Stone relics of monumental sculpture are characteristic of Ireland, Scotland, northern England and other smaller islands scattered around the British Isles (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Scottish stelae, also called Pictish symbol stones, are categorized in terms of their development periods (Ibid.). About three hundred and fifty examples of similar Pictish stones have survived to our times, mainly on the eastern side of Scotland (“Pictish Stones” 2015). They had been covered with various symbols or designs by being incised or carved in relief (Ibid.).
Stelae appeared between the fifth and ninth centuries, since the heyday of the Pictish kingdom in northeastern Scotland, till the times, when the Celtic Picts were undergoing a progressive process of Christianization (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Although stelae variations of the early Christian period belong to a wider Insular tradition of monumental stones such as High Crosses, typical of the Hiberno-Scottish monumental sculpture, pagan examples of such stelae are unique only to Scotland (Ibid.). The purpose and meaning of the earliest stones are only slightly understood (Ibid.). They may have been territorial markers, personal memorials with symbols for individual names or clans, or funeral stones associated with certain burials (Ibid.).
“Many stones have now been taken into museums to preserve them, but there are a number which still stand outside” (Historic Scotland 2020).
Inscribed Pillars and Symbol Stone Slabs
Scotland has a heritage of standing stones which mark the landscape all over the country (Short 2016). There are, among all, standing stones of considerable antiquity, such as menhirs, large pillar stones and boulders (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Some are with ogham inscriptions, which originated in Ireland (in the fourth century AD or earlier) and later were spread to other areas of the British Isles, including Scotland (Connelly 2015:ii, 5). The Ogham script was a form of lettering based on the phonetics of the Irish language (Short “Part 2” 2016). Pictish and Welsh variations of the twenty-letter Ogham alphabet were evolved as the script spread from Ireland (Ibid.).
The so-called Pictish symbol stones or stelae are unique to Scotland and appear in the north and east of the country (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). The Picts apparently shared their ancient myths and mysteries by means of symbols they incised or carved on the earliest examples (Short 2016). The remains of the Bronze Age stone circles, such as that at Broomend of Crichie, and others in the area, show that settled communities had lived in this area long before the Picts arrived during the Iron Age (Ibid.). The latter were first noticed by the Romans in 297 AD (Parrott-Sheffer 2020). Generally, it is thought that Stone and Bronze Age circles were memorials to the dead (Short 2016). The Bronze Age stone circle at Broomend of Crichie was originally composed of six stones, two of which are still in place (Ibid.). One of the currently standing stones is quite different from the others around (Ibid.). Although it is dated back to the Bronze Age and may have come from a recumbent stone circle to the north of the site, it is covered with two carvings belonging already to the fifth or sixth century Pictish symbols (Ibid.). There is a beast or an elephant like animal in the upper part of the stone and the crescent and V-rod below (Ibid.).
Accordingly, the Picts reused far older menhirs and stone boulders as a display of their own symbology, apparently carved for a specific purpose (Forbes 2012). Additionally, “some scholars suggest their ancient creators may also have painted the stones, bringing out in vivid colours their carved salmon, ravens, wolves, boars and even a battle scene” (McKenzie 2017). Experts from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) claim that the Pictish artists would have used minerals and plants to add paint their carvings (Ibid.). “But sculptures found so far have stood outside for more than 1,000 years so any pigment is likely to have been ‘scrubbed away’ by long exposure to the effects of the sun, rain and wind” (Ibid.). Pigments have yet survived on Pictish metalwork and contemporary stonework from Northumbria and Mercia (Ibid.). Colour is also a strong feature of Hiberno-Irish Christian manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells (Ibid.).
Pictish symbols were mainly carved on standing stones although a small number appeared on jewellery and some of the earliest were carved on cave walls in Fife and at the Sculptor’s cave near Lossiemouth on the Moray Firth (Short 2016). The latter is decorated with one of the key Pictish symbols, namely the crescent with the V-rod (Ibid.). The stela belongs to the Class I of the Pictish stelae, according to the classic study of the Pictish symbol stones by J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, entitled Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Ibid.). In 1903, the authors for the very first time properly arranged a large group of various Pictish stone slabs by dividing them into three subsequent classes.
Class I of the Pictish stelae
The earliest category, falling in the so-called Class I, are the oldest irregular stone slabs (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Their surface is natural and undressed so it was not smoothed or shaped in any way (Short 2016). The sculptor has created a simple outline of the symbol using a punch and a hammer (Ibid.). A chisel was also used to make a deeper and wider line, which was then smoothed out probably by rubbing with a stone tool. This style of carving is referred to as incised carving (Ibid.).
