Rethinking Pictish symbols

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An aerial photograph of the 2017 excavations at the Pictish promontory fort of Dunnicaer in Aberdeenshire. (PHOTO: Gordon Noble)

Recent research on Pictish symbols has provided a new chronology for the carvings, transforming our understanding of their evolution.

Previously, the images – long thought to represent a non-alphabetic writing system – had only been roughly dated using art-historical analysis, which divided the markings into two main typologies. Class I monuments were thought to date to between the 7th and 8th centuries AD, and were characterised by elaborate ornamentation. Class II, on the other hand, were thought to date to between the 9th and 10th centuries AD, and were much more basic in design.

This was a highly debated timeline, however, and a new, more precise chronology was needed. This is where researchers from the University of Aberdeen and National Museums Scotland, and dating experts from the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), came in. Although dating stone carvings can be challenging, with archaeologists relying on the presence of other organic matter that can successfully be placed in the same context as the etchings (a task that is often easier said than done), the team was able to identify several Pictish monument sites that could be radiocarbon dated.

These included the promontory fort of Dunnicaer (see CA 304 and 307), the enclosure complex at Rhynie (see CA 263 and 289), and bone objects from Pool, Orkney – all of which provided varying forms of Pictish symbols. Thanks to Bayesian statistical analysis of radiocarbon dates from these sites, the team has been able to develop a more precise timeline – and it flips the traditional chronology on its head.

According to the new findings, the smaller, simpler symbols of Class II do not represent a later form of carving at all – instead, they date to the 3rd to 4th centuries AD, while the more elaborate Class I carvings appear to be of a later date, most likely from the 6th to early 7th century AD. By the 9th or 10th century, the symbols seem to have disappeared completely, with the emergence of the kingdom of Alba and development of a new language.

These dates indicate that the symbol system probably originated much earlier than had previously been thought, during a period of Pictish contact with the Roman world. This has led the research team to argue that, in fact, the Picts may have been inspired to adopt a writing system after seeing that of the Romans, a theory that has already been suggested for other writing systems, such as the runes of Scandinavia and the ogham of Ireland.

The paper can be read for free at

This article appeared in CA 346.

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