There are numerous carved stones around Scotland, some of which have been dated to around 4 AD. They are recognisable by their beautiful art, carved
centuries ago by the Picts.
To date, there is no unified theory about either the meaning of the stones or the meaning of the symbols. Some researchers have put forward the idea
that the stones were markers of clan boundaries, others that they were grave markers of prominent individuals.
Several theories have been advanced to explain the meaning and function of the symbols. In the absence of written Pictish records, any interpretation
is speculative. Nonetheless one theory has emerged as the most plausible and coherent. It is thought that certain combinations of the symbols –
which usually appear in pairs – probably represent the names of individual people or families.
On the 350 or so Pictish stones so far discovered, around 40 different symbols have been identified, falling into three distinct groups. The first
group of symbols are perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Pictish culture. These are the abstract, or geometric designs: extraordinary, recurrent
and consistent. They are stylised in many different ways, but remain remarkably consistent over time and distance. Though they are not
representational, some have been named after recognisable objects, such as the ‘tuning fork’ or ‘mirror case’. Others are known only by
descriptive names, the most common being the ‘crescent and V-rod’ and the ‘double-disc and Z-rod’.
The second group consists of creatures, real or mythical. The real creatures are those which have at least in the past been indigenous to Scotland,
such as snakes, eagles, wolves and bears. But the most common animal symbol is a curious creature with a pointed snout, curling antennae and curved,
fin-like limbs. Known as the ‘Pictish beast’, it is sometimes likened to a dolphin or an elephant, but is clearly a hybrid born of the
imagination. It is completely unique to the Picts.
The third group represents mundane ‘real life’ objects, often in pairs – mirror and comb; hammer and anvil; tongs and shears. These symbols
often appear towards the foot of a stone. It is thought they may qualify the meaning of any symbols carved above.
The symbols occur on stones the length and breadth of Pictland, from the Forth to Shetland. This implies that they were understood by all Picts, and
in some way were a common visual language. They are usually combined in pairs – abstract with abstract or abstract with animal. Abstract symbols are
more common; and as a rule animal symbols usually only appear in the company of abstract ones.
Work is also being undertaken at the University of Exeter, where an entropy study
is exploring the
possibility that the symbols are in fact much closer to a modern written language than to random symbols.
The Pictish Stone Database
at the University of Strathclyde has catalogued
every known stone, and is an invaluable resource.
images of the stones in 3D.
Equally intriguing are the carved stone balls
found in Scotland and dating from as far back as around 3000bc.
Little is known about the people we call the Picts –our ancestors-, but it is not unreasonable to assume that they lived in clan society, as
Scotland continued to do until around the 18th century.
It is the pre-Christian geometric patterns that really intrigue me, and I wondered, given the breadth of artistic, pagan, symbolic etc knowledge on
ATS, if some of the designs seemed obvious to other people?
This is just speculative, and anybody is most welcome to express an opinion. There is no right or wrong here, we are just wondering together.
The symbols are presented below, along with some suggestions from other sources*.
Any ideas? If you were going to go the trouble of carving a stone, what would you be intent on portraying?
*I won’t list all the authors as sources, for readability, but suffice to say any ideas that are presented are not my own, unless stated
The Pictish Beastie - dolphin
The V rod - mother goddess, Bride/Cailleach,
The z rod – broken arrow ( I think this looks mechanical, husband says a tool for measuring angles)
The ‘tuning fork’ – broken sword
The cauldron – cauldron; earth, sun and moon
The notched rectangle – inside of a broch
A few more examples given below.
Thanks in advance!