are a mixture of news items and database entries:

‘Significant’ Pictish fort found off Aberdeenshire coast (BBC News) [includes a video showing how the archaeologists scaled the steep sides of Dunnicaer]
Pictish fort discovered on remote sea stack (Daily Mail)
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the settlement at Dunnicaer
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the Dunnicaer symbol stones
Dunnicaer promontary fort (The Modern Antiquarian)
RCAHMS Canmore database entries for Dunnicaer and Dunnottar Castle

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References

Thomson, A (1860) ‘Notice of sculptured stones found at “Dinnacair”, a rock in the sea, near Stonehaven’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 3, pp. 69-75.

Alcock, Leslie & Alcock, Elizabeth (1992) ‘Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 1974-84; 5: A, Excavations & other fieldwork at Forteviot, Perthshire, 1981; B, Excavations at Urquhart Castle, Inverness-shire, 1983; C, Excavations at Dunnottar, Kincardineshire, 1984’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 122, pp. 215–287.

[Both articles can be accessed via the PSAS online archive]

dunnicaer_map

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Note: The two symbol-stone illustrations shown in this blogpost are from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1856).

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