Stelae of the Class I appeared in the sixth to the nineth century, which have no counterparts in terms of form or decoration in art in other island areas (“Pictish Stones” 2015). Considering the time of their appearance, they correspond to the earliest period of the monumental Scottish sculpture (Ibid.). At that time, Pictish stelae do not yet have decorations in the form of a Christian cross symbol, but pictograms referring mainly to the mysterious Celtic pagan symbolism (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). They are simply incised into the rough stone surface (Ibid.). The predominance of the shapes of a horseshoe, inverted letter “L”, single or double discs integrated into the sign of inverted letter “Z” (the so-called Z-rod), which is accompanied by even more enigmatic symbols resembling a mirror, or a key and a comb, as well as a crescent shape with two straight lines crossing it, in the shape of the letter “V” (the so-called V-rod) (Ibid.). Those letters’ lines usually end with floral symbols, similar to open flowers and buds. Such a spectrum of abstract signs has not yet been identified (Ibid.).
There are also naturalistic figures found in the repertoire of the Class I stones (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Among others, there are usually incised zoomorphic images of both realistic and mythical animals (Ibid.). There are some legendary beats, wolves, deer (or horses), birds or the sign of fish, which is believed to be a pagan symbol of the salmon of wisdom, known from Celtic myths (Ibid.). All the symbols certainly refer to old pagan traditions and perhaps, at that time, some aspects of the symbolic dimension of the Christian religion may have been already introduced in the Scottish system of beliefs (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). However, there is no evidence of such an interruption in art of the Class I (Ibid.).
In the ruins of Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce, Aberdeenshire, there are two Pictish stelae that have been re-erected inside it (Short 2016). One of them, is also a perfect example of the Class I (Ibid.). Both symbols incised in the stone: the Pictish beast in the upper part and the double disc with the Z-rod appear simple and uncomplicated (Ibid.). Still they both show a remarkable degree of artistry and skill (Ibid.).
Class II of the Pictish stelae
Stones of the Class II are more or less rectangular in shape (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). They are usually referred to as cross slabs as they feature visible Christian symbols, especially crosses, on one or both sides of stelae, which are always accompanied by the Pagan geometrical and abstract motifs, known already from the Class I (Ibid.). Although the Christian Latin cross predominates, such stelae also display hagiographical and biblical stories (Ibid.). They are equivalent to the so-called early Irish high crosses and stone slabs with Christian imagery.
Class II symbols stones were carved in the eighth and nineth centuries although there was a period overlap between Class I and Class II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Both classes represent the Pictish art in its prime (Short 2016).
In contrast to the incised representations of the Class I, the Class II is characterized by carvings in relief (Short 2016). Accordingly, objects were carved proud of the background surface, which has been chipped away all around it (Ibid.). All the depictions in relief, with the Christian cross in the center, are additionally filled in with various designs and are characterized by more detailed and intricate iconography than it is present in the Class I (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Among them, there are variations of geometric decorations, including Greek meanders, stylized floral-zoomorphic motifs, spirals, plaits and scrolls similar to the illuminated version of designs adorning the Hiberno-Scottish manuscripts and the metallurgy objects of religious significance (Ibid.).
The second Pictish stela at Saint Fergus’ Old Church in Dyce belongs to the Class II (Short 2016). Although the cross occupies here the central position, there are also four pagan symbols, known mainly from the Class I: the crescent with the V-rod, the double disc with the Z-rod, the mirror case and a triple disc (Ibid.). Another example of the Class II is found in Aberlemno, Angus (Ibid.). It is the so-called Aberlemno II Kirkyard Stone with a wonderful and impressive relief of the Christian Latin cross on the front. The sculptor has created a high relief design with beautiful scroll-work and an imagery of mythical and real animals around it (Ibid.).
Class III of the Pictish stelae
Class III is now completely free of the mysterious idiomatic Pictish pagan symbols, which are so numerous in the Class I and II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016).
The stones can be cross-slabs, recumbent grave markers, free-standing crosses, such as fully developed High Crosses in Ireland, and composite stone shrines (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Signs adorning the stones are easier to be interpreted because they are entirely set in the Christian context (Ibid.). In addition to images of Christian symbols, the Class III also contains figural representations of people and animals, occurring in the real and mythical worlds (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Pictish stelae of the Class III developed dynamically between the eighth and ninth centuries (Ibid.). Such examples also appeared in the tenth century (Ibid.). The later Pictish sculpture approaches English and later European iconographic traditions (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887).
