Pictish symbols represent ancient written Scottish language

New research has shown that the symbols used by the ancient Picts, who lived in Scotland from AD 300-843, were an actual written language, rather than just symbology.

What historians know of the Picts has so far been gleaned from the artefacts they left behind and via the writings of the people whom they had contact with, such as the Romans. But if the meaning of inscribed patterns and symbols on Pictish stones and slabs can be deciphered, the potential to learn more about ancient Scotland could be immense.

There are only a few hundred surviving Pictish stones and slabs. Some of them have symbols carved onto them like a relief. Christian motifs, such as a cross, can also be seen on a number of them. There are also several painted pebbles, whose patterns seem particularly perfunctory. Researchers have long grappled with the question of what they represent. Are they mere symbols? Or are they full-fledged texts (albeit un-deciphered) which communicate a written language?

This particular debate is common among scholars trying to unravel ancient symbols. The Indus Valley Script, used in South Asia 4,000 years ago, is another example of an un-deciphered script that could be either symbols or language, and it was recently proposed that eggshells discovered in Africa could also demonstrate an unknown early language.

A team of language experts, led by Professor Rob Lee of Exeter University, analysed how random the Pictish symbols are. If the symbols didn’t show evidence of any kind of order, then it would be unlikely that they represented a written language, but if the same symbols are being written in the same way over and over again, then there is a good chance that it does communicate written language.

Measuring the amount of randomness in an un-deciphered script is difficult because there are usually a limited number of examples (only a few hundred for the Pictish language) and quite often these haven’t been compiled together and published. This means that researchers have to work with small datasets, making this analysis tricky.

Working with the symbols available to them, the team was able to determine that there is some predictability in the Pictish symbols, enough so that it seems likely to be a written script. “It is extremely unlikely that the observed values for the Pictish stones would occur by chance,” the researchers said in a paper published recently in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.

The next step is to expand their dataset and get a record of every Pictish symbol ever recorded. Researchers can then hone in on the language and, hopefully, decipher it.

“Demonstrating that the Pictish symbols are writing, with the symbols probably corresponding to words, opens a unique line of further research for historians and linguists investigating the Picts and how they viewed themselves,” said the team.

No doubt scholars will be hoping to discover a Scottish version of the Rosetta Stone or the Behistun Inscriptions to help decipher the language. If the Pictish code can be cracked, we could be about to learn a lot more about the ancient people of Scotland, and open up our understanding of ancient Britain.

Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts

Computer helps decode Harappan Grammar

Face off: Rosetta stone ‘v’ Behistun inscription

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Service Delivery and Support Manager

    £55000 - £75000 per annum + excellent benefits: Harrington Starr: Service Deli...

    Corporate Tax Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL ...

    Relationship Manager

    £500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Relationship Manager, London, Banking, Accountant...

    Marketing & PR Assistant - NW London

    £15 - £17 per hour: Ashdown Group: Marketing & PR Assistant - Kentish Town are...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home