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The Picts were an Iron Age society that existed in Scotland from ca AD 300–843. Picts are recorded in the writings of their contemporaries, for instance the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons and the Irish but other than a copy of their King list they left no written records themselves. Pictish culture did leave hundreds of stones carved with highly stylized petroglyph symbols that still exist.
Can a mathematical process define these symbols as a written language, and help translate them? Researchers led by Professor Rob Lee, reporting in journal articles in the Royal Society Proceedings, believe they have proved that the Pictish petroglyphs do in fact constitute elements of written language.
Unlike much ‘rock art’, Pictish incised stones demonstrate intricacy and complexity of design and symbolism. Scotland’s Pictish stones are categorised in three classes according to the types of designs made on them.
A cultural interpretation of the symbols, ‘reading’ the stories that the pictures seem to tell, would suggest that they are of a heraldic or illustrative nature. The new approach to understanding the stones is data based rather than interpretive, using drawn representations of the petroglyphs.
Lee et al particularly relied on two sets of sketches to provide the data set for their mathematical analysis. The Field guide to the Pictish symbol stones by Alastair Mack, 1997, which they refer to as ‘the Mack corpus’, and The early Christian monuments of Scotland, drawn by Allen and Anderson in 1903.
That the Picts had a distinct spoken language is evidenced in the Christian monk Bede’s eighth century analyses of historical records that comprise his history of Britain, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Bede says, “There are in the island at present, [...] five languages of different nations, [...] to wit, English, British, Scottish, Pictish, and Latin.”
Latin was the imported language used by the Christian church, so Pictish was one of four native languages in Britain at that time. Writing comes in two basic forms, this paper suggests, lexigraphic writing that is based on speech, and semasiography which is not. “Lexigraphic writing contains symbols that represent 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,” Lee told Discovery News.
In semasiography, symbols are representations of person or place but do not represent speech and generally are not arranged in a linear manner. Heraldic symbols do have directionality but not necessarily linear.
According to Lee,
“Heraldic symbols are a useful non-lexigraphic comparator since their placement rules lead to an implied directionality. This implied directionality is one of the reasons why the Pictish symbols have been proposed as heraldic symbols. Heraldic symbols consist of the base symbols (e.g. lion), modified by detail (e.g. a lion rampant versus a lion passant) and colour.”
Professor Lee and his colleagues applied a mathematical process called Shannon entropy to the Pictish symbol data and believe that their results demonstrate that the Pictish symbols exhibit elements of written language. The data was compared with data for several other small-corpus written language samples, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese pottery marks, ancient Latin stone inscriptions, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish, Old Irish and Old Welsh.
Although assumed to convey information, many symbol sets are short (one to three symbols), small (less than 1000 symbols) and often fragmented. It has previously been impossible to conclude whether they represent encoded information like an inscribed form of a complex language.
There are short symbol scripts surviving from many cultures, but only a two-parameter decision-tree technique such as Shannon entropy is believed to distinguish between the different character sets when sample sizes are small, thus enabling the type of communication expressed by these small symbol corpuses to be determined. Shannon entropy examines the order, direction and randomness of images. Using the technique on the Pictish symbols has established that it is unlikely that they are random or heraldic characters.
This research does not actually decipher any Pictish words. In order to answer the question of whether the symbols are words or syllables, and thus define a system which will allow researchers to decipher the symbols, they need to create a complete visual catalogue of the stones and the symbols and investigate the effect (on the performance of the method) of widening the symbol set. So far, the team demonstrate that it does.
Demonstrating that the Pictish Ancient Scottish 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, the paper concludes.
Rob Lee, Philip Johnathon, and Pauline Ziman. Pictish symbols revealed as a written language through application .... (2010). Proceedings A of the Royal Society of Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. Accessed April 1, 2013.
Rob Lee, Philip Johnathon, and Pauline Ziman. Reply to Fournet: ‘Pictish symbols revealed as a written language t.... (2011). Proceedings A of the Royal Society of Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences vol. 467 no. 2126. Accessed April 1, 2013.
A. M. Sellar (translator). Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England. (1907). George Bell and Sons.
Ian W. G. Forbes. The Last of the Druids: The Mystery of the Pictish Symbol Stones. (2012). Amberley Publishing.
Jennifer Viegas. New Written Language of Ancient Scotland Discovered. (2010). Discovery News. Accessed April 1, 2013.
Education Scotland, Scotland’s History. Pictish Symbol Stones. Accessed April 1, 2013.
Strathclyde University. Database of Pictish stones in Scotland. Accessed April 1, 2013.
© Copyright 2013 Val Williamson, PhD, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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Here is the Gellyburn cross-slab (Perthshire)
We see the Crescent & V-rod above the Pictish beast.
Pictish symbols most often appear in pairs. We still do not know what they mean. Some have suggested that they correspond to personal names or group names.
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