The Class III examples have got a wider range of figures and ornamentation carved in relief but, as underlined above, they have no pre-Christian Pictish symbols carved (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). They stared to appear in Scotland at the time, when Pictland was under intense pressure and ultimately conquered and colonized by the Gaels of Dalriata (Short 2016).
Pagan Pictish symbols (Class I and II)
The Class I and II of the symbol stones contain symbols from a recognizable set of standard ideograms, that is to say a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept, many of which are unique to Pictish art (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). One of the most striking characteristics of those two classes is the fact that Pictish symbols are almost always arranged in pairs or sets of pairs (Ibid.). The symbols cover a wide range of geometric shapes and patterns (Ibid.).
As it is mentioned above, Pictish sculptors were also fascinated by the zoomorphic figures and they depicted both, naturalistic animals and mythical creatures. Among them, there are representations of animals such as the snake, adder, salmon, wolf, stag, eagle, as well as the so-called mythical Pictish beast (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). Anthropomorphic characters were also part of the Pictish sculptor’s repertoire, they do not appear very often though. The exact number of Pictish symbols is uncertain as there is some debate as to what actually constitutes such a symbol (Short 2016). Generally, there are between forty and fifty symbols depending exactly on how they are defined (Ibid.).
Crescent with the V-rod and double disc with the Z-rod
Crescent is one of the key Pictish symbols, usually found in a combination with an overlaid V-rod (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). As such it usually appears in the proximity of other symbols, particularly with the double disc and the Z-rod (Ibid.). Double disc, in turn, can be seen alone or, more typically, overlaid with the Z-rod (Ibid.). As a matter of fact, the Crescent and the V-rod symbol appears most often of all (Short 2016; Cowie 2019).
Second in their frequency of occurrence on Pictish stelae are the double disc and the Z-rod symbols (Short 2016; Cowie 2019). Some researchers think that the double disc and the Z-rod symbol depicts a lightning strike between two thunder clouds (Ibid.). If there is any underlying meaning of the symbols, it remains unclear (Ibid.). It has also been suggested that it is a bird’s eye view of two adjacent round barrows used for some Pictish burials (Ibid.). Some other scholars believe that it is a symbol for the deceased Pictish king (Ibid.). In this sense, the double disc and Z-rod would have represented a broken spear signifying death (Ibid.). Accordingly, the crescent and V-rod would have been a symbol for a lesser royal and would have signified a broken arrow meaning death (Ibid.). As Z-rod sometimes appears in a combination with a serpent, such a symbol may be understood as the notion for a king’s magician or wizard (Ibid.).
Beast of the Picts
The Pictish beast, which is the third most common of all the Pictish symbols (Shorts 2016; Cowie 2019), has been linked both to a seahorse, a dolphin and even to an elephant-like creature (Short 2016). However, art historians specialized in Pictish iconography do not think that it is an attempt to represent a real animal (Ibid.). In their opinion, it is an imagery of a mythical creature that encompasses the elements of land and water, possibly in the form of a sea-monster (Ibid.).
Mirror and the comb
Two symbols, which almost always appear together are referred to as the mirror and the comb. Such a pair is usually found near the three previously described symbols (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016).
The mirror and the comb symbols are both represented, for example, on the Maiden Stone also known as the Drumdurno Stone, near Bennachie in Aberdeenshire (Short 2016). It is a cross slab with carvings in relief and therefore it belongs to the Class II of Pictish symbol stones (Ibid.). Here, the paired symbol is situated at the lowest part of the stone (Ibid.). Above, there is the so-called Pictish Beast and, at the top, some zoomorphic figures appear (Ibid.). On the other side, the stela represents the Latin Cross (Ibid.).
The mirror and comb are not regarded as one of the main Pictish symbols but they are thought as a subsidiary symbol signifying the female gender (Short 2016). As such they may have represented a woman who has raised the stone in memory of a deceased husband or a woman who was herself memorialized or remembered by the stone (Ibid.).
On the cross slab at Hilton of Cadboll on the Moray Firth, there is a wonderful depiction of a horse, a woman is riding side saddle (Short 2016). The adjacent mirror and comb seems to confirm the gender connection (Ibid.). Such theories on the mirror and comb reflect the idea of many early scholars that the Picts were the matrilineal society (Ibid.; see Jackson 1984). On the other side, however, the symbols are also represented by the side of other anthropo-zoomorphic figures with no analogies to any female aspect (Short 2016). In this context, the theory of the Picts’ matrilineal society has been challenged (Ibid.). Nowadays, many art historians reject the idea that the Picts traced their descent through the female line (Ibid.). Some recent thinking interprets the mirror and comb symbols not as a statement of gender but as a simple declaration of who is buried beneath or who was memorialized by means of a given stone slab (Ibid.). Yet the true meaning of the symbols remain uncertain (Ibid.).
