Published Date: 31 March 2010
Archaeologists and historians have long been baffled by the mysterious
symbols left behind by the Picts, an ancient Scottish race believed to
have left no written records of themselves. While the Picts are
mentioned by their contemporary Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Irish, all
they left to posterity were mysterious elaborate figures carved into
stones. Nobody has yet been able to decipher these symbols, with some
arguing that they are nothing more than decorative or heraldic
However, now a team based in the UK have used an advanced mathematical
technique to show that the Pictish symbols are almost certainly
writing, leading linguists and archaeologists one step closer to
unlocking the mysteries of the Picts. The research, published in
Proceedings of the Royal Society: A, uses Shannon entropy – a measure
of randomness or uncertainty – to analyse the ancient symbols.
The symbols used in written language exhibit certain distinctive
patterns of Shannon entropy which distinguish them from decorative or
heraldic usage. While this type of approach has been used to analyse
writing before, previous investigators have struggled to analyse
symbols where examples are relatively few and far between. Given that
there are only around 250 Pictish symbol stones in existence, nobody
has been able to use this method to decipher the mysterious symbols
until now. In this case the investigators used a novel technique to
estimate the completeness of the existing set of characters, which
allowed them to spot the distinctive patterns characteristic of
written language in the symbol stones.
This new method opens up the possibility that other ancient
inscriptions could be similarly analysed, paving the way to vastly
improved interpretation of many ancient languages that were previously
thought undecipherable. Furthermore, the authors point out that
similar techniques could be used to analyse animal noises, leading to
the possibility of an enhanced understanding of animal communication.
New Written Language of Ancient Scotland Discovered
Once thought to be rock art, carved depictions of soldiers, horses
and other figures are in fact part of a written language dating back
to the Iron Age.
By Jennifer Viegas | Wed Mar 31, 2010 07:00 AM ET
Riders and horn blowers appear next to hunting dogs on what is called
the Hilton of Cadboll stone, pictured here.
Rob Knell and Rob Lee
* A new written language, belonging to the early Pict society of
Scotland, has just been identified.
* Stylized rock engravings have been found on hundreds of Pictish
* If the writing can be deciphered, it would provide a unique
insight into early Scottish history.
The ancestors of modern Scottish people left behind mysterious, carved
stones that new research has just determined contain the written
language of the Picts, an Iron Age society that existed in Scotland
from 300 to 843.
The highly stylized rock engravings, found on what are known as the
Pictish Stones, had once been thought to be rock art or tied to
heraldry. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal
Society A, instead concludes that the engravings represent the long
lost language of the Picts, a confederation of Celtic tribes that
lived in modern-day eastern and northern Scotland.
"We know that the Picts had a spoken language to complement the
writing of the symbols, as Bede (a monk and historian who died in 735)
writes that there are four languages in Britain in this time: British,
Pictish, Scottish and English," lead author Rob Lee told Discovery
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"We know that the three other languages were -- and are -- complex
spoken languages, so there is every indication that Pictish was also a
complex spoken language," added Lee, a professor in the School of
Biosciences at the University of Exeter.
He and colleagues Philip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman analyzed the
engravings, found on the few hundred known Pictish Stones. The
researchers used a mathematical process known as Shannon entropy to
study the order, direction, randomness and other characteristics of
The resulting data was compared with that for numerous written
languages, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese texts and written
Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish, Old Irish and Old Welsh.
While the Pictish Stone engravings did not match any of these, they
displayed characteristics of writing based on a spoken language.
Lee explained that writing comes in two basic forms: lexigraphic
writing that is based on speech and semasiography, which is not based
"Lexigraphic writing contains symbols that represent parts of speech,
such as words, or sounds like syllables or letters, and tends to be
written in a linear or directional manner mimicking the flow of
speech," he said. "In semasiography, the symbols do not represent
speech -- such as the cartoon symbols used to show you how to build a
flat pack piece of furniture -- and generally do not come in a linear
Although Lee and his team have not yet deciphered the Pictish
language, some of the symbols provide intriguing clues. One symbol
looks like a dog's head, for example, while others look like horses,
trumpets, mirrors, combs, stags, weapons and crosses.
The later Pictish Stones also contain images, like Celtic knots,
similar to those found in the Book of Kells and other early works from
nearby regions. These more decorative looking images frame what Lee
and his team believe is the written Pictish language.
"It is unclear at the moment whether the imagery, such as the knots,
form any part of the communication," Lee said. He believes the stones
also contain semasiographic symbols, such as a picture of riders and
horn blowers next to hunting dogs on what is called the Hilton of
Cadboll stone. Yet another stone shows what appears to be a battle
Paul Bouissac, a University of Toronto professor who is one of the
world's leading experts on signs and symbols, told Discovery News that
he agrees "it is more than plausible that the Pictish symbols are
examples of a script, in the sense that they encoded some information,
which also had a spoken form."
What is known about a writing system, however, "does not amount to
deciphering this putative script," Bouissac added.
"We will have to wait for the discovery of what would be the Pictish
equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, which made possible the cracking of
the Egyptian hieroglyphic code," he said. "This may or may not ever
Pictures and a video at