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.

Class II Pictish carved stone, showing the cross side. Photo © Val Williamson

Class II Pictish carved stone, showing the cross side. Photo © Val Williamson

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.

Three Classes of Pictish Carved Symbol Stones

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.

  •  Class I stones, the earliest, have only Pictish symbols and may be found incised on fragments of rock or even carved into boulders.
  • Class II stones, often large prepared stone slabs, have a combination of Pictish symbols and (Christian) crosses with Pictish symbols, and other carved imagery.
  • Class III stones contain crosses and similar imagery to the class II stones but no Pictish symbols.


Detail of Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone: National Museum of Scotland

Detail of Hilton of Cadboll Pictish stone: National Museum of Scotland

Cultural Interpretations

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.

Written Pictish Language or Heraldic Devices?

Pictish symbols mapped from stone to digrams for analysis. Image courtesy of Robe Lee et al.

Pictish symbols mapped from stone to digrams for analysis. Image courtesy of Robe Lee et al.

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.”

Pictish Carved Symbols Compared With Egyptian Hieroglyphs and Chinese Ideograms

Shannon entropy tree for Pictish symbol analysis: Diagram by Lee et al.

Shannon entropy decision tree for Pictish symbol analysis: Diagram by Lee et al.

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.

Pictish Carved Symbols Catalogue Required

Possible effect of using a larger corpus on Shannon entropy results. Image by Lee et al.

Possible effect of using a larger corpus on Shannon entropy results. Image by Lee et al.

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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Replies to This Discussion


Pictish symbol-stones

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.

Any ideas?

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Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries had its humble beginnings as an idea of a few artisans and craftsmen who enjoy performing with live steel fighting. As well as a patchwork quilt tent canvas. Most had prior military experience hence the name.


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Vendertainers that brought many things to a show and are know for helping out where ever they can.

As well as being a place where the older hand made items could be found made by them and enjoyed by all.

We expanded over the years to become well known at what we do. Now we represent over 100 artisans and craftsman that are well known in their venues and some just starting out. Some of their works have been premiered in TV, stage and movies on a regular basis.

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Patchwork Merchant Mercenaries a Dept of, Ask For IT was started by artists and former military veterans, and sword fighters, representing over 100 artisans, one who made his living traveling from fair to festival vending medieval wares. The majority of his customers are re-enactors, SCAdians and the like, looking to build their kit with period clothing, feast gear, adornments, etc.

Likewise, it is typical for these history-lovers to peruse the tent (aka mobile store front) and, upon finding something that pleases the eye, ask "Is this period?"

A deceitful query!! This is not a yes or no question. One must have a damn good understanding of European history (at least) from the fall of Rome to the mid-1600's to properly answer. Taking into account, also, the culture in which the querent is dressed is vitally important. You see, though it may be well within medieval period, it would be strange to see a Viking wearing a Caftan...or is it?

After a festival's time of answering weighty questions such as these, I'd sleep like a log! Only a mad man could possibly remember the place and time for each piece of kitchen ware, weaponry, cloth, and chain within a span of 1,000 years!! Surely there must be an easier way, a place where he could post all this knowledge...

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