The symbol is constructed from a larger central circle or disc flanked by two smaller circles/discs on either side. It is sometimes shown with a “bar” bisecting all three circles or with concentric circles inside the largest disc (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887). Notably, it is represented near the crescent with the V-rod. However, there are also other symbols accompanying the Triple Disc symbol (Ibid.).
The Triple Disc is sometimes referred to as cauldron seen from above, which is explained by its shape and practical or religious function it may have for the Celts (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020; see Lost Myth of the Gundestrup Cauldron – Wild Hunt, Sacrifice and Rebirth). Such an analogy of the Triple Disc symbol to a cauldron may be noticed on Glamis Manse Pictish Stone (Class II), Angus, where it is depicted below the left arm of the centrally positioned cross (Stirling 2015). The three-dimensional depth of the container is suggested by two pairs of human legs sticking out of it (Ibid.). The Triple Disc is visible on the opposite side of the cross staff, diagonally to the cauldron on the left, and it is interpreted as a two-handled cauldron seen from a different perspective (Ibid.). In this context, the Triple Disc “has also been termed crater, [libation] vase and water container” (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020). On the other side, the cross bar joining the three circles suggests a means of carrying (Ibid.).
“Complementing other key [symbols] on the Pictish Stones, the Triple Disc may represent the Zodiac with Cancer and Capricorn Constellations (the gates from and to Heaven) 180° apart. They coincide with the summer and winter solstices” (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020). In this context, the symbols may have been connected to early astronomical calculations (Short “Part 2” 2016).
The sculptured symbol stones have for very long time been the main focus of popular interest in the Picts and so they have become a source of almost endless discussion and controversy (Short 2016). What was their meaning and purpose? What do they actually mean? What message is being conveyed by the symbols? What are they actually for? Is it close to uncovering the symbol code? (Ibid.) For centuries, similar questions have baffled experts and amateurs alike (Ibid.).
One of the key problems in interpreting the Pictish stelae of the Class I and II, is the lack of contemporary documents, which would explain their meaning or purpose, or which would even refer to them by giving them any iconographical background (Short 2016). The arguments over the Pictish symbols are a timely reminder that while the symbols themselves are carved in stone, their real meaning and purpose are certainly not (Ibid.). Yet it can be assumed that Pictish Symbols tend to complement one another and collectively conceal but also reveal some truths (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020).
For many scholars, the Pictish symbols are purely abstract or mythical (Short 2016). As such, they remain resolutely enigmatic (Ibid.). However, a few of them seem rooted in a real world (Ibid.). For example, there are the so-called tools represented on the Dunfallandy Stone (Class II), which is situated atop a mound south of Pitlochry (Ibid.). Among the representations of tools, scholars recognize hammer, tongs and anvil for beating metal (Historic Scotland 2020). All of them are depicted at the bottom of the stone, below the horse (Ibid.). Possibly the stone itself was connected in some way with a blacksmith or someone who worked with iron (Short 2016; Historic Scotland 2020). Nevertheless, the number of real objects represented on the symbol stones is rather limited.
Burial memorials with mythological or religious meanings
The Pictish symbols are present exclusively on the stelae of the Class I and II (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Short 2016). They have been interpreted in a number of different ways and on a number of different levels (Short 2016). Initially, it was suggested that the symbol stones were memorial stones to deceased members of the Pictish elite and so the symbols carved on them were representations of their belongings or badges of office (Ibid.). The symbols were suggested to have been worn as tattoos by the office holder during their lifetime (Ibid.). After their death, the tattooed symbols were subsequently carved on a standing stone as a memorial to the deceased (Ibid.).
The mysterious imagery of the Class I stelae could also express the Pictish intricate system of beliefs, like in the case of the Triple Disk, its symbolic association with a cauldron and a religious meaning of the cauldron itself (“Pictish Stones” 2015; Allen, John, Romilly 1887; Stirling 2015). Nevertheless, the Celtic pagan religion, as much as its symbols, are of unknown meaning and any attempts of their identification or interpretation are based only on speculations. Simultaneously, like in the case of Irish High Crosses, on the Class II stones various Christian depictions are accompanied by the Pictish ones. In such a combined context, the former may be for scholars key to the translation of the pagan symbols and a way of better understanding of the Pictish religion and mythology.
Some scholars believe that symbol stones represented marriages between the two members of different Pictish lineages, which were part of the Picts’ ruling elite (Short 2016; see Jackson 1984). This theory also seems to explain why most symbols appear in pairs and why a small number of symbols were disproportionately represented on the stelae (Ibid.). In this view, symbol stones were probably erected and carved as territory markers (Ibid.).
The gateway to one of the Pictish fifth or sixth century high-status residences was marked by the Craw Stane stela, situated on top of a hill near Rhynie (Short 2016). The stone belongs to the Class I and shows fish (possibly a salmon) and the Pictish Beast, incised on the south-facing side (Ibid.). According to the theory given above, both symbols may stand for the two Pictish royals having occupied the residence (Ibid.).
On the other hand, another stela, Tillytarmont Stone, was discovered on the spot, where two rivers meet (Short 2016). Some of rivers and streams became boundaries between Scottish medieval parishes and possibly they even reflect ancient territorial divisions established yet in the times of Picts (Ibid.).
Could there be a Pictish Rosetta Stone, which would unlock the symbol code of the Picts, like the Rosetta Stone helped to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs? (Short 2016).
Another theory emerging among modern researchers suggests that the symbols were not any badges of office, nor did they represent alliances between different lineages (Short 2016; see Jackson 1984). In fact, they may stand for the characteristics of language or pictographic system of writing (Short 2016). Simply speaking, they should be read as Pictish royal names (Ibid.). Therefore, the most frequently occurring names in the lists of Pictish kings may equate to the most frequently carved Pictish symbols (Ibid.). It can actually be examined by comparing the context of stelae, which include both, the symbols and accompanying them inscriptions, which are mostly in the mentioned above Ogham script (Short 2016; Short “Part 2” 2016). About two hundred and fifty symbol stones feature such inscriptions alongside the symbols, like on Brandsbutt Stone in Inverurie.
Apart from the Ogham script, there is also an enigmatic writing found on one of the Newton Stones, Aberdeenshire. The ancient monolith is inscribed with an engraved message written in a mysterious language (Cowie 2018). It is accompanied by the Ogham inscription visible on the same stone and also by two Pictish symbols incised on the other Newton Stone standing nearby (Ibid.). Initially claimed to be of oriental origins, (Ibid.) the writing “has never been accurately identified and it has become known in academic circles as the ‘unknown script’ [or just a modern forgery]” (Ibid.).
Generally, the results of comparative studies between the symbols and the accompanying them inscriptions are not conclusive and therefore they are often contested (Short “Part 2” 2016).
Quite a radical theory proposed by Iain W. G. Forbes (2012) is that the Pictish “symbols are actually astrological in nature and relate to specific astronomical events in the night sky.” Such a suggestion has already appeared above, in an interpretation of the Triple Disc and its relation to the Zodiac (“Mithraic Symbols Decoded – Triple Disc” 2020).
In the context of particular monuments, the paired symbols (Forbes 2012), such as the double disc with the Z-rod, “might be a graphic representation of a specific auspicious alignment of the Sun, Moon, or planets, and effectively proclaiming a divine blessing on whatever endeavour or event was marked by the stone” (Ibid.). After the engineer, Dr. Martin Sweatman, one of the most repetitive Pictish symbols in different combinations may be the notions of celestial objects or important astronomical events (Cowie 2019). Accordingly, the Crescent may represent the Moon, while the Double Disk – the summer and winter solstice (Cowie 2019). Simultaneously, the Pictish Beast would stand for Gemini, which is the summer solstice constellation (Ibid.), as on June 20th, the sun moves out of the constellation Taurus the Bull and into the constellation Gemini the Twins. Furthermore, Dr. Sweatman claims that the Pictish Beast would be an analogous symbol to the ibex-like creature from Pillar 43 at Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey, which is also believed to represent Gemini (Ibid.).
It is also possible that potentially sacred Pictish symbols were created by ancient Celtic druids and so they would be a link to a wider system of Celtic beliefs and tradition (Forbes 2012). In this view, the Pictish astrological code could not have been made in isolation (Ibid.), “but rather represents the vast vestiges of a form of astrology once widespread across Eurasia” (Ibid.).
After millennium, Pictish symbol stones still have a power to fascinate and engage people in an endless attempt of their deciphering (Short 2016). So far there has been no agreement or a credible theory regarding their meaning or purpose (Forbes 2012). Nonetheless, most scholars agree that they all must convey some significant messages (Ibid.). If so, the Pictish symbols could be key to general understanding of the Celtic society and culture (Ibid.). For now, the symbols raise more questions than answers, remaining one of numerous ancient mysteries that historians and archaeologists need to face (Ibid.).
Are there any other convincing ideas and explanations what the symbols’ message of the Pictish stone slabs could be